Memorial mural to recently-deceased actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. Photo: Garrett Ziegler / Flickr
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The international mood on drug use and addiction is shifting from punishment to treatment

The UN has added its voice to the growing cry to rebrand substance abuse disorders as an issue of public health – a matter for doctors, not police.

The NHS estimates around 2 million Britons suffer from addiction. This is probably a gross underestimate - just take a look at nicotine. There are 6 million adults in the UK alone who say "they would find it hard to last a whole day without smoking". Cigarettes kill more than 100,000 people annually, but addiction means two-thirds of smokers say they're struggling to stop. Our society actively supports those trying to kick the habit, though, with things like e-cigarettes and nicotine patches, and it works. Evidence-based anti-smoking campaigns have been hugely successful, enabling almost half of all tobacco users to eventually quit

Unfortunately, this is not the case for most addictions. Where the substance being abused is illegal, a stigma exists that has repulsed efforts to effectively combat it. The police, rather than the NHS, are in charge - and addicts are criminals to be apprehended, not patients to be treated. That hypocrisy was the subject of a discussion featuring Nora Volkow, the director of America's National Institute on Drug Abuse and an expert on how drug addiction affects the brain, at the World Science Festival two weeks ago:

Addiction is a disease of the brain... Unfortunately - even though the science has shown it's a disease of the brain - it has been very difficult to incorporate into the healthcare system.

And as a result of that, many cases of drug addiction are never recognised. Or prevented. Or treated."

Addiction is a contentious issue. Entire areas of our health and drugs policies are influenced by the way we view addicts, and our criminal justice system is inextricably linked with substance dependence. It informs our attitudes on every poverty-related subject from homelessness to welfare. Most damagingly, it has led us to participate in a bitterly destructive war.

It follows that both policymakers and the public should be well-informed of the nature of addiction. Yet in a society where drug addicts are viewed as feckless criminals - lacking either the desire or the willpower to quit - there is a mounting body of evidence to suggest our perceptions are off, and as a result a growing number of nations are starting to put international pressure on changing the global war on drugs. A recent report by the United Nations’ Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) has adopted resolutions recognising that:

[S]ubstance use disorders can result in chronic, relapsing conditions requiring, like other health conditions, treatment based on scientific evidence, support for those affected and, where indicated, governmental and community initiatives to promote recovery and facilitate reintegration”

Essentially, addiction is a disease, which requires effective medical treatment and support from society - and historically neither of those facts have been popular with the public.

Writing in The Spectator last year, Russell Brand - a recovered heroin addict - struck upon the source of our hostility towards substance abusers:

It is difficult to feel sympathy for these people.

Can there be any other disease that renders its victims so unappealing?

Would Great Ormond Street be so attractive a cause if its beds were riddled with obnoxious little criminals who had ‘brought it on themselves’?”

The notion that addiction is a choice - and the underlying insinuation that addicts are getting their dues - is incredibly pervasive. They are, as is often the case, a plausible scapegoat for all of society's troubles. This ‘othering’ of drug addicts is so common in government and media that the Society of Editors published ‘Dealing with the Stigma of Drugs - a Guide for Journalists’.  Executive director Bob Satchwell described the negative effect using words like “junkie” can have:

The award of a deviant social status to drug users may serve to discourage use but it does little to assist those most in need of help. Studies have consistently shown that perceived devaluation and worthlessness on behalf of the user does little to spur them towards recovery.

The ‘shame’ of addiction is a reason why people with drug problems - and their families - often do not seek help.”

This deep-rooted stigma also goes some way to understanding why there is such disparity between political decisions and the scientific advice. The UK Drug Policy Commission’s 2012 report recognised the UK's attitude towards drugs as a barrier in effective policy-making:

The UK is unusual among EU countries in that the Home Office is the lead department for drug policy; most countries situate their leadership in the Ministry of Health.

It has been suggested that the Home Office leadership encourages a view of drugs as a crime issue rather than a matter of health.”

