Comparing the ‘War on Drugs’ with the ‘War on Terror’…


Stay with me a little on this one…

What do we know about the so called ‘War on Terror’? Here are some of the facts as I think we can generally accept them;

  • The back story to terror is long and winding; having roots in old Colonial power struggles
  • Poverty and broken societies in which people lose hope and connection also tend to breed terrorism
  • Behind the scenes are many vested interests who tend to prosper in spite of the miseries experienced by those directly affected
  • Terrorist/freedom fighter? It depends on your perspective and whose narrative frames the context
  • Fighting insurgency and terror using invasive conventional forces tends to create the very conditions for the violence to increase
  • Simplistic ideas of good and evil entrench the situation into a bloody stalemate and tend to make things worse

The evidence for these statements (which I accept are value laden and open to debate) is fairly widespread, but as a case study, consider the rise of ISIS, which according to its own leadership only exists because of the invasion of Iraq, and the imprisonment of key activists in brutal military prisons, which effectively became academies for the religious and political movement which led to the very formation of ISIS.

But that has been said before- the point of this piece is a rather interesting comparison with the ‘War on Drugs’- by which I mean the on going effort to address addiction to substances within the western world- and my own situation in the UK in particular. In case it is not obvious why I am blogging about this, I am concerned on this blog to engage with things that might bring freedom to the captives, and proclaim the hope of jubilee to those who have lost hope. Addicts need this more than most.


By any measure, we are not really winning this war any more than we are winning the one against terror. Those on the front line are suffering dreadfully, many are dying young after blighted half-lives. You can check out the stats in relation to UK drug use here. Whilst the longer term trend of hard drug use have been down (although this figure might be masked by a trend towards new patterns of poly-drug use). In 2013 to 2014, 3.1% of adults aged 16 to 59 were defined as frequent drug users (having taken any illicit drug more than once a month on average in the last year), a slightly higher proportion than in 2012 to 2013 (2.8%) but similar to the 2011 to 2012 proportion (3.2%).Young adults were more likely to be frequent drug users than older people. The proportion of young adults aged 16 to 24 classed as frequent drug users (6.6%) was more than twice as high as the proportion of all adults aged 16 to 59 (3.1%) in 2013 to 2014 and represented a statistically significant increase compared with 2012 to 2013 (5.1%).

For those who are addicted, the story is complex; The majority of those in treatment in the UK are heroin and crack cocaine users; many have been using for a long time and as they get older are experiencing chronic health problems. Recovery for these people can be incredibly hard, however many have made remarkable recovery journeys and now lead full and accomplished lives. Services have gradually come to realise that recovery is rarely the consequence of moral choices enforced by criminality, nor by seeing people as ‘sick’ and needing treatment (these being the two main framing narratives for institutional response to addicts.

One of the best articles I have read about addiction recently was concerned with an interview with disgraced former Independent columnist Johann Hari (collaborator with Russel Brand) who has written a book about drugs, full of his and other’s experiences. I will throw in a few quotes from the article as I return to the comparison with the War on Terror. Mirroring the points above;

  • Fighting a War on Drugs has a long history, full of Colonial vested interests too. In this war, the victims may be further victimised in order to achieve socio-political security for the moral majority.

I had no idea that the war on drugs was single-handedly invented by a racist ex-prohibition agent, who needed to find a new problem big enough to protect his departmental budget. One of the first victims of his ambition was Billie Holiday, whose heroin addiction enraged him to the point where he hounded her to death. After he’d had the singer jailed for drugs, she was stripped of her performing licence, and as she unravelled into destitution and despair, his agents continued to harass her, even summoning a grand jury to indict her as she lay dying under police guard in a hospital bed.

  • People living in poor deprived areas are twice as likely to be addicted. Addiction is then related to social justice

The book is populated by a compelling cast of meth users, junkies and crack addicts. Other than addiction, what they have in common is heartbreaking early trauma and abuse. Childhood violence and prostitution, abandonment and homelessness, all led their victims to the same remedy: a narcotic anaesthetic for pain and loneliness. “Human beings have an innate need to bond. Healthy, happy people bond with other humans. But if you can’t do that because you’re so traumatised by your childhood that you can’t trust people, you may well bond with a drug instead.” The scientific evidence of the correlation is so overwhelming, Hari writes, that “child abuse is as likely to cause drug addiction as obesity is to cause heart disease”.

  • The drug treatment industry is vast. Prisons are full of persistent offenders because severe addiction almost always drives people into criminality of some kind. Then then there is the medical side, ranging from the desire to find some kind of addictive gene, or to produce drugs to stop people taking drugs, etc etc.
  • Some drugs are more evil than others. We modern humans are driven to alter our consciousness in all sorts of maladaptive and dependent ways, in many ways that could be regarded as damaging. Most of these addictive patterns of behaviour are not only legal, but they are actively encouraged; eating, drinking, gambling, shopping, computer gaming, etc. The drugs field has been further complicated by the emergence of a complex and changeable set of what are known as ‘legal highs’. Fighting a war against drugs is a socio-political decision dependent on a historical context.
  • The traditional armies engaged in the War against Drugs very much remind me of the beleaguered armies of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Contrast these two approaches;

Hari goes to Portugal, where all drug possession was decriminalised 13 years ago, and where even the police chief of the Lisbon drug squad now admits, “The things we were afraid of didn’t happen.” He also visits Tent City, a prison in the Arizona desert where the inmates live in tents in temperatures of 44C, wear T-shirts proclaiming I AM BREAKING THE NEED FOR WEED or I WAS A DRUG ADDICT, and are shackled into a chain gang every day and marched in public while reciting chants of repentance. “What I learned is that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety,” Hari says….“The opposite of addiction is human connection. And I think that has massive implications for the war on drugs. The treatment of drug addicts almost everywhere in the world is much closer to Tent City than it is to anything in Portugal. Our laws are built around the belief that drug addicts need to be punished to stop them. But if pain and trauma and isolation cause addiction, then inflicting more pain and trauma and isolation is not going to solve that addiction. It’s actually going to deepen it.”

  • Drug addicts are even spoken about by alcoholics as ‘Junkie scum’. As if they should be discarded as sub-humans. Our general societal approach is to simplify addiction to them/us, despite the fact that they are us.

…we’ve fundamentally misunderstood what addiction is. It isn’t a moral failing. It isn’t a disease. Addiction is an adaptation to your environment. It’s not you; it’s the cage you live in.”

There has been a shift in thinking in service land, as I mentioned earlier, towards ‘Psychosocial’ approaches, in which serious weight is given to context, adequate housing, wellbeing etc. However, as long as the war is being fought, at huge cost in resources and lives, then the focus can not really change.

Time to call for peace.

And sorry, this has to mean changing the law to decriminalise.

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