Pubdate: Mon, 01 Dec 2014
Source: Herald, The (Glasgow, UK)
Copyright: 2014 Herald & Times Group
Author: Shona Craven


Drug-use confessions by those in the public eye have a lot of power to
shape perceptions, writes SHONA CRAVEN

While most of us are well aware of how addictions shatter families and
blight communities, the addict - particularly the heroin addict -
remains an unfathomable "other".

And while great efforts have been made in recent years to change
public perceptions, that label retains an unmistakable moral, rather
than medical, dimension.

Any pity for a drug user with a wretched life is paired with a
confidence that such a life is the product of choices we ourselves
would never make.

Mention the so-called "Trainspotting generation" of former heroin
users now approaching old age, and someone like Alex Norton is
probably not who most people would picture. This may be in part
because the actor's best-known character, DCI Matt Burke in Taggart,
is concerned with upholding the law rather than breaking it, but more
likely it is because of his status a successful and respected public

This jars with the common assumption - supported for some by
statistics showing how many Scots addicts remain "parked" on methadone
prescriptions - that hard drugs condemn the user to a dead-end life in
which the next fix is all that matters.

Norton says that after experimenting with heroin while preparing for a
TV role, he "had the good sense to walk away". It might seem like a
statement of the obvious, but by attributing his escape from addiction
to his own responsible choice, rather than luck, biology or broader
life circumstances, he serves to perpetuate the idea that those who
succumb to drug addiction are somehow deficient in character, either
too stupid to understand the consequences of their actions on
themselves and those around them or too feckless to care.

It's a contrasting sentiment to that which is repeatedly and
articulately expressed by Russell Brand, probably the UK's most famous
former heroin addict and a determined campaigner for change to
society's approach to drugs.

Brand has made clear on many occasions that he does not see himself as
superior to those still living the life he was fortunate enough to
escape, and this makes his critics uncomfortable.

Witness the number of times he is gratuitiously described as "former
heroin addict Russell Brand" in articles about his political views,
and thereby defined by his historic mistakes rather than the enormous
day-to-day achievement of staying clean.

It's one thing for a rich celebrity to profess empathy for a
marginalised group, but quite another for Brand to meet addicts living
in sordid conditions while making a documentary and declare that the
temptation to stick around and have a fix with them is still strong.
These people are not "others" to Brand.

It seems unlikely Norton will be similarly stigmatised for his
confession, given that his account serves to confirm rather than
challenge the view of addicts that prevails in the UK.

David Cameron last month rejected Liberal Democrat calls for a radical
rethink on drug policy, at the centre of which was a desire to view
addiction as a medical issue rather than a criminal choice that must
be punished, but it's vitally important that the social dimension of
drug use is acknowledged too, and action taken to ensure the
non-addicted life is worth living.

Both Brand and Norton endured struggles and losses in their early
lives that undoubtedly made them more vulnerable to becoming involved
with drugs, but both also had opportunities to forge successful
careers in the entertainment industry.

Not only were financial security and public acclaim within their
reach, but the means to achieving these was pretending to be someone
else - surely an enviable opportunity for anyone who doesn't
particularly enjoy being himself.

While a medical approach to addiction would be a step in the right
direction, no doctor can prescribe the protective factors many of us
take for granted, such as a home in a safe community, a job that pays
a living wage and supportive family and friends.

We must not pretend that choices made by those in the most difficult
of circumstances are not, in reality, significantly constrained.
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