Is abuse a problem, or a solution?
Jørgen Maltesen on addiction treatment

Article by Jørgen Maltesen

Are drugs the problem or the solution?

After 15 years of working in treatment for alcohol and drug addicts. Having been to a number of courses and seminars, I think a picture of drug users emerges. An image I didn’t have eyes for before. In writing this, I am lumping those in alcohol treatment and those in drug treatment into a common category, which I call drug users.

When a person who has no closer knowledge of this world of alcohol, drugs, chaos and pain. And if the drug user’s destructive behaviour is observed, the conclusion will often be that the drugs are the problem. Ergo, all the chaos, pain and destruction would disappear if only the drug user stopped using.

The picture that now appears to me tells me something different. When I look at what happens in my daily work, the drug user’s actions usually make sense to me.

Inside drug users

If you “step into” the drug user and look out, the scenario could very well be: “I know this is wrong and hurting me, but what else can I do to endure it all?”.

The more unpleasant feelings the drug user experiences, the more drugs they will need to calm down. The drugs are thus the immediate solution to both emotional and physical pain and discomfort.

It is my clear opinion that all drug users started their drug use because they thought it was a good idea in one way or another. And that the drugs could do something positive for them.

For example, alcohol makes you feel good, and it’s as if you relax better in the company of others. Other drugs may have various other effects: but they often have the function of binding a group of people together.

Read also: Couples in treatment

Drug users smoke joints

The influence of society on drug users

As a society, we also help to drive this attachment and division.

Especially when we label, for example, cannabis groups, alcohol treatment, opiate addicts and groups of people who use party drugs.

We try to classify drug users into different categories based on their choice of drug. Although the only differences in their drug use is the choice of drug and its individual consequences: If you are a hard-core heroin addict, you are often more of a burden on society than an alcohol addict with a job and enough money to support his consumption.

Besides, alcohol is legal and can be bought everywhere, so it’s not all that bad, it seems.

But what the heroin addict, the alcoholic and all the other drug users have in common is that they use a drug to make sense of their lives and solve problems. The problems they have right here and now.

Socially accepted

Hash is becoming so socially accepted that the government is even considering allowing its sale. As is already the case with alcohol.

It is not officially accepted in prisons that prisoners smoke cannabis, but it is clearly the drug that prison officers prefer prisoners to use. Rather cannabis than alcohol and other drugs.

When you smoke weed, everything tends to be put on hold while you think a lot of big thoughts about everything. You become calm, introverted and sleep easily.

This state of affairs, it is not surprising to see, is pleasant for both prison officers and inmates.

Statistics on drug users

Looking at statistics on heroin (opiate) and cocaine users, it seems that there are more cocaine users and fewer heroin users.

This is true in a sense, but behind the statistical calculations lies a large group of people in methadone treatment. People who don’t take heroin anymore because the heroin doesn’t work nearly as well when you’re on a high dose of methadone.

But cocaine and benzodiazepines (nerve pills) do. So now many of the former heroin users have become users of methadone, subutex, nerve pills and cocaine instead.

And why is that? Because it’s not just about getting a drug so you don’t have withdrawal.

It’s about using the drug in a particular way to achieve the desired effect, a life that provides meaning and discomfort that is not experienced.

It is very rare that a drug user has started directly using heroin. Often they have started with alcohol and cannabis, tried some cocaine or amphetamines and then continued with heroin.

Many cocaine users have started with alcohol and later improved their functioning with cocaine. Few drug users of alcohol stay on alcohol without switching drugs throughout their lives.

The start of an addiction

Once consumption has started and everyone is regularly having a few glasses of wine with friends and really enjoying themselves together, some people will take it a step further.

They may start to repair a hangover with a few beers, experiencing mild and often almost unnoticeable withdrawals. If outsiders here ask about alcohol consumption, the answer will often be: “It’s not a problem”.

Yet it seems that the person who is developing a problem with alcohol is more preoccupied with the drug (alcohol) than anything else. And is always ready with a good explanation of why, for a myriad of reasons, it’s not a problem.

You might then start taking a nerve pill or two to steady your hands because you’re not allowed to drink at work.

Withdrawal becomes stronger when you stop drinking after a period of time. Alcohol, or its consequences, has suddenly crept into personal, social and working life.

The end of abuse

At the end of a drug use, the drug is largely used only to resolve withdrawal symptoms. Here you will usually be aware that you are far gone and no longer able to control consumption.

You’re caught in an endless stream of problems with family, emotions and withdrawal, and you only know one solution: more drugs!

Thus, it seems that drugs are not really the problem, but the solution to the drug user’s problems.

It helps to give life more meaning, as the rush at the beginning of consumption seems like a freedom. It helps to make more sense at the end, as it removes withdrawal and provides forgetfulness. And if that is the case, criminalising drug users will not lead society, or drug users for that matter, in good places.

We cannot remove and ban people’s only tools for managing emotions. Certainly not when we do not, in the same breath, create comprehensive opportunities for them to get the help they need. When they can’t get the help, support and learning they need, they have to find new solutions.

So applying this view to the problem also removes much of the stigma and “concealment”. It helps to give hope to the drug user, as no one starts a drug habit with plans to ruin their whole life. If they could stop themselves they would of course do with a snap of the fingers!

It was just meant to be a bit of fun…

Kind regards Jørgen Maltesen