The reasons behind this are evident. The “tough on crime” line is a tried-and-tested vote winner, appeasing our fears with strong rhetoric and firm action. Yet it flies in the face of the scientific recommendations. Criminalising drug addicts only exacerbates the problem. Dr. Volkow (also chairperson of the working group advising the CND) discussed the dangers of this attitude at a Kavli Foundation-hosted teleconference last month. The three neuroscientists spoke of unanimous agreement amongst members that “substance use disorders are a disease ... and thus should be addressed within a public health framework".

Unfortunately, the notion of the British government ignoring science in favour of politics is nothing new - particularly when it comes to drugs. Neuropsychopharmacologist David Nutt was sacked from the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs after criticising the government’s failure to listen to its recommendations. In a post on his blog (aptly titled "Evidence not Exaggeration") he explains that turning a blind-eye to scientific advice is foolhardy: 

Approaches which explicitly reject an evidence-based public health approach, but instead focus on incarceration and criminalisation of addicts, continue to utterly fail, at enormous financial and human cost.”

Instead, policy-makers must be prepared to accept the findings of its advisors - even when they disagree with convention. Nutt goes on to examine Switzerland’s successful strategy - a programme of providing supposedly-untreatable heroin addicts with a clean supply of the drug, which has flourished in the face of sharp political criticism:

It has stabilised chaotic lives, allowing users to be socially reintegrated, getting homes and sometimes jobs, and as well as removing the health harms associated with polluted, inconsistent street drugs. Addicts in this treatment get fitter, they virtually never overdose, and very few die.

Unlike those in other regimes, most stay in treatment, allowing some to progress later to abstinence. "

The idea of providing free, clean drugs to addicts is steadily gaining momentum as further evidence emerges for its effectiveness. Chief Constable Mike Barnett echoed this sentiment when he declared "it is time to end the war on drugs" in an article in the Observer last year. "[Addicts] must be treated and cared for and encouraged to break the cycle of addiction. They do not need to be criminalised."

In a blogpost after the 57th session of the CND in March, Dr. Volkow summarised what is now rapidly becoming scientific consensus:

The recommendations of our committee crystalize a paradigm shift in how the problem of substance abuse and addiction are viewed by modern societies.

Shifting the problem of drug abuse and addiction from the legal (or moral) sphere to that of science and medicine, where it properly belongs, is a crucial step toward successfully tackling the problem."

So the call for a radical rethink of our approach to drug policy continues to grow. A large part of this is intrinsically defined by the way we view and treat those suffering from substance disorders. But it is perhaps inevitable - given the continual dehumanisation of drug addicts - that discussion about addiction would eventually lose focus on those suffering from substance dependency and switch to a more pressing issue for the government.

On the Swiss clean-heroin policy, Nutt declared:

It isn’t just the addicts who benefit; crime fell enormously once users could access heroin from the State rather than profiteering dealers. The State, and taxpayers don’t lose out in this arrangement, the expensive program more than pays for itself in healthcare and law enforcement savings.”

An appeal to the economics of patient-centred treatment might be just what's needed to convince the Coalition to rethink their plans. Not only would a health-focussed approach save lives, it would save money as well. Surely that’s a language the Home Office can understand?

Collage by New Statesman
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Clickbaiting terror: what it’s like to write viral news after a tragedy

Does the viral news cycle callously capitalise on terrorism, or is it allowing a different audience to access important news and facts?

On a normal day, Alex* will write anywhere between five to ten articles. As a content creator for a large viral news site, they [Alex is speaking under the condition of strict anonymity, meaning their gender will remain unidentified] will churn out multiple 500-word stories on adorable animals, optical illusions, and sex. “People always want to read about sexuality, numbers of sexual partners, porn habits and orgasms,” says Alex. “What is important is making the content easily-digestible and engaging.”

Alex is so proficient at knowing which articles will perform well that they frequently “seek stories that fit a certain template”. Though the word “clickbait” conjures up images of cute cat capers, Alex says political stories that “pander to prejudices” generate a large number of page views for the site. Many viral writers know how to tap into such stories so their takes are shared widely – which explains the remarkably similar headlines atop many internet articles. “This will restore your faith in humanity,” could be one; “This one weird trick will change your life…” another. The most cliché example of this is now so widely mocked that it has fallen out of favour:

You’ll never believe what happened next.

