The limits of drug positivity

Why we should be honest and careful about our drug use

Art by Aiden Magro

Experimenting with drugs is a normal part of student life, as we find our independence and seek new experiences. Drugs can facilitate personal growth in many ways — helping us to understand different points of view, connect with others, and let go of anxieties. As with everything, there is another side to the story. Drugs can also really fuck people up, whether that be through individual negative experiences or the long-term effects of dependency.

The dominant narratives about drugs in progressive circles tend to be simplistically positive, stressing their social benefits and arguing that their harms are vastly overstated. While this is an understandable response to the conservative scaremongering about drugs which is used to justify their illegal status, the simple drug-positive story is unhelpful because it doesn’t prepare us for when things go wrong.

Since coming to uni I’ve had a lot of great experiences with drugs, but I have also seen the other side. I have permanent post-traumatic stress disorder because of an LSD trip that went wrong. I’ve also had to kick a serious alcohol addiction, supported numerous friends through dependency on drugs or alcohol, dealt with the aftermath of drug and alcohol-related violence and sexual assault, and taken people to hospital because of drug-induced psychosis.

My view of drugs is informed by those experiences, alongside a harm-minimisation perspective which acknowledges that simply trying to scare people isn’t a productive strategy for reducing the negative consequences of drug use.

I think a serious harm-minimisation approach involves discouraging people from taking drugs in certain situations, and intervening with friends who have developed serious drug or alcohol dependencies. For example, there is a well-established link between drug use and psychosis for people who have pre-existing psychiatric conditions like PTSD, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. A friend once described the experience of living with bipolar as like living on a volcanic island — it might be years between eruptions, but sooner or later a serious episode will happen. A person with bipolar taking psychedelic drugs is like building your house right next to the crater — probably better to hang out on another island.

Similarly, there’s nothing progressive or compassionate about enabling people who have serious drug addictions. The supportive thing to do is understand the personal context and the structural aspects of their addiction, and try to help them to overcome it. If your friend is socially marginalised because of their gender identity, race, sexuality, disability or socio-economic status, they may be self-medicating to deal with their particular stressors. While you may not understand all aspects of their experience, I think as their friend you still have a responsibility to keep them away from self-destructive behaviour and direct them towards support services. 

Neither mainstream drug education (like we get at schools) or the drug-positive narratives have much to say about what to do in these kinds of situations. We don’t equip people with practical skills and knowledge about how to act when drug experiences go bad – for example, how to calm somebody down when they are having a psychotic episode, or how to tell a friend that their alcohol abuse is worrying you and you’d like them to seek some support.

That being said, I still believe that drugs would be much safer if they were  decriminalised or fully legalised. Many people are anxious about criminal proceedings, so they don’t call an ambulance when their friend really needs it. Furthermore, the illegal status of drugs prevents honest public discussion about their effects, with the result that people aren’t educated about what to do when things go wrong. If drugs were legalised, people could access support services without the fear of potential criminal charges.

I’d also like to urge people: if you don’t know how to deal with a serious situation, call an ambulance. They’re trained professionals and overwhelmingly very lovely people — their whole job is to help in these situations, and they’re not  obligated to share information with the police. While it might feel wrong to take a person to hospital and see them end up in a psych ward, if you don’t have the capacity to provide them with the care they need, this might be the best — or only — option. Similarly, if you have to call their parents or other family, do it – the embarrassment your friend might feel is a lesser evil than risking their health or their life.