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Has being gay influenced my view of the war on drugs?

Most gay people know what it’s like to have the uncomfortable feeling of being told that the experience you regard as universal should in fact have flashing neon lights and a big sign saying “GAY!” above it

Johann Hari
1 March 2015

A few weeks ago, somebody asked me a strange question, and at first I was a little bit offended.

It is now a century since drugs were first banned in the US and Britain, and as this anniversary approached, I set off on a three-year, 30,000-mile journey to try to understand what the war on drugs is really all about. I had a quite personal reason for setting off on this quest. One of my earliest memories is of trying to wake up one of my relatives and not being able to. As I got older, we had serious drug addiction in my family, and I had an on-off relationship with a guy who was sinking into crack addiction. 

My journey – described in my book ‘Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs’  – allowed me to get to know some people I could never have imagined at the start, from a transsexual crack dealer in Brooklyn, to a hit-man for the deadliest drug cartel in Mexico; from a scientist who feeds hallucinogens to mongooses, to the only country in the world to ever decriminalize all drugs, from cannabis to crack. They taught me that almost everything we have been told about this subject is wrong. Drugs are not what we think they are. Drug addiction is not what we think it is. And the drug war is not what it has been portrayed as on our TV screens for so long.

But here’s the weird question. I am gay, and I never thought of it as having any relevance to this subject. But somebody who read the book – somebody I like – said: “Do you think being gay gave you a different insight into this question?” She pointed out that some of the most high-profile people to champion the book – Glenn Greenwald, Elton John, Stephen Fry, Andrew Sullivan – are also gay.

At first I felt a bit indignant. Although the person who said this is definitely not a homophobe, most gay people know what it’s like to sometimes have the uncomfortable feeling of being poked into a pigeon-hole – of being told that the experience you regard as universal should in fact have flashing neon lights and a big sign saying “GAY!” above it.

And yet, when I went away and thought about it, I began to wonder if gay people might have a particular insight into this question. All of these insights are, of course, accessible to straight people – but I suspect we might have short-cuts to them, for four reasons. 

The first reason is related to what drug use is really like. I learned lots of facts about drugs on my journey that blew my mind – but there is one in particular I had to keep coming back to before I really understood it. If I asked you what proportion of illegal drug use is totally harmless – no damage, no overdose, no addiction – what would you say? 

People guess a really wide range. Some say 10 percent; some go as far as guessing that 50 percent of illegal drug use is harmless. The real answer is 90 percent. That figure doesn’t come from a legalization group – it comes from the main drug war body in the world, the United Nations Office of Drug Control. 

This seems wrong because for so long we have been told – by our teachers and our governments – that drugs are invariably dangerous. In fact, the danger is real, but rare. This means that all over the world, millions of people are being punished for a totally consensual act that very rarely harms them. In Arizona, I went out with a chain-gang of female drug-addicts who are forced to wear t-shirts saying ‘I Was A Drug User’ and made to dig graves. In Vietnam, I met people who had been put into forced labour camps and made to work 12 hours a day for no money to ‘discipline’ them out of being addicts.

I suspect that – for obvious reasons – gay people can very easily understand the pain of being punished for a harmless consensual act.

The second reason relates to what addiction is really about.

Many readers, after reading my point about the harmlessness of most illegal drug use, will be totally reasonably asking at this point – yes, but what about the ten percent who are harmed? They are worth going all out to protect. And you are right. But what I was taught on my travels is that addiction has a very different cause than we think, and, again, I think gay people might find this easy to grasp.

Most of us believe that drug addiction is caused by drugs. This is so obvious to us that even writing it in a sentence looks a bit stupid – like pointing out that circles are round. It’s not hard to explain – if you and I used heroin together for twenty days, on day twenty-one, the chemical hooks in heroin will have got into our bodies, and we would physically crave the drug. That is what addiction means. We would become hooked.

