Drug policy discussions often take the form of a binary: treatment versus enforcement. Carrots and sticks. This is however, a problematic and wildly uneven binary. Treatment is not a carrot. Treatment is a long and arduous process that, at its best, acknowledges the complex nature of addiction and recovery – a process that, once embarked on by the addict, doesn’t stop until the day they die. Enforcement ignores this complexity – violently.
I’m making generalizations, something I don’t really want to do, because I want to talk about the situation on the ground – between people, and not below a line graph. What we should look at is the relationship between the addict on the one hand, and on the other, authority – those who represent whatever detox centre, church, jail, hospital, or needle exchange that the addict is reaching out to or being punished by.
I see how a more rational discourse about drugs could help. Moralistic judgments about marijuana versus other drugs for example, shouldn’t be the basis of our drug policies in North America. So when we talk about legalizing marijuana because it’s safer than other drugs, that seems like a prudent drug policy.
But what we should see is how this construction of safety and security, this grading of drugs in a rational manner, can also have a negative and violent effect. The goal might be to eliminate drug use – you could argue for this rationally or moralistically – but we can’t ignore the way this gets played out on the streets.
People working in harm reduction programs for street kids in Montreal don’t take a side for or against drugs, because they understand the unique position of power they are in. While they have the power to weigh the options, the person seeking help is at their mercy – without clean needles or pure drugs, they’ll overdose, they’ll get hepatitis C or HIV.
We need to understand how this person-to-person power works. While politicians argue endlessly about method, this monolithic macro-discourse limits what actors on the ground can do – or worse, justifies brutal enforcement.
The problem here is the same problem we find in many government plans to move from welfare to “workfare.” Although workfare, which incentivizes certain behaviours, makes rational sense at the macro level, on the ground it is often felt as a harsh sort of discipline. Workfare brings down on the heads of the poor the dual forces of both policy discussions detached from complex reality and a gutted welfare state that asks them to do more with less.
In an even more clear, and violent, way, policy-makers’ inability to cope with the complexity of addiction means underfunding of treatment and the obvious and uncomplicated violence of enforcement.
“Addict,” the label recovering drug users in 12-step programs must self-apply, acknowledges this complex reality. It translates to meaningless relapse after relapse and a battle that doesn’t stop until the day they die.
This reality doesn’t fit neatly within a rational framework. We want to “cure” drug abuse. When programs like treatment or harm-reduction, which acknowledge the harsh reality of addiction, fail to “cure” this problem, we reject those solutions or openly talk about punishing addicts.
Any possible move toward a systems that values life – as opposed to the cold logic of economic calculations – will not be found – at all – in the simple logic of enforcement, but only in the complexity of treatment.
Treatment of addiction means dealing with constant failure and death. Ignoring this only resigns addicts to being trapped outside, dying on the streets.
This isn’t about “coddling” addicts – that’s just another top-down model – but rather opening up and funding places where the intense person-to-person interactions of recovery can take place.
An addict can only recover, can only engage with that never-ending process, if they themselves are committed to getting clean. This process is never easy and might need a harsh push, but this push can only come from somebody who knows the addict and understands addiction – not from an uninterested, monolithic system of discipline.
We can’t “cure” the problems because they are in large part symptoms of a system of intersectional oppression. It doesn’t look like this system is changing any time soon, but the enforcement of prohibition is still punishing addicts for falling between the cracks of society’s logic.
This piece doesn’t necessarily mean we need an intervention at the policy level. Perhaps it’s just a plea to stop having Cactus hand out clean needles at one end of a Montreal park while the SPVM arrests addicts for using those needles at the other end.
Sam Neylon is U3 Cultural Studes & IDS student. He’s also one of The Daily’s news editors. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.