Statistically speaking, the majority of people who use drugs do it in a recreational and generally functional way. Although motivational forces for any human act are of a complex nature and cannot be reduced to a single component, their drug taking generally seems to have more to do with seeking pleasure than escaping pain.
Since the main focus of my work and research is the phenomenon of drug use that is no longer under control, I was, during my attendance of this year’s CND session, primarily interested in learning about practices that are being implemented on a national and international level to address this target group’s needs and help make their lives more manageable, more functional and generally less traumatic.
As it turns out, not much is actually done, although there was certainly an awful lot of talking about it. The first casualty of CND-type of conferences that attract a bizarre mixture of prohibition zealots, UN diplomats, treatment providers, harm reductionists and people who use drugs, is probably any sort of terminological consistency. Language was all over the place: drug use, drug abuse, drug misuse and drug addiction often seemed to be interpreted as entirely synonymous terms. Moral notions and intense emotional baggage attached to at least some of these words went mostly unacknowledged.
Discourse creates reality, and this terminological mess offered a pretty good hint of what laid in store for the attendees of the convention. Although there was a certain level of consensus among CND veterans that this year’s conference represented notable progress in comparison to those a few years ago, which focused almost exclusively on drug war, the speeches and plenary sessions routinely gave their audience an impression of having stepped into an entirely different historical era.
The whole convention could be effectively summed up as an endless saga of ideological ping-pong, essentially a dialogue of the deaf, with apologists of the drug war and zero tolerance approach on one side and proponents of drug reform on the other. The members of both camps appeared to be living in parallel worlds, half of them promoting the drug war as a raving success, the other half interpreting it as a miserable failure. The speakers’ confidence often tended to be in inverted correlation to their knowledge base, and statistics were rather casually adjusted to their current needs.
CND is a political affair, I acknowledge that. But with all the endless talk, it is somewhat hard to come to terms with just how consistently and thoroughly the psychological aspects of the phenomena of drug use and addiction were avoided. If addiction could be primarily understood as a coping mechanism and a compulsive repetition of a once-functional act that is by its essence nostalgic, it would be helpful, but in reality it is not nearly enough to exclusively address social and legal issues around it.
It is undeniable that it would be of great benefit to anyone involved with drugs to change the current drug laws, tackle poverty and generally create more life opportunities, but what remains to be persistently ignored is the vast psychological aftermath of long-term compulsive drug use. I am not talking about brain changes here – although they definitely occur and are a contributory factor. But is rather difficult not to acknowledge that the whole medical paradigm, with its acute lack of compassion and fundamental enforcement of its perspective as the one and only truth, did very little in terms of eradication of stigma and not nearly as much as it would like to claim in terms of general improvement of the wellbeing of people who use drugs.
The lifestyle of persistent preparation of the latest shot, scanning the streets for potential dealers, frantic search for lost veins and eternal checking if the front door is still locked, takes its deep psychological toll. Being originally an act of preservation and essentially an attempt to heal trauma, compulsive drug use ends up to being additionally traumatic, and although the intensity and manageability of the situation correlates with an individual’s pre-existing vulnerabilities, this trauma is essentially structural, not incidental.
This is an issue that remains consistently neglected within the current drug policy debates, as well as the vast majority of drug treatment services. And as far as this year’s CND goes, it certainly did not accommodate any sort of illusions this will even begin to change anytime soon.
Lana Durjava is a postgraduate student of psychology at the University of Westminster.