The UK govt prefers to put drug addicts on substitute drugs, rather than actually helping them to get clean
Drug addiction has become a scourge for many families across the globe – with addicts slowly turning their lives into a nightmare. Millions of dollars are being made on human suffering, and it takes a gigantic effort to kick the deadly habit. Is it even possible to give up on drugs once and for all – or this is a fight of a lifetime? Is there a point of no return for the addict? Why do people even start taking drugs – is this for fun, or to escape the pain of reality? Today we ask these questions to a man who was a heroin addict for decades himself, but found the strength to drop it. Now, he is helping the others to leave narcotics behind. Chip Somers is on Sophie&Co today.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Chip Somers, a former heroin addict who now runs a clinic helping drug abusers kick the habit – welcome; it’s great to have you on our show today.
Chip Somers: Thank you.
SS: So, obviously, I want to start with your personal story. How did drug addiction get you?
CH: It got me when I was about 17 and just starting out lessons, and I started to come across drugs here in London, and the thing that attracted me most of all was that they made me feel very good. I think people often forget that drugs do make you feel very good.
SS: That’s the argument that most of the drug users use – it makes you feel so good that you don’t want to do or thing about anything else, but – that’s why it’s so hard to forget about it, and kick it off – but what happened that made you change your life?
CH: I think I had a very difficult childhood. I was sexually abused and I had various things that were problematic, so about the time I was 17 I was not really very kind of complete individual and drugs gave me that extra dimension that allowed me to communicate with the world.
SS: How long did it last, the whole drug phase?
CH: I was addicted for 18 years, and only first 4 or 5 months were pleasurable, after that it became a daily grind.
SS: Mr. Somers, but also when I asked what happened that made you change your life, I meant what happened when you decided that “that’s it, I really want to kick it off, I don’t want to do this anymore” – what was the turning point for you?
CH: I had lots of things that should have been the turning point. I’ve been to prison, I’ve been involved in homelessness and things like that, but the things that actually made me change my mind was meeting somebody who had stopped using themselves, thus giving a lie to belief that if you were addicted once, you’re always going to be addicted. Meeting somebody clean was very inspiring for me.
SS: Was this the first and only time that you wanted to finish off with drugs, or did you try to kick it off before?
CH: I thing I was probably giving up every other day towards the end, certainly the last 10 years, I would think, most days I didn’t want to do what I was doing.
SS: You are obviously a very strong advocate of abstinence. Did you try abstinence right away?
CH: No, I tried all sorts of things, I tried substituting one drug for another, I was on methadone for 12 years. I would try everything other than give up drugs. That was the last thing – it was the most simple solution, but it was the last solution that ever occurred to me.
SS: Right now, when it has worked for you and you’ve been clean for so many years, and you’re helping others kick off this habit – would you say abstinence is the answer for everybody, or is it an individual thing?
CH: There’s obviously an individual choice in it, but when we come to talk about addiction to cigarettes, we understand quite clearly that there is either smoking or not smoking. We believe completely in abstinence. I can’t quite understand why we don’t have the same belief for drugs or alcohol. To me, the only way to productively beat dependency is to give up drugs altogether.
SS: I suppose, I can only assume that’s because when you relapse into smoking cigarettes and nicotine, it doesn’t have as grave consequences as when you relapse after using heroin. Last example is Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has been clean and has been abstaining from drugs for so many years and he OD-ed from heroin. So, I suppose, that could be the reason, no?
CH: Yeah, I think it is problematic that it is such an absolute decision to others, use or not use, but my experience is that those people who, say, remain on methadone or use other drugs, or just drink a little bit, ultimately they start to build up their dependency again and they end up exactly where they started.
SS: So, if you think that abstinence is the answer, why isn’t abstinence the main method of treatment right now, what comes in its way?
