Russell Brand shouldn’t speak for everyone on drugs policies

Susie McLean

Untitled 5 300x276 Russell Brand shouldnt speak for everyone on drugs policiesSo because it worked for him, Russell Brand is persuaded that abstinence-based recovery, rather than reliance on methadone, is the best way to help those with the “greedy disease” of opiate dependence.  Funny, I didn’t have the madcap comedian down as a conservative with a small c but if the acres of media coverage around his BBC 3 programme From Addiction to Recovery are anything to go by, he’s certainly a lot less progressive than he likes to make out.

Abstinence-based approaches to drug dependency have a wide appeal to policymakers, parents, governments, medical professionals and some former and current drug users.  People will always want drug users to stop using drugs, and many drug users themselves will want to stop using drugs.

However, these programmes are costly and only have a modest success rate, as many people start using or injecting drugs again once they have been through a detoxification and rehabilitation process.  Dependency on opiates is a chronic, relapsing condition according to the World Health Organisation.  Relapse rates are particularly high in programmes that compel people to stop using drugs which suggests that it is only when individuals reach a point in their lives where they are ready and able to stop using illegal drugs that abstinence-based programmes can succeed.  When people are at that point, let’s make sure that excellent detox and rehabilitation programmes are available for them.

In the meantime, at the International HIV/AIDS Alliance we’ll keep advocating for a harm reduction approach.  Ensuring people inject safely, and supporting people with methadone so that their injecting reduces or stops is the only proven way to stop HIV transmission among people who use drugs.

Russell Brand is uniquely privileged to be able to afford high quality abstinence-based support and care, and he can anticipate a life full of opportunities and choices.  A big and bright future.

Millions of other people are dependent on opiates in developing countries.  If only they were as lucky as him.  Far too many drug users are bribed or beaten by police or gangs and end up in jail for years for carrying small quantities of illegal drugs.  These interventions – safe injecting programmes, methadone, HIV treatment, overdose prevention, access to justice – are relatively low cost, and are proven to work.  Providing methadone is a crucial part of that picture.  Many people are desperate for the health and social benefits that methadone brings and are fighting long and courageous battles for their right to get it.

Where we would agree with Brand is when he says that what’s needed is a major “attitudinal shift” in the way people who use drugs are viewed and that treating them as criminal is not the way forward.

The criminalization of drug users in Ukraine and other countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia is currently fuelling the HIV epidemic in these regions, driving people away from seeking safer sex counselling, HIV treatment and care.  Just last month, the World Health Organisation announced that new HIV infections are spiralling in these regions, largely due to most at risk groups such as people who inject drugs not having access to HIV prevention and treatment services.  Repressive drug policy is neither cost effective nor efficient in overcoming drug dependency or the HIV, TB and hepatitis C epidemics.

A balanced approach to drug use is one that focuses on reducing supply by targeting the large-scale drug suppliers, while educating communities, including people who use drugs, about preventing HIV and promoting health. It would provide drug treatment such as methadone while attending to the health and social care needs of dependent drug users.

If Brand really wants to influence the policy makers who deal with the treatment of drug dependence, he could put his gift of the gab to good use by campaigning for a range of drug treatment options for people who use drugs.  Science is on the side of methadone and millions of drug users want methadone.  Abstinence-based treatment might well be the choice of Russell Brand, but let’s not reduce the choices of people less privileged than he is.

To find out more about the International HIV/AIDS Alliance’s work on harm reduction and the Support Don’t Punish campaign, visit

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  • Leanne Dickie

    The government need to sort this, It must cost a fortune! I live on a small Island & I can say it’s a disgrace! I got addicted to pain killers though buying them off the street… 80% are just on a merry go round buying off hard core addicts that sell they’re “Meds” for more gear. I don’t understand due to us being so small how they can get away with it… I’m on my second week of not taking anything… & it did just have to be a rattle for a week or so! everyone’s right about “you need to really want to do it” but as far as I still see after many years of this, Why would they want off there’re meds when they can sell them for a bomb! Money of the social every week no questions asked “forever!” All the help in the sense of housing/money/ children! Not to mention every single person on this Island get a tax rebate every year as they are on the sick! I’v worked all the way through & have had to stop work to have the time to off these wicked “med’s!” I totally believe they will never stop giving all this medication out as it keeps them in work! Our drug&A team are usless… never was i offered anything but scripts! We put addicts who want off with mentally unwell people! At least Russell has raised the issue.. It’s a huge problem! Like said in one of the comments above for some it just gives them the energy to go out & about to get more money. I would like to add, I got so upset after years of being on the D&A team, I finally went to see a doctor & she just took it down every 2 weeks.. 10years on the pain killers, 4 months at the doctors & I’m off them.. They need to keep there’re jobs after all! I can’t imagine how much money (if it was all added up) that addicted get between the cost of the medication it’s self & then all the benefits and social they get! Not to mention the idiots who work in the D&A!

  • Jasocol

    Why don’t we go down the Swiss route of providing clean heroin to addicts through their health service?

  • Mysterio Monkie

    Methadone is a good thing for some people. I only ever really dabbled with smack, so I never had the long term withdrawal, nor have I ever taken Methadone. What I do know is that any treatment program needs to have a finish line. There is no definitive, successful, way of coming off, and staying off, drugs. You really have to want to do it, and if you really want that you will. Brand is right in terms of the fact you have to change everything in your life, most of your friends, what you do and where you go…..almost everything you currently regard as fun. However, every persons progress is different…..methadone as help for symptoms, being gradually reduced, could work for some…..some people are better at dealing with being constantly ill than others. Myself, I prefer to be really ill for a short period of time rather than not as ill for a long time.

