Friday, May 26, 2006

Addict, Schmaddict

The horrors of drug addiction. Dependence, criminality, withdrawal. Or is it all a lot of hooey?

I have witnessed thousands of addicts withdraw; and, notwithstanding the histrionic displays of suffering, provoked by the presence of someone in a position to prescribe substitute opiates, and which cease when that person is no longer present, I have never had any reason to fear for their safety from the effects of withdrawal. It is well known that addicts present themselves differently according to whether they are speaking to doctors or fellow addicts. In front of doctors, they will emphasize their suffering; but among themselves, they will talk about where to get the best and cheapest heroin.

When, unbeknown to them, I have observed addicts before they entered my office, they were cheerful; in my office, they doubled up in pain and claimed never to have experienced suffering like it, threatening suicide unless I gave them what they wanted. When refused, they often turned abusive, but a few laughed and confessed that it had been worth a try. Somehow, doctors—most of whom have had similar experiences— never draw the appropriate conclusion from all of this. Insofar as there is a causative relation between criminality and opiate addiction, it is more likely that a criminal tendency causes addiction than that addiction causes criminality.

Furthermore, I discovered in the prison in which I worked that 67% of heroin addicts had been imprisoned before they ever took heroin. Since only one in 20 crimes in Britain leads to a conviction, and since most first-time prisoners have been convicted 10 times before they are ever imprisoned, it is safe to assume that most heroin addicts were confirmed and habitual criminals before they ever took heroin. In other words, whatever caused them to commit crimes in all probability caused them also to take heroin: perhaps an adversarial stance to the world caused by the emotional, spiritual, cultural and intellectual vacuity of their lives.

If that's true, why do we persist in accepting it? Blame those self-dramatizing literary types -- De Quincey, Coleridge, Baudelaire, Burroughs. I don't know if this is right or not, but if you want to make something untrue true, just work it into literature. Shakespeare's Richard III we know, the real one we only can guess at.