When the world stops because of a tragedy, viral newsrooms don’t. After a terrorist attack such as this week’s Manchester Arena bombing, internet media sites do away with their usual stories. One day, their homepages will be filled with traditional clickbait (“Mum Sickened After Discovery Inside Her Daughter’s Easter Egg”, “This Man’s Blackhead Removal Technique Is A Complete And Utter Gamechanger”) and the next, their clickbait has taken a remarkably more tragic tone (“New Footage Shows Moment Explosion Took Place Inside Manchester Arena”, “Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Bruno Mars and More React to the Manchester Bombing”).

“When a terrorist event occurs, there’s an initial vacuum for viral news,” explains Alex. Instead of getting reporters on the scene or ringing press officers like a traditional newsroom, Alex says viral news is “conversation-driven” – meaning much of it regurgitates what is said on social media. This can lead to false stories spreading. On Tuesday, multiple viral outlets reported – based on Facebook posts and tweets – that over 50 accompanied children had been led to a nearby Holiday Inn. When BuzzFeed attempted to verify this, a spokesperson for the hotel chain denied the claim.

Yet BuzzFeed is the perfect proof that viral news and serious news can coexist under the same roof. Originally famed for its clickable content, the website is now home to a serious and prominent team of investigative journalists. Yet the site has different journalists on different beats, so that someone writes about politics and someone else about lifestyle or food.

Other organisations have a different approach. Sam* works at another large viral site (not Buzzfeed) where they are responsible for writing across topics; they explains how this works:  

“One minute you're doing something about a tweet a footballer did, the next it's the trailer for a new movie, and then bam, there's a general election being called and you have to jump on it,” they say.

Yet Sam is confident that they cover tragedy correctly. Though they feel viral news previously used to disingenuously “profiteer” off terrorism with loosely related image posts, they say their current outlet works hard to cover tragic news. “It’s not a race to generate traffic,” they say, “We won't post content that we think would generate traffic while people are grieving and in a state of shock, and we're not going to clickbait the headlines to try and manipulate it into that for obvious reasons.”

Sam goes as far as to say that their viral site in fact has higher editorial standards than “some of the big papers”. Those who might find themselves disturbed to see today’s explosions alongside yesterday’s cats will do well to remember that “traditional” journalists do not always have a great reputation for covering tragedy.

At 12pm on Tuesday, Daniel Hett tweeted that over 50 journalists had contacted him since he had posted on the site that his brother, Martyn, was missing after the Manchester attack. Hett claimed two journalists had found his personal mobile phone number, and he uploaded an image of a note a Telegraph reporter had posted through his letterbox. “This cunt found my house. I still don't know if my brother is alive,” read the accompanying caption. Tragically it turned out that Martyn was among the bomber's victims.

Long-established newspapers and magazines can clearly behave just as poorly as any newly formed media company. But although they might not always follow the rules, traditional newspapers do have them. Many writers for viral news sites have no formal ethical or journalistic training, with little guidance provided by their companies, which can cause problems when tragic news breaks.

It remains to be seen whether self-policing will be enough. Though false news has been spread, many of this week’s terror-focused viral news stories do shed light on missing people or raise awareness of how people can donate blood. Many viral news sites also have gigantic Facebook followings that far outstrip those of daily newspapers – meaning they can reach more people. In this way, Sam feels their work is important. Alex, however, is less optimistic.

“My personal view is that viral news does very little to inform people at times like this and that trending reporters probably end up feeling very small about their jobs,” says Alex. “You feel limited by the scope of your flippant style and by what the public is interested in.

“You can end up feeding the most divisive impulses of an angry public if you aren’t careful about what conversations you’re prompting. People switch onto the news around events like this and traffic rises, but ironically it’s probably when trending reporters go most into their shells and into well-worn story formats. It’s not really our time or place, and to try and make it so feels childish.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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