    It’s £4000, minimum, to get into alcohol rehab…..I assume it’s the same or higher for heroin. Where is the money going to come from? The real issue is about removing the patents from all developed pharmaceuticals. We need a limit on what can be charged, not just by the companies but by their suppliers as well. It does not cost a lot to provide care for groups of people, elderly, drug addicts, etc, and it’s about time we stopped this tiny minority of people that profiteer out of it from being able to do it. I’m not talking about the homes and laboratories….I’m talking about the scum at the top of the chain. There is no excuse for any poverty or lack of proper services in a country as rich as the UK, and if that means stripping every multimillionaire of every penny they have (except for the 1st million) then that’s what should happen. The government could provide grants to private business to expand……and when the super rich get richer again, reset their earnings. If just 0.01% of the tax these criminals steal every year could be reclaimed…..there wouldn’t be a recession, we’d have a massive pot of cash to play with

  • TerryBarnes

    Why? They’re no longer in control of their actions. We’ve created the situation where they have to rob and kill – though I’d challenge you to find the last instance of someone actually killing as most acquisitive crime is shoplifting, followed by burglary.

    What other illnesses would you propose that we deal with by having “a war” on the people suffering from it? Cancer? Diabetes? Heart disease?

  • TerryBarnes

    I think most established addicts do absolutely want to quit – but the important point is that the illness of addiction means they are not in full conscious control of their actions. Their heart says one thing, their brain says another. Even with support, counselling, guidance and maybe methadone, maybe not – the changes in the brain caused by the disease of addiction make recovery very difficult.

    Add to the physical symptoms of the disease the damaged family and social relationships most addicts have, criminal records and prison time and the associated lack of employability – they end back emotionally in exactly the same place that likely contributed to their decision to use heroin in the first place. Happy people with bright prospects don’t use heroin. It’s largely a drug of despair and solving addiction means removing that despair. That in itself is a challenge because an addict’s brain has changed to make feeling joy or happiness much less likely.

  • TerryBarnes

    What other illnesses would you treat in such a way? Would you put lung cancer sufferers in prison until they decided to shape up and get better?

    Talking tough might make you feel better but it provably does not work. Unless you propose life imprisonment, those people will come out more disconnected from society, with fewer employment or social prospects and will almost certainly continue criminal behaviour as the only method available to them to fund their addictions.

  • Mike Williams

    Do you include alcoholics and problem drinkers in these sweeping statements you like to make?? How much of the tax payers hard earned cash is spent as a result of treating drink related illnesses and associated injuries…? I have tried pretty much every drug twice in my younger years, managed to give up crack an heroin through abstinence although done by myself without support, though I still consider myself to have used it to escape ‘life’s problems’ or recreationally some might say, I started binge drinking aged 14 and still suffer problems from my time, the only drug I use now is cannabis as it helps me sleep and calms stomach problems, even though I have previously been in trouble with the law for cultivation I consider it the lesser of evils when compared to alcohol and tobacco which I still struggle giving up… I wonder do you drink tea or coffee each day??

  • honeynutcornflakes

    Actually I find Brand very funny and do like him. But you are right, he is bringing attention to addicts and recreational drug users alike which I think is a great thing and very needed considering the hypocrisy surrounding addiction (which is a mental illness) and recreational drug use (which is a lifestyle choice and human right).

    my only concern is that he is trying to pigeon-hole all addicts into being those who would all fair better in abstinence based treatments, BUT – and crucially – in doing so, meaning that methadone maintenance then gets very negative publicity and will instead lead to massive cuts in this type of treatment (which would be horrendous) because he is belittling the scientists and addiction carers etc despite their expert knowledge in the field.

    we live with a government who would LOVE to refuse addicts methadone, which I think would be a dangerous and very real consequence of this. the ACMD were (before 2010) very aware of this fact and so I think Brand would be better atuned to say that abstinence based treatment needs more funding RATHER than taking the (slightly odd) stance that methadone doesn’t work. do you see what i mean?

  • Anonymous

    Abstinence based recovery us FREE you don’t have to be privileged to do it. Fellowships are anonymous so Brand cannot go on TV and associate himself with them however abstinence based recovery is grounded in the 12 steps. It’s is FREE to do them and in this humble junkies opinion they are the route to freedom from this terrifying progressive illness. I don’t argue, and I don’t believe Brand does either, that we shouldn’t have harm reduction! We need clean pins of course and methadone makes a habit vaguley affordable but they are not long term soultions and don’t give people freedom from the misery and pain of addiction. I am a heroin addict I have been on methadone I use harm reduction program’s daily. I have relapsed and am using again but the only time I have been content in the last few years has been a 5 months period of total abstinence.

  • Alex

    The crux of his argument was based on love and compassion towards addicts, the “attitudinal shift” that you talk about. I don’t think he intended to push abstinence as hard as you say he does, instead of creating a new camp to argue from you probably should have written this article as a piece of practical advice to those that would build on his work. We wont get anywhere in this debate if everyone’s trying to get one up on each-other.Brand stressed that methadone doesn’t deal with the route cause of addiction, it may make drug abuse safer in the short term but it’s still drug abuse. It’s a lot cheaper than counselling but that’s about it, we need to listen to those like prof. Nutt who are making progress in the field of identifying risk factors for addicts and investing in ways to prevent addiction. It’s a solution that you’re likely to pooh-pooh but what of legalization so that we can monitor the intake of users and take steps to nip addiction in the bud before i becomes a fully-fledged problem? That way we needn’t worry about funding, help for the 1 in 10 that become addicts is paid for by the rest of the population able to control their intake.

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