But this view of addiction is – it turns out – not right. As I have written elsewhere:

“One of the ways the disease theory was established is through rat experiments – ones that were injected into the American psyche in the 1980s, in a famous advert by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. You may remember it. The experiment is simple. Put a rat in a cage, alone. It has two water bottles. One is just water. The other is water laced with heroin or cocaine. Almost every time you run this experiment, the rat will become obsessed with the drugged water and keep coming back for more and more until it kills itself. The advert explains: “Only one drug is so addictive, nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it. And use it. And use it. Until dead. It’s called cocaine. And it can do the same thing to you.”
But in the 1970s, a Professor of Psychology in Vancouver called Bruce Alexander noticed something odd about this experiment. The rat is put in the cage alone. It has nothing to do but take the drugs. What would happen, he wondered, if we tried this differently? So Alexander built Rat Park – a lush cage where the rats would have colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want. What, Alexander wanted to know, will happen then?
In Rat Park, all the rats tried both water bottles, because they didn’t know what was in them. But what happened next was startling. The rats with good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did…
Professor Alexander argues this discovery is a profound challenge both to the right-wing view that addiction is a moral failing caused by too much hedonistic partying, and the liberal view that addiction is a disease taking place in a chemically hijacked brain. In fact, he argues, addiction is an adaptation. It’s not you. It’s your cage.

At the moment, gay men seem disproportionately prone to addiction problems – as the excellent book ‘The Velvet Rage’ by Alan Downs has shown. Why would that be?

I think this new understanding of addiction helps us to get it.

Gay people are more likely to be disconnected – from our families and our societies and from our collective sources of meaning. Thankfully that’s diminishing now – but it’s there, and it’s a factor. This greater disconnection might make it easier to us to understand how disconnection is a driver of addictive and compulsive behaviour.

The third reason comes from another cause of addiction – one that is closely related to this.

I was taught about this theory by an extraordinary man called Gabor Mate, a doctor in Vancouver who worked with hardcore street addicts. After caring for them, and tending to them, and trying to listen to them, Gabor noticed something about all his patients that really struck him. They had all had horrific childhoods – neglect, abandonment, or abuse. He then discovered something called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Survey, which is the most detailed study of the effect of trauma on a kid. Their extensive research discovered something striking – that for each traumatic event you go through in childhood, you are two to four times more likely to grow up to be an injecting drug user. It’s because traumatized kids find it hard to trust people, or connect – so they become like the rats in the first cage, not the rats in the second.

Although lots of gay kids come from loving and supportive homes – as I did – we are more likely to have conflicted or chronically insecure relationships with our parents than our straight siblings. Then, in addition, we’re more likely to face violence at school. So we have higher rates of childhood trauma. Again – this might help us to understand why we are more likely to become addicted. We shouldn’t judge ourselves – we should understand ourselves, and respond to our flaws with compassion.

And there is another, fourth, reason why I think gay people might react to the drug war a little differently. This one is totally positive. We know what it is like to live through a revolution.

Lots of people agree with the case for reforming the drug laws, but sigh and assume it’s hopeless. They have been in place for 100 years – why would they change now?

But gay people know from our own lives that seemingly impossible struggles – seemingly eternal prejudices – can be overturned in a generation. When I was a kid, homophobia was blasted at me from the front page of the Sun to prime-time TV. For my nephews, a homophobic remark on TV seems not just shocking but downright weird. It happened in just a few decades – and it happened because huge numbers of brave gay people, and our straight friends, fought for it.

I ended my long journey by going to the countries that have moved beyond the drug war – Uruguay, where cannabis has been legalized; Switzerland, where heroin has been legalized for addicts; and Portugal, where all drugs have been decriminalized. In every country, the results have been startlingly positive. I have seen the future, and it works. Just as I have lived through a revolution in how gay people are treated, I believe I will now live through a revolution in how drug users and drug addicts will be treated.

So I think, after mooching and mulling, that I was wrong to be irritated by my friend’s question. Gay people and straight people are both taken down by the war on drugs equally, but – because of our particular historical experience – it may be that we can see through the propaganda that keeps this tragedy going a little quicker. And we can see – because we’ve lived through it once – that a better world is possible, whenever we decide to choose it.


A Date for the diary openDemocracy and TheatreDelicatessen will be hosting a conversation in London on the War on Drugs with Johann Hari on Wednesday March 11th at 7.30pm 2015 at 119 Farringdon Road, Central London. Tickets here.

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