CH: Because it’s hard work and it’s expensive. It’s not hugely expensive but it’s more expensive than just giving people methadone. To give people methadone is pretty cheap; you don’t have to interact with people very much and you can get rid of the drug problem quite easily by just handing methadone every day. To actually interact with somebody and to encourage and motivate them to get clean is much more hard work and we don’t have the resources at street level to do that.
SS: So you’re basically saying that it’s all coming down to money – but Britain has been called Europe’s addiction capital, and at the same time it spends more on drug policies than any other EU member. Why isn’t it working? I mean, they’ve might as well spend money on abstinence…
CH: Absolutely. Keeping somebody on methadone for 4 or 5 is ultimately going to cost more than putting somebody through rehab 2 or 3 times. Not everybody’s going to get rehabilitated the first time, not everybody’s going to get abstinent the first time, but at least give them the opportunity and ultimately it is much cheaper to do that.
SS: Do you think England is coming slowly to that or do you think it’s going to take much more fighting and struggling and time?
CH: I think it’s going to go through a period of moving backwards. I think there’s going to be massive cuts to a drug and alcohol field and I don’t think there’s going to be money to put people through statutory rehab. I don’t think there’s going to be this kind of funding, it’s much easier just to anesthetize all the addicts with methadone and leave them to the side.
SS: So, what’s the solution?
CH: The solution is to actually recognize that there are ways in which people can get better, not to be so defeatist, not to just give up and hope that they all will go away. The answer is to engage with people and make those people become, hopefully, productive people, better people in their families, better people in society and just really not such a drain.
SS: Doesn’t your humane method mean that you have to appeal to the sense of responsibility of, say, a heroin addict?
CH: Yes, which is quite a difficult thing to do, because I think all addicts, whether its drugs or alcohol have the ability to convince themselves that what they are doing is justified, what they are doing is necessary and I think it’s important that you try and get people perhaps like myself, or other people who have been through the same system, who have been addicted to try and talk to these people and encourage them to get better. At the moment, a lot of the people who are working in the drug services have no experience themselves of drug addiction and don’t really engage at the right level.
SS: Also there are harsher methods to treat drug addiction than yours. There’s forced withdrawal, hunger, isolation – what do you think of them?
CH: I don’t think they have… I mean, obviously, you will get people clean. Getting people clean is very easy, I can get all the addicts in the UK clean in two weeks – but the trick is, obviously, is to try and get them to stay clean. There’s no point in just getting somebody clean and then not giving them follow-up care and support. The solution is to give them long-term support.
SS: But, also, Mr. Somers, I just wonder, is it even possible to force someone to kick the habit, if they don’t absolutely want to be done with drugs themselves?
CH: I don’t think it’s very productive to do that way. I have never seen it work that way. Perhaps, the American model of asking people to go to Narcotics Anonymous meetings on a regular basis as part of their sentence has some effect, but really, we’ve seen poor results from forcing people. It’s important that people take some ownership of the process, and it therefore requires the addicts themselves to take part in it.
SS: But you can’t just give up drugs in a day, especially hard drugs. The person’s body undergoes extreme stress because of withdrawal. What was your experience – how long did it take you until you were completely clean?
CH: About 8 days. I think this myth of getting out of drugs needs to be addressed, because most addicts experienced withdrawal is a sudden withdrawal of drugs because there’s nothing on the street or they’ve run out of money, or they get put in prison for a few days. That is very severe withdrawal, and it’s quite uncomfortable – it’s not life-threatening, but it’s quite uncomfortable. Detox in the rehab is done in a managed way, with a supplementary or a substitute drug, and it really takes very little time, about 8 or 9 days to get drugs out of the system. So, it’s a bit of myth that it’s going to be very difficult.
SS: So the hardest part comes right after those 8 days?
CH: Yeah. Getting off the drugs is easy. I mean most addicts are doing it regularly anyway: they get put in prison, they get locked up by the police over the weekend, the dealer goes away, they run out of money. People are going through withdrawal a lot, but it’s very-very different to something that is managed, cared for, looked after and they are given substitute drugs – and it’s very easy!
