I have never tried heroin. For anyone who grew up in England during the 1980s, they might remember the heroin overdose of the character Zammo in the TV show Grange Hill. That was enough to put a kid off doing heroin for the rest of their lives.
The movie Trainspotting didn’t help the reputation of heroin users nor did much of the anti-drug propaganda that focused so heavily on heroin until ecstasy became popular in the 1990s. As a culture, we have a vision of heroin addicts as filthy animals that live in squats and go to sleep in their own shit. We think that they are nasty, messed up people who go around robbing old grannies to get their ‘fix’.
What is funny is that people felt the same way about cannabis users in the twentieth century. The movie ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ highlighted the infamous ‘Reefer Madness’ campaign. The campaign has since become an excellent source of entertainment. It is a testament to the madness of an uneducated population.
I am not saying that these crazed heroin addicts don’t exist, they do. In the same way, crazed, dangerous alcoholics exist, but not everyone that drinks alcohol is like that. It comes down to our conditioning. But, this not the natural profile of a heroin addict, the madness is mostly caused by a lack of supply.
When it comes to alcohol, we don’t blame alcohol; we blame alcoholics.
But when it comes to heroin, we don’t blame heroin addicts; we blame heroin.
My friend has been a heroin addict for 23 years.
In that time, he has always been in full-time employment. He has worked at various voluntary institutions and, he plays sports on the weekend. When he finishes his day’s work, he goes home and smokes heroin. That is his thing. For him, it is the equivalent of smoking a joint or having a glass of wine after work. It helps him relax. He is not the only one. I have known multiple people that live the same lifestyle. I have seen my friend get bad from time to time; this usually occurs when he can’t get access to heroin. But, you might be surprised to learn that he doesn’t go around headbutting people and he could never steal the purse of your unsuspecting Nana.
In his biography, Eric Clapton pointed out that in the UK in the 1960s, they would go to a hole in the wall and receive their weekly dose of clean heroin. Incredibly, the government would also issue them clean cocaine in the hope that the coke would help them continue to become participating members of society. You might think that Clapton was so high that he just made this up. But, when you delve deeper, what you find is surprising.
The prescription of heroin in the UK has continued and is still legal at the time of writing
The UK has been prescribing heroin under the name ‘diamorphine’ since the introduction of ‘The British System’ — a system of drug control introduced in 1926. The pharmaceutical name of heroin is diamorphine. According to the Independent, 280 people in the UK received a prescription for diamorphine — medical-grade heroin — in 2017–18.
“I’ve seen first hand how diamorphine could help people recover to the point where they were able to work, experience liberation from a cycle of repeated criminal justice involvement, be present for their families, and have hope where previously there was none,” said Dr Prun Bijral, medical director at the UK’s largest third sector drug treatment provider, Change Grow Live.
It might come as a strange concept to some, but isn’t it just a matter of seeing addiction as the problem rather than seeing heroin as the problem? Dr Bijral says that if you can treat addiction with the substance, many heroin users can resume a healthy life. Unlike the life of an alcoholic, the use of heroin can be relatively undisruptive to a person’s life in regular doses. It is a significant insight for those of us who still visualise heroin users as lying on a couch with a needle sticking out of their arm in a dark room.
The UK has provided heroin users with diamorphine since 1926. Often referred to as the British System, the practice was the country’s main form of treatment until 1967, during which period the number of known heroin users rarely rose above 1,000.
“We led the world in providing diamorphine under the British System; a pragmatic and reasoned approach to a serious issue,” said Dr Bijral. “Diamorphine is just another opioid medication, used in every hospital, every day, and has been an essential medication for well over a century.”
While hundreds of people have received the drug under this legal framework ever since the British System was largely phased out in the late 1960s — a move the then Home Office drugs chief Bing Spear branded “an unmitigated disaster” in a book detailing his time in office.
Like with any drug, there are always going to be extreme addicts who need treatment.
The addiction to alcohol and prescription opioids are among the most destructive in the world right now. Of course, heroin is no different. It is possible to abuse heroin, but we should not assume that every heroin addict is going to beat up young children for their pocket money. Heroin addicts are often dangerous because they can’t get access or they don’t have the cash to pay immense prices for street heroin.
The complete prohibition of heroin has led to a whole barrel of unwanted side-effects. One of the most significant is the massive drug industry and organised crime. From the Independent —
The “Trainspotting” heroin epidemic that followed “was a direct result of gifting the market to organised crime”, said Neil Woods, who spent 14 years as an undercover detective and is now chairman of LEAP UK, a coalition of law enforcement figures calling for an end to the war on drugs.
“There was no association between drugs and crime at all before the British System ended,” Mr Woods said, referring to the tactic of encouraging heroin users to turn others onto the drug in order to fund their own habit. “When heroin was controlled by doctors there was no incentive to find new customers.”
Diamorphine prescription is “the single biggest blow you could cause to organised crime, and the most effective protection for children sucked into the ‘county lines’ heroin trade “, said Mr Woods.
It seems that a good proportion of heroin users are not the crazy maniacs that Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs has taught us they are. It is time we came down from this propaganda high.
So many users are high functioning, average citizens who require a particular substance to function normally, much like a cigarette smoker or those of us that take caffeine every day.
We have been so heavily conditioned to believe that ‘drugs are bad’. As a society, our view is still black and white. The fact that cannabis has been outlawed for so long is proof that motivations have absolutely nothing to do with health but are far more politically and financially motivated.
The prohibition of heroin creates massive business for organised crime. It causes horrendous amounts of hospitalisations and deaths from people using lousy gear. It creates a culture of people needing money to fund black-market heroin which inevitably leads to old grannies getting mugged and worse.
Prescribing heroin on a large-scale is a massive blow for organised crime. It will ensure that users have a well-priced clean supply, and it means that we can monitor and educate users. If you look deeply into it, it is difficult to find a single benefit to the prohibition of heroin.
The main sales pitch of the war on drugs is that when you legalise it, everyone will start using it. While this is simply a scare tactic, one has to wonder if this would be so bad? A society full of heroin users is likely to be a lot more peaceful than a society full of drinkers. After all, the big problems from heroin for society happen when there is no supply, when the prices are high and when quality falls.
Some might ask, if the British system works so well, why is drug-related crime still high in the UK?
Under the leadership of some influential London psychiatrists, they (the NHS) began to move to oral methadone, encouraging others to do the same. Heroin prescribing became a minority activity, and those who advocated it were increasingly shunned by their colleagues (source)
Heroin is not the only drug around. Drug-related crime relates to many things beyond heroin use. Still, there are issues with the British system. While the prescription of diamorphine remained legal, it is seen more and more as a perimeter practice by the powers that be. Of almost 150,000 people treated for heroin use in 2019, less than 300 were prescribed diamorphine. (source)
Fortunately, in the last few years, the method is seeing a comeback. According to the Guardian —
In the first such scheme in the UK, 15 of Middlesbrough’s most at-risk individuals — for whom all other treatments have failed — will be able to visit a clinical facility twice daily, seven days a week, to inject pharmaceutical-grade heroin provided by the authorities under medical supervision.
Sure, the article and others treat the scheme as something new and fresh. That seems to happen a lot in this internet generation. It is understandable, since who could have known that it has been legal this whole time?
Regardless, It seems that ‘The British Scheme’, once considered dead, might be rising from the ashes. What that will look like is a mystery for now, but perhaps it is is a small step in the right direction. A direction that begins treating addiction as the issue rather than the substance itself.