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Are we supposed to think of heroin users as just another persecuted minority?

Would we be happier, do you think, if we all took large quantities of heroin? It would take the edge off some of the misery, I suppose.

2 April 2011

12:00 AM

2 April 2011

12:00 AM

‘When I’m rushing on my run,
And I feel just like Jesus’ son
And I guess but I just don’t know,
And I guess but I just don’t know.’
Lou Reed

Would we be happier, do you think, if we all took large quantities of heroin? It would take the edge off some of the misery, I suppose. A house guest of mine once left the room to ‘jack up’ — as I believe the act is known — just as The X Factor came on the television. I remember thinking at the time — well, fair enough, mate. There isn’t enough alcohol in the world to dull the misery of The X Factor and it’s no use groping for the remote control when there are avid women in the room. Sometimes heroin seems a perfectly reasonable solution. And I would quite like to feel like Jesus’ son. Well, I guess I would, but I just don’t know.

The proposal before us now is that heroin dealers shouldn’t be sent to prison, if they’re only comparatively small-time heroin dealers carrying enough skag for about 1,000 hits. This is the suggestion from the UK’s Sentencing Council, presumably as a means to reduce the prison population but also in order to take another step down the road to decriminalising drug-taking, which is clearly what they want, these guardians of morality. The idea is that if someone is caught with only 50g of heroin — enough for 1,000 doses for a normal human being, or an early afternoon for Pete Doherty — they should be given a community service order rather than being banged up. Other reasons for mitigating the sentence are if the defendant appears to be immature — which I would have thought was a given; not many skag dealers resemble, say, Sir Douglas Hurd or Simon Sebag Montefiore. And also they should be treated more leniently if they are good enough to admit that they are sorry. And it is here that the liberal approach to hard drugs begins to unravel philosophically.

Not so long ago the neurobiologist Professor Colin Blakemore suggested that it was the stigma attached to heroin users which hampered their rehabilitation back into normal society. People, he suggested, were oddly averse to having junkies move in next door — although he eschewed the term ‘junkies’ as that, too, was symptomatic of a damaging prejudice against Britain’s burgeoning, if a little bleary-eyed and drooling, community of skagheads. Professor Blakemore had been part of a study published earlier last year by the UK Drugs Policy Forum which lamented the prejudicial approach of the general public to heroin users. According to this report, the stupid general public can be ‘distrustful and judgmental’ when confronted with heroin users, and many non-skagheads thought that heroin users were to be ‘feared’. One wonders from where the British people acquired this unpleasant skag-ist mindset — that one would rather the next-door neighbours weren’t heroin users, as if heroin users were just another part of that vibrant diversity which we should all welcome in Britain today. Heroin users as sort of pale — very, very pale — black folk, whose culture is nevertheless to be valued and respected. Blakemore et al no doubt envisaged a sunlit upland where liberally minded middle-class folk reached out to their heroin-addicted neighbours, if they were lucky enough to have them, and perhaps encouraged their own children — little Oliver (6) and Cressida (4) — to watch as their neighbour jacked up through the last available eyeball, perhaps just before the barbecue got under way.

It occurred to me, reading this report, that the general public was right to regard heroin users with a degree of mistrust — even while also, as the report accepted — agreeing that they should be offered support from the state to cure themselves of their affliction. They are right primarily because the link between heroin usage and crime is fairly well established: there is a definite correlation, you know? By and large people do not want criminals moving in next door to them — criminals not simply because of their chosen addiction, but because of the activities with which, in many cases, they indulge to fund that costly addiction. Isn’t the public absolutely right about all that? And Blakemore — neurobiologist or not — fabulously wrong, on every level? It doesn’t mean that the non-skaghead neighbours vilify or persecute the glassy-eyed and somnambulant people next door, merely that they are a bit bloody wary of them, and with justification, if the crime statistics are correct. But it is also the case that heroin users have a tendency, from time to time, to be comatose and stupefied, drooling and skanky, insensible and on occasions, dead. That is another reason why I think the non-skaghead population of Britain is right to retain a degree of stigmatising when it comes to junkies, why they may not afford them the same courtesies and inclusivity as when Colin Blakemore moves in next door.

And that gets us to the point, I suppose. The latest suggestion from the Sentencing Council is that junkies — forgive the terminology for a moment please — will be treated more leniently if they tell the magistrates that they are sorry. But according to that other liberal edifice telling us how we should deal with our poor druggies, they have nothing whatsoever to be sorry for. Saying sorry would merely enforce that idea of stigma, wouldn’t it? Why should someone selling skag be sorrier than someone who buys it? And beyond all that is the simple question to Blakemore and the UK Drugs Policy Forum and the UK Sentencing Council: do we, as a country, approve of heroin addiction? Do we think it’s a good thing, or even a neutral thing? If not, then shouldn’t we keep the stigma — and the sentences?

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