My Drug Period
May 2013
My drug period thumbnail - Milton Friedman standing in an alleyway cartoon.

By ‘drug period’, I refer to the 12 months I spent researching, writing and drawing War on Drugs and Rat Park. Prior to those comics, I had written comics mostly about ecology and the natural environment.

War on Drugs and Rat Park are two comics that I hope readers will absorb together. They are both about the topic of ‘drugs’, yet they approach the issue from very different perspectives.

War on Drugs comic cover. Man in alley holding sign drawing. Bob Dylan alleyway Subterranean Homesick Blues cue cards. Cartoon Milton Friedman. Al Capone. Rat Park drug experiment comic by Stuart McMillen. The Hermit lantern – Led Zeppelin cartoon.

With these two comics, I have examined three issues relating to drugs which are far from the mainstream radar:

Issue 1) Drug laws

War on Drugs looks at the laws that we use to try and stop people from taking drugs. By drawing parallels with alcohol prohibition, it shows the futility of criminalising drugs, and how well-intentioned laws can counter-intuitively make problems worse.

War on Drugs prohibition comic drawing. Two dead bodies - low angle. One from alcoholism, other from drug overdose.

In a way, trying to stop drug use with prohibition laws is like trying to stop teenage pregnancy with laws requiring universal abstinence.

Total prohibition will never work, which is why we should instead adopt a harm minimisation approach, which respects the dignity of people who use drugs and focuses on their safety. That was our approach when deciding how to minimise teenage pregnancy and STIs. By providing a range of options, we make life safer for those who may not live up to ‘ideal’ community standards of reproductive behaviour.

There are few people today, in 2013, who would look back on 1920s alcohol Prohibition as a golden period which we should return to. Yet living within the current era of drug laws, we fail to see the insanity of the modern age of prohibition.

War on Drugs prohibition comic drawing. Two police commissioners at news conference - low angle. One standing in front of a barrel of liquor, the other standing in front of cannabis plants.

I deliberately chose the 1920s Prohibition analogy as my centrepiece in War on Drugs. Prohibition was an unpopular and unsuccessful experiment attempt to ban alcohol sales, which flew in the face of human nature. By making the comparison with Prohibition, I invite readers who might otherwise support status-quo drug laws to question their beliefs.

The only reason we gravitate towards keeping our current drug laws is a mindset that drugs should be locked away, and drug users punished for their sins.

It sickens me to think about the people who supposedly take the ‘moral high ground’ when defending drug prohibition. Particularly when they emphasise the risks involved in drug-taking such as ‘you don’t know what you’re getting when you buy drugs’, or ‘you don’t know how much you’re taking when you use drugs’.

These extremists would rather see drug-takers die from overdoses so that they can serve as warnings to others. They don’t realise that most of the risks of drug-taking are products of the current black market that they defend. For contrast, compare the consumer information available on bottles of alcohol, describing exactly how many ‘standard drinks’ are contained within, and information about where the drink was manufactured. There is no reason why the same safety information could not be extended to other drugs if legalised.

Comic artwork dark alleyway night drawing. Cartoon perspective drawing of city alley dumpsters balconies.

With the War on Drugs costing $70-105 billion per year to administer in the USA alone, it is time we tried a saner approach. Thankfully the examples of other countries, notably Portugal, show what can happen if drugs are decriminalised. The sky didn’t fall, as critics feared. Quite the opposite: many positives came from drug decriminalisation in Portugal.

For those interested in learning the source of my passion for this issue, read A Small Book About Drugs (2011) by Australian writer Lisa Pryor. Reading it at Easter 2012 was a turning point for me. Lisa managed to link together many ideas which had previously been held separate in my mind. Written with a clear, balanced, incisive style, her work is extremely readable: I devoured it in a day. Then I read it again, taking notes.

Issue 2) Drug addiction

In contrast to the ‘drug laws’ focus of War on Drugs, Rat Park is about the science of drug addiction.

In some ways, drug addiction is the fear at the heart of drug prohibition laws. The fear is that drugs have such worrying potential for addiction that they should be made illegal so that no one can ever try them.

Drawing of girl at party looking at drug pill cartoon. Demon ghost rising from the ecstasy pill.

This conception seems to linger even with those who advocate decriminalisation and legalisation of drugs like cannabis. The argument being that cannabis and MDMA are non-addictive ‘soft drugs’, as opposed to ‘hard drugs’ like heroin and cocaine, whose inherent chemical properties lead to addiction. In other words: addiction is a biochemical consequence of an individual taking certain drugs.

My view of the issue was challenged when learning about the SFU Rat Park experiments. Of course, these experiments used rodents as subjects, and can’t be applied to human addictions. So I read more of Bruce Alexander’s research, including his recent book The Globalization of Addiction, which is about addiction in humans. Prof. Alexander dedicates an entire chapter of the book to countering what he calls the ‘demon drug myth’: that drug addictions are automatic consequences of the chemicals themselves. They use the same arguments of the old ‘demon rum’ myth which presented liquor as somehow different to beer and wine. The next two paragraphs are examples from Chapter 8 of Bruce Alexander’s book.

