The socially acceptable drug addict
When we use the phrase “drug addict”, the image of criminals and homeless people appears in our mind. These people that rob, steal and cheat their way through life to focus on gaining their next fix of crack cocaine or heroin that taints the rest of our society. These drug addicts are supplied by dangerous criminal drug dealers that form an underclass of criminality. It is a serious social problem, one that is reflected in the criminal sanctions available to the courts when they are court; those convicted of dealing heroin could face life imprisonment.
So, taking and dealing drugs are bad. Why? Well, most of us would realise it’s because they’re bad for us. However medical opinion, as science, is always subject to change. Heroin was legal up until the 1950s in the UK and regularly prescribed by doctors; it was only made illegal following international pressure to recognise its addictiveness. And there we are lead to the first great paradoxes in current thinking on drugs: illegal drugs are illegal because they are bad for us, therefore legal drugs are legal because they are not bad for us. It is widely viewed as down to this sad paradox that the drug mephedrome was taken by a number of teenagers last year which resulted in their death. This prompted the necessary reviews and reclassification in order to protect society, and a crackdown on those dealing the drug inevitably followed.
And so we have the cyclical circumstance of drug legality, the bad men deal the drugs to the naive population who don’t appreciate the effects of the drugs. They take the drugs, they suffer the bad side effects, and so the drugs are made illegal in order to make it difficult to get (among, obviously, other reasons). Job done.
But what about the biggest drug dealer in the country? The NHS, doctors and nurses who regularly supply drugs that are just as addictive and in some cases as bad for you as heroin and mephedrome? We wouldn’t call them “bad men”…would we?
Today (28th February), the BBC reported that an American study in the BMJ Open has found that that the risk of death among users of the sleeping tablet temazepam is four times higher than in non-users. In 2010, 2.8 million people were prescribed this drug, and 5.3 million were prescribed zopiclone, another common drug. The researchers found that overall 1 in every 16 patients who took sleeping pills died, compared to 1 in 80 of those it did not. Balance this increased risk with the lack of justifiable benefit of these drugs, and the future seems increasingly unclear. In their own words, the researchers said; “the meagre benefits of hypnotics, as critically reviewed by groups without financial interest, would not justify substantial risks.”
This story comes on top of the Independent’s report at the end of last year, which commented that doctors were being sued for inadvertently creating prescription drug addicts by failing to recognise the withdrawal symptoms associated with them. The failure to follow safety guidelines, which sets out the risks of certain drugs’ effects, has lead to an increase in clinical negligence litigation over long-term prescriptions of benzodiazepines, e.g. Valium. If taken off these drugs too quickly, patients may suffer from serious, disabling pain, and many are not warned about the dangers of withdrawal which can result in seizures and death.
The problem appears the speed at which these drugs are prescribed for a variety of social problems as opposed to purely medical. Professor Malcom Lader told the Independent that;
“There is no sign that such prescribing is diminishing. The Royal College of GPs is in denial about this because they fear being sued. With around a million long-term users, the [legal] defence unions will at some point decide that these cases are indefensible and GPs will have to pay their own costs.”
If increased addictiveness without recognisable benefit is the hallmark of “bad drugs” and thus illegal drugs, why are these prescriptions still being given? Why are the civil courts responsible for dealing with the effects of these drugs, but the criminal courts are required to deal with recreational use? Where’s the crackdown? The policy reclassification? The reaction?! And so we come to the second greatest paradox; the drug dealers that we really ought to be concerned with are perhaps not those who we see loitering on the street corners, but the ones that we pay for and trust almost unconditionally….
Michelle Roberts, ‘Sleeping pills ‘linked to increased death risk’’ accessed 28th February 2012
Nina Lakhani, ‘Doctors sued for creating Valium addicts’ accessed 28th February 2012