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Law and order
15 March 2013

Heresy of the week: Russell Brand is right about drugs (but so is Peter Hitchens)

Russell Brand is not someone you’d expect to find writing for the Spectator, but here he is on the subject of drug abuse:

  • “I cannot accurately convey the efficiency of heroin in neutralising pain. It transforms a tight white fist into a gentle brown wave, and from my first inhalation 15 years ago it fumigated my private hell. A bathroom floor in Hackney embraced me like a womb, and now whenever I am dislodged from comfort my focus falls there.
  • “It is ten years since I used drugs or drank alcohol and my life has immeasurably improved. I have a job, a house, a cat, good friendships and generally a bright outlook.
  • “But the price of this is constant vigilance, because the disease of addiction is not rational.”

Ah, “the disease of addiction.” These words lie at the heart of a three-way rolling argument between Russell Brand who sees addiction as a disease, the Telegraph’s Damian Thompson who says that addiction is not a disease and the Mail on Sunday’s Peter Hitchens who claims that addiction doesn’t even exist.

Those not of a sensitive disposition can hear Thompson and Hitchens failing to settle their differences in a stormy Spectator podcast

Hitchens sees the language of addiction as a denial of human free will. Furthermore, there’s no diagnosable medical condition that makes someone an addict, he says. In other words: drugs don’t abuse people, people abuse drugs.

Thompson agrees about the medical evidence, which is why he defines addiction as a “behaviour” rather than a disease. It would, perhaps, be better if he defined it as an appetite. Common sense would suggest that some people have stronger appetites for certain things than other people. This in no way denies moral agency, it simply recognises that not all temptations are equal.

Furthermore, it has been scientifically demonstrated that the consumption of certain substances increases your appetite for them. This doesn’t just apply to illegal drugs, but also to sugar or caffeine, for instance. That our brains should be wired like this isn’t the result of a disease, but rather an evolutionary adaptation to making the most of a good (or, at least, pleasurable) thing when we come across it. 

With this view of addiction, we can begin to untangle some unfortunate disagreements, such as the following from Russell Brand:

  • “Peter Hitchens is a vocal adversary of mine on this matter. He sees this condition as a matter of choice and the culprits as criminals who should go to prison. I know how he feels. I bet I have to deal with a lot more drug addicts than he does, let’s face it, I share my brain with one, and I can tell you first-hand they are total nightmares. Where I differ from Peter is in my belief that, if we regard alcoholics and drug addicts not as bad people but as sick people, then we can help them to get better.”

For a start, we should reject the Manichean idea of ‘good people’ and ‘bad people’, and replace it with the Christian idea of free-willed individuals capable of both good and bad. Next, we should realise that there is nothing incompatible between this conception of the individual and the idea that society should help individuals to overcome their temptations. From this it follows that the stronger and more dangerous the temptation the more help that should be provided.

Finally, given that what strengthens temptation to a drug is exposure to it, the appropriate response is to remove that exposure – in other words, through abstinence-based treatment and the maximum possible restriction of supply.

The irony is that, on the issue of treatment, Russell Brand, Damian Thompson and Peter Hitchens are all in agreement. They should, therefore, unite against the real enemy, which is the ‘harm reduction’ approach to drug treatment, that maintains people in a state of addiction while attempting to minimise the consequences. Methadone prescription is the best-known manifestation of this philosophy, but not the only one – and together they tie-up resources that could be used for abstinence-based treatment instead.

Time to hold peace talks, chaps.


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