People take drugs for pleasure and fun – so why do we drown that out by obsessing over the harm?

We have been rather snooty about ignoring the wisdom of cultures that have found benefits to drugs that go beyond ritual

Ian Hamilton
Thursday 31 January 2019 11:49
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Are you one of the 10 million people who have used drugs like cannabis or cocaine? Make no mistake, drugs are fun. They must be, given the scale of drug use and the long history we humans have of using them.

Despite the upside of using drugs, it’s not an aspect that’s given the attention it deserves, a bit like the way no one seems interested in good news stories. Instead, when drugs are featured in the media it’s usually to panic about the latest incarnation of some new pill or powder. Then there’s the fear of becoming addicted, but in truth this is rare and our understanding of how this happens and who is at risk is still being unravelled.

Cannabis research suggests that the majority of people using it won’t become addicted, even if they use it frequently, unlike tobacco where eight out of 10 people who start using it become dependent.

This distortion of the drug experience we are actually exposed to matters, and in any case doesn’t deter the millions giving drugs a go. Many people won’t recognise the information they have been fed about drugs, given the mostly positive experience they will have.

So which drugs are we using for pleasure? It’s no surprise that cannabis continues to be the most popular illicit drug with nearly one in 10 people saying they have used it in the last year. Cocaine has consistently taken second place, with ecstasy and speed fighting it out for the third spot over the last decade.

As with beauty, pleasure is in the eye of the beholder but unlike beauty, drug-induced pleasure is malleable. It’s not just the chemical responsible that shapes our experience of a drug, but what you anticipate happening prior to using, who you’re with and where you are. That apart, there are some common experiences such as getting giggly with cannabis or thinking you are witty when using coke.

Getting back to the subjective nature of drug pleasure, most people don’t want to be surprised by the effects of a drug, they want predictable pleasure. This partly explains why tobacco and alcohol are so popular, as we can anticipate how they will make us feel. But surprise is exactly what attracts some people to using hallucinogens such as LSD or magic mushrooms; the not knowing where the drug will take you. It’s a risk of course, as you might find yourself feeling anything other than pleasure.

Beyond the well-known benefits of drugs on creativity, thinking and enjoyment of music, being English means we are a bit shy about discussing how drugs affect sex. Added to this we have ignored women’s use of drugs to enhance sex. Thankfully, a new project is looking into pharmacosexuality. Generally we know far more about men and drugs than how and why women use drugs for pleasure.

Western thinking and research of drugs has been overly focused on harm and the quest to understand the psychopharmacological role of substances in this. We have been rather snooty in ignoring the knowledge and wisdom of other cultures that have found benefits to drugs that go beyond pleasure and ritual by providing healing. A plant-based substance Ayahuasca has been used by indigenous Amazonians in ceremonies and has the potential to treat alcohol dependence. Just one example of many drugs used by some cultures for centuries and which are at last being explored for their therapeutic potential.

I continue to be amazed at the way people have survived personal adversity that comes to light when they arrive in treatment. Self-medicating with drugs makes sense, there are no waiting times for drugs and certainly no probing assessments or questionnaires to complete. Drugs are available, usually inexpensive and they can work, in the short-term at least.

If we are to move from a position where access to drugs is denied to one where we are permitted to choose which substances give us pleasure, then the state will need to relinquish some control over our bodies and let us decide what we put in them. Providing drug testing facilities such as The Loop at music festivals ensures those seeking pleasure when using drugs get accurate information about the drugs they intend to use. Contrary to popular opinion, young people respond in a sensible way when the results of their drug tests show adulterants or potency.

Understanding more about how drugs are used for pleasure will paradoxically help in the treatment of those who develop problems. But both groups are at the mercy of criminal gangs not known for their altruistic approach. This criminal control is facilitated by political dogma that denies the existence of drug pleasure, acceptance of which would benefit us all.

Ian Hamilton is senior lecturer in mental health at the University of York

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