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Newsnight Tries To Tackle The Issue Of Drug Addiction

A debate on drugs, alcohol and addiction took place on Newsnight the other night. The guests were Matthew Perry, Peter Hitchens and Baroness Meacher. The host was Jeremy Paxman. And the result was telling, indicative of the current situation and the dead ends it finds itself.

A couple of points about it on the fly.

Number 1: They choose to talk about objectivity in numbers rather than listen to how Matthew Perry, a former addict, turned things around for himself.

Wow! Here you are, a policy maker, a writer, and a news presenter, in the presence of someone who’s dealing with the problem head on i.e. a self-confessed former-addict, and you don’t take the opportunity to listen how he turned things around, how he made it work for him?

Number 2 – Perry does a weak job of supporting his position. This whole ‘allergy’ thing is what they teach at AA and other such rehab programs. It helps people on the ground but, as you can plainly see, it’s weak in scientific terms. It does badly in debates, especially against hostile debaters on national TV.

The whole premise behind the argument needs better framing, one which could have sounded something like this:

Reframe the addiction problem, describe it in terms that make sense to addicts. It’s about giving control to addicts, enabling them to interpret their problem in ways they can face, handle, and eventually turn around. The aim is for addicts to seize control of the situation on their terms rather than on addiction’s terms, society’s terms, the justice system’s terms, or anyone’s terms. 

Perry failed to say that, or anything remote to it. Hence his weak-sounding argument.

To be fair, the soft approach doesn’t work all the time. There are lots of instances of relapse (I don’t have any numbers available) but one can’t deny it. If it weren’t true, all one would need are AA meetings and a softer approach on ‘drugs’ (yes, the term needs to be in inverted commas) and there would be no more addiction/dependence to speak of.

Yet the problem hasn’t gone away, despite many of the soft approaches.

In other words, these approaches aren’t a panacea (and neither is the hard or super-hard approach), but they have potential, and we would be remiss to reject them outright, certainly not on account of a poorly presented position from a not-so-eloquent representative.

The soft approach drew criticism from Hitchens in particular (was he deliberately placed on the right-hand side of the screen? If so, how tacky!) who pushed back straight away. He argued that letting people off the hook is a cheap way for addicts to get away with it. One needs to be responsible for his or her actions, stop blaming it on the beaver, and do something about it in terms of willpower and personal accountability.

Very impressive, and in part logical, but the problem is that it doesn’t work like that, not with drugs. The tough and punitive approach has time and time again fallen short of the mark. The war on drugs is a monumental disaster. More crime is created by it than prevented. The premise of forbidding someone to experiment with his or her own mind and body is faulty.

No one picked up on that, neither Paxman, nor Perry. No one mentioned that the punitive approach is in fact damaging to the economy – that we might as well drop the tried and tested hard approaches, especially in a time of economic crisis, and try something new, imperfect as it may be.

One may focus on programs that show encouraging results, such as the treatment programs in Portugal

For example, we could focus on programs that show encouraging results, such as the addiction treatment programs in Portugal, and take it from there.

Instead we settled for a televised spat where three people supporting three different points of view were pitted against each other to say their piece, debating for the sake of debate, with no real inclination as to finding a solution, or learning something new by listening to them. I don’t think any of them learned anything either, didn’t benefit from each other’s input in any way.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to spar and brainstorm, or throw things in the gauntlet to test them. But at some point, one must also exchange opinions, as in trade opinions. Give and take opinions. Listen and think, process, consider, not fire away talking points like a recording.

The only thing traded on the Newsnight panel were scoffs and veiled insults. A perfectly good opportunity to meaningfully explore the issue was wasted.

I’ve barely mentioned Baroness Meacher because she was barely worth mentioning.

PS – I wonder what happened when the mics came off!