During the Vietnam War, many US soldiers tried heroin, with 19% of the deployment becoming addicted to the drug. However 88% of heroin-addicted soldiers were able to return home without any sort of relapse within their first 3 years on American soil. The change of environment (returning home from the stress of life as a wartime serviceman) was enough to allow them to simply stop taking the drug without suffering from psychological dependence or physiological withdrawal symptoms. [source]

Another example which contradicts the biochemical explanation for drug addiction comes from the British medical system. United Kingdom doctors regularly prescribe heroin as treatment for patients with various medical problems such as chronic pain, childbirth, coughs and diarrhoea. This practice even extended to paediatric patients. In 1972 alone, national prescriptions totalled 29 kilograms of pure heroin: the equivalent of 7 million 4mg injections. These patients were able to complete their hospital treatment and resume normal lives evidently without addiction, cravings or withdrawal symptoms. [source]

Drawing of Rat Park Canadian addiction experiment enclosure next to racks of caged laboratory rats. Cartoon science experiment.

If a biochemical explanation for addiction was true, all the rats in the “breaking the habit” Rat Park experiments should have compulsively taken drugs at the same rates.

If the biochemical explanation for addiction was true, 100% of Vietnam vets should have suffered withdrawal symptoms, once their access to heroin ended in America. And 100% of British hospital patients given heroin (including paediatric patients) for pain relief should become addicted through exposure.

But they didn’t, and so the truth must lie elsewhere. Biochemistry is likely part of the answer, but these examples suggest that there are other factors at work.

Cartoon laboratory rat with catheter in jugular vein. Isolated in Skinner Box cage.

Understand: I am not denying that certain drugs lend themselves to addictions. Alcohol, heroin and methamphetamines seem to be examples of drugs with properties that allow users to dull reality and escape their troubles, albeit temporarily. However, if the drugs themselves are truly the ’cause’, then by definition everyone who tries these substances should become equally addicted. And that is simply not the case.

I’m not an expert in the field of addiction. While I feel able to criticise the biochemical conception of addiction through force of logic, I am not the person qualified to assess the true cause of addiction.

A worthy place to seek a better answer is Bruce Alexander’s heavily-referenced, yet very readable The Globalization of Addiction. I discuss the premise of his research in my blog post The post-Rat Park research of Bruce Alexander.

Cartoon illustration of Professor Bruce Alexander holding a rat. Prof Alexander was a researcher in the Rat Park addiction experiments.

Issue 3) Drugs as both ‘good’ and ‘bad’

Perhaps the biggest taboo of all was the one I touched upon in the final 5 pages of War on Drugs. At this point of the story I deviated from the ‘Al Capone and Milton Friedman’ theme and put in a little piece of personal commentary. I said:

     “It’s true that drugs can consume and ruin lives…

     …but drugs can also provide fun, positive experience.”

Overall the comic was positively received and got a lot of traffic from websites like reddit and Facebook. But despite near-universal support for my central point that drugs should be legalised, some people objected to me mentioning drugs in a positive light and ‘sending the wrong message’.

Cartoon purple drug trip. Drawing of three friends on drugs sitting on purple grass looking at warped city skyline. Stars, planet Saturn.

It seemed that some people, who held progressive views about drug decriminalisation, still could only imagine drugs in terms of addiction and compulsive drug-taking. These people could only imagine drug use as a ‘problem’ which must be minimised. To them, all people who take drugs have horrible experiences and do so against their will.

As a cartoonist who likes to tackle unpopular issues, this attitude intrigued me: that people with otherwise sensible opinions about drugs could have this massive blind spot.

Could this be a hangover of the detached way academics, journalists and politicians discuss drug use? Almost always they are framed as an issue for ‘other people’. It’s simply not proper to admit to personally taking drugs (let alone enjoying the experience).

Cartoon drawing of three friends looking at purple night sky. White stars and Saturn on purple sky,

Although I joked about the ‘my drug period’ reference in the title of this essay, this is not a topic I will simply laugh off.

Without making too big a deal of it, the reality is that I have used drugs in the past, and I will definitely use drugs again in the future.

In a separate blog post I discuss my personal drug use history for the first time. I will let this piece speak for itself.

Future comics:

With my two comics War on Drugs and Rat Park now published, I intend to move away from the ‘drugs’ topic and get back to writing about ecology, economics and consumerism. I’m not sure how much more I can write about drugs that I haven’t already covered in those two comics, and in blog posts like this.

Then again, I once thought Part of Nature would be my definitive statement on environmentalism, and that I would never have to revisit that topic. How wrong I was!