Alternatives to drugs

Illegal drugs are sold with a lie – or maybe a half-truth. The seller says, ‘Take this and you’ll feel good’. That’s partly true, and that can be a real problem for parents. The fact is that most banned drugs can give a pleasurable high. Think of the film ‘Train-spotting’. Doesn’t one of the characters, talking about heroin, say, ‘Think about an orgasm, then multiply it by a thousand’? If that’s true, then any young person, faced with a choice about whether to try the new experience, is going to be disappointed in any advisor or care-giver who has said, ‘Don’t take drugs, they’re bad for you’. Sure, that may be true too, but if the one giving the advice didn’t mention the ‘thousand orgasms’ factor – as they probably won’t – then the experimenter is going to feel fooled and short-changed. Hey, this is great, they are thinking. How is it that people try and stop me doing it?

The answer is simple. The thrill is great – today. Tomorrow, it’s different.

The half-truth, the one that drug dealers skate over, is that okay, you’re going to feel good today, but the same thing that gave you pleasure is going to make you feel terrible tomorrow. And that’s a fact, whether it’s alcohol or skunk, pills or coke, the good feelings are not just going to fade. They’re going to lead you into a spiral that puts you way below however bad you felt when you first decided that a high might be a good idea. That’s the future, and it’s never advertised. If some kid is feeling bad – maybe because his girl left him, or he can’t get a proper job, or he’s living in the projects – then a simple question like, ‘Don’t you want to feel better?’ might seem to have only one reply. Sure, he wants to feel good. Give him the drugs and left him feel the thrill, leaving the ugly present behind.

Of course, the other question, the one unsaid, is also true. If you asked the same customer, ‘Do you want to feel worse than you do today?’, the person would probably say ‘No’. But the fact is, that’s what’s going to happen. They will feel worse than they do now, but that’s tomorrow. The Devil’s Bargain, when it comes to drugs, is that at first you feel great, and all your troubles are behind you, but you have to pay a price. Not just the money you don’t really have, (which you have to hand over to get the stuff), but also the awful way you’re going to feel the next day. Because all illegal drugs have that problem. Alcohol has it too, it’s called a hangover. But illegal drugs are off the market for a reason, and one part of that reason is the terrible feelings that withdrawal is going to give you. Every time. Some people who enjoy drinking say they ‘never get hangovers’ and maybe that’s true. But everybody gets withdrawal symptoms, that’s why illegal drugs are so profitable. The man on the street corner knows that the punters who he sent off laughing yesterday are going to come crawling back to him tomorrow.

The other issue, when tomorrow finally comes, is that you really have lost all control of your life. Sure, it might have seemed that way in the first place, if you’re living in poverty, in a high-crime area, with no real friends and only the threat of local gangs to keep you company. But once the drugs are in your system, then they rule. Everything you do from that point on is about feeding the habit. It’s not you, it’s the chemicals in your system. Any ‘free will’ which you might have imagined you once enjoyed is now gone. You are a slave to the yearnings in your bloodstream. Life is not yours anymore. You are merely a servant to your chemical need.

There is an alternative, and strangely, it’s been around for several hundred years. It’s what we sometimes call the Protestant Work Ethic, or, usually derogatorily, what people in England sneer at as ‘Middle Class values’. Basically what it says is that you might have to sacrifice today in order to get a reward tomorrow. Whether it’s studying in school, (for the prospect of qualifications that lead to future earnings), or whether it’s starting in a job at the bottom and working your way up, it’s a way of looking at life that says there may be hurdles to overcome before you get to the sunny plain. There may be hills you have to climb before you actually can sit on top of the mountain. Whichever way you put it, it’s all about ‘jam tomorrow’. It’s the complete reverse of the ‘drug culture’. The druggie says ‘I’m going to have pleasure today, I don’t want to wait’. Fair enough, but that’s only part of the story. The lie they tell is in leaving the other half out. ‘I want pleasure now’, they say, but they need to add, ‘and I’m going to suffer for it tomorrow’. Thrills today, pain tomorrow. The middle classes say, ‘Pain today, satisfaction tomorrow’. They are opposite sides of the same coin.

Which works? The answer to that question, painful as it may be to parents, is that they both do, after a fashion. The drug culture leads to hedonism and sneers at the kind of self-sacrifice the middle classes make, both for themselves and their children. The other truth, which is uncomfortable for the drug dealers, is that those ‘respectable’ people are right. They get the cars, the good jobs and the nice houses, by waiting. The people who can’t wait, can’t plan, can’t organise themselves today for a better tomorrow, are going to have fun today and feel completely justified in the thrill-seeking they pursue. Tomorrow, when they’re lonely, depressed, broke again, desperate for another fix, they are going to be so pre-occupied that they won’t have time to justify their earlier choice.

In England we always seem to have exams on sunny days. Some kids are locked in their rooms, pounding the books, studying hard, and dreaming about a career. Ten years later they’re enjoying the affluence they’ve earned. Some other kids, elsewhere, have given up on exams and are out in the sunshine throwing balls around. They’re enjoying themselves. Ten years later they’re wondering where their dreams went, and how they allowed them to get drowned in a sea of booze and expensive, costly chemicals.