Injecting Fear:The War On Drugs

drugsInspired by our lords, masters and fellow war criminals in Vietnam, we dutifully tagged along as American soldiers took to heroin in an effort to block out the horrible things they were forced to do. The Americans took their heroin habits back home, as did the Australians, and heroin flooded the streets in most Western cities. It took off really quickly here, mainly amongst disaffected, rebellious and poor young people. Our ever alert authorities acted quickly – that is, they panicked and banned all manufacture and imports of heroin in Australia. This was the first blow in the  futile “War on Drugs”, again following the lead set by the US.

I still had stocks of heroin powder stashed away in our Dangerous Drugs cupboard—not a security priority as it was an ancient, wooden box with a ply-wood door and a flimsy, token lock and key. Up until this complete ban, we still dispensed Heroin Linctus (the best cough suppressant ever) and made up heroin-based mixtures for severe pain relief (mostly cancer).

Knowing the ban would mean the end of this, I heard  the Austin Hospital was appealing for heroin supplies to use in their cancer wards, so I donated our whole stock to them (probably illegal to do so but at least dying cancer patients could go out pain-free, having nice, probably weird dreams).

That ban on heroin started the rot, with other drugs still being banned to this day in a pointless and damaging attempt to criminalise and demonise all street drugs and drug users. As in the past, there was little or no thought or effort put into thinking about the social conditions that led many people into addiction, petty crime, poverty, sickness and death.

Later, other drugs joined the forbidden list. All cannabis preparations went – even though they are still an outstanding palliative treatment for cancer pain. The marijuana plant in all shapes and forms was banned and criminalised, as well as amphetamines of all types. The propaganda and mis-information about the evils of all these drugs was astounding. I have already referred to “Reefer Madness” which is simply laughable, but there have been a succession of learned and scientific articles, desperately trying to link marijuana with psychosis. No doubt an occasional pot smoker could develop psychotic tendencies, but so too could tobacco smokers and heavy drinkers.

With amphetamines, a central nervous system stimulant of limited value, the ban effectively gave control to bikie gangs and other citizens. They built their meth labs up in them-thar hills, abducted a few nerdy chemists (not me) and churned out methyl amphetamine (”speed”) by the tonne. They also jacked up the price by a few thousand per cent. Before the ban, legal amphetamines could be bought by pharmacists for a few dollars per thousand tablets. After the ban, the prices went through the roof, particularly the designer drugs like crystal meth, ecstasy and MDA.

Cocaine was banned as well— I have never been happy about this drug. It was an excellent anaesthetic and we used it to make up very effective eye drops (cocaine and adrenaline eye drops were in every first-aid kit for treatment of painful eye injuries, particularly in industry). As a street drug, it probably did contribute to some psychosis (especially in the form of “crack”) but its use seemed to be mainly confined to wealthy socialites, celebrity criminals and business people. Pot smokers and heroin users were in the lower socio-economic classes, so the full force of the law was directed at them.

There is (and always has been) a very good case to decriminalise marijuana and heroin use. The knee-jerk banning, propaganda and feigned horror about these two drugs has simply promoted corruption in police forces and the judiciary,  encouraged  petty crime and un-necessary sickness, misery and death. Pure heroin (and pure opiates in general) can be used for long periods of time with only minimal side-effects (probably less than just about every legally-prescribed drug).

Centuries ago, the notorious opium dens in China were actively promoted by English colonisers who were happy to see the Chinese  smoking opium and living long lives  –   it made it easier to rule if the Chinamen were all stoned.

All the opiates can be addictive for some people, and their use should be a social and medical issue rather than a legalistic, punitive one. The greatest harm in heroin use comes from unsafe injecting habits (AIDS, hepatitis) and overdosing when the purity can never be consistent or guaranteed. If there were licensed injecting rooms, there would be no over-dosing, no poisonous contamination with dubious fillers. There would be also be supervision, counselling and support when necessary, clean, disposable needles and reasonable, affordable prices. Marijuana should be available to anyone who wants it as are tobacco products and alcohol.

I wouldn’t advocate the same treatment for cocaine and the amphetamines. These are powerful central nervous system stimulants and have a cumulative effect on heavy users, with resultant violence, agitation and yes, the dreaded psychosis. The problem is that police involvement leads to inaction against the powerful and well organised gangs (too hard and dangerous), corruption due to the enormous amounts of money involved, and token action against the end-point users, who are easy to catch. The arrests and jailing  of small-time users satisfies the politicians, the shock jocks and the terrified citizenry who have swallowed all the guff about “druggies”. It does nothing for a civilised and benign society.

Again, I emphasise drug use of all types, including prescription medicines, should not be encouraged or promoted. The aim would be more to foster a fairer, less corrupt social and educational attitude.

I seem to have drifted off into one of my notorious rants here, so next time, I will mention some of my most loved, weird, idiotic and funny cases of dealing with drug addicts.

 Related Post:  The War on Drugs

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About the author

Robert Gosstray is a retired pharmacist and the resident health writer for Midlifexpress. He is the author of The Pharmacist's Secrets: Drugs, lies and money.


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  1. Hello there . I think everyone interested in psychiatry should read an article about the lack of sleep as the factor, that can be cause of a brief but dangerous psychotic disorder. The article is available on The Washington Post website: http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/travel/psychologist-lack-of-sleep-prompted-jetblue-pilots-brief-psychotic-disorder-during-flight/2012/07/11/gJQA7Wx4bW_story.html

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