SS:I realize I might be asking you a naïve question, but is there a best way to ensure that you don’t relapse?
CH: Yes, I think to remember the reality of your drug-use. We all have a tendency once we’ve been away from the drugs or anything for a period of time, to think of it as being something completely different to what it actually was. I think we do the same sort of thing with partners – we have a bit of distance from the partner for a while, and suddenly we think that they are wonderful and lovely again, and we forget that they were actually quite difficult to live with; and I think the same thing applies to drugs. We start looking back with rose-tinted glasses and we don’t look at it as a reality.
SS: In your clinic, when you help people finish with drugs, which drug do you deal with the most – which is the hardest to overcome?
CH: I think, probably, alcohol, because it is so readily available in the public, you can get it anywhere, and it’s legal, and it doesn’t cause any problems in terms of purchasing and getting it, so I think it’s probably the most difficult to deal with on a long-term basis. Some of the drugs that come along now, like ketamine are very problematic because of the physical consequences of using drugs like that, especially ketamine, with the damage it does to the blood, so there’s a long term medical problems with that. The opiate ones present a problem in that it is a very much a huge lifestyle choice and getting people to change from that lifestyle to a sort of normal lifestyle is really quite difficult.
SS: The drug called “Crocodile” that everyone has been talking about, at least in this part of the world lately, it’s a flesh-eating drug that’s getting popularity – what are the effects of this drug, is it even treatable?
CH: It is treatable as anything. It is a very pernicious drug, but it’s also extremely cheap and easily produced, so attraction is in that rather than its effects, probably, which are not dissimilar to many other drugs, but the advantage of it being extremely cheap… unfortunately people don’t seem to register the effects of drugs, and there are many drugs that we’re using on a regular basis, especially over here, that have devastating effects physically, but people still don’t seem to realize that it’s something that’s going to be dangerous. They always think it’s going to happen to somebody else.
SS: Now, obviously, it’s the personal stories that inspire many to finish off with drugs. What is the worst case that you’ve seen and been able to cure?
CH: We’ve seen people with extremely bad liver damage as a result of alcohol misuse; we’ve seen people who have been totally destitute and addicted for 20-25 years, and yet have still been able to turn their lives around and become useful and live worthwhile lives. Everybody’s story is different and everybody’s rock bottom is different to everybody else’s. It’s very much an individual choice. For some people, the decision to change might be because they have to sell their car or something, but for other people homelessness and crime might be the thing that makes them to go over the edge.
SS: Is there such thing as a “point of no return”, when it becomes impossible to deal with addiction or to cure it?
CH: We haven’t come across it yet. The oldest client I’ve had was 75 years old and he went on to lead a good few years before he died, but he led a much better life… I don’t think there’s any point of no return, there are people who obviously get themselves into a very bad physical or mental states, but I certainly don’t believe there’s a point when you cut off and say “that person is hopeless” – I don’t believe anybody is hopeless.
SS:You brought up alcohol in a couple of instances. In the UK drinking is a big part of a culture – it’s like, if you don’t drink, you’re considered to be outside of the norm. Is that what drives the UK’s drinking problem?
CH: The UK drinking problem is very bad. It’s got progressively worse over the last 15 years, and the whole kind of social stigma associated with alcohol has changed completely; the whole attitude to being drunk has changed completely. It’s now considered quite alright to be drunk on the street, whereas 15 years ago that would have been something to be quite ashamed about. Nowadays, people are getting drunk on a very cheap alcohol, and it’s becoming a very difficult problem to deal with. Unfortunately a lot of people are drinking much too much.
SS:Why do you think that happened? What’s different now from 15 years ago?
CH: I supposed there is a slightly grand social problem. Many people now are feeling hopeless, they don’t feel that they have the opportunity to progress, but I also think there is a culture now of excessive drinking, whereby it is a norm to drink and it’s considered to be abnormal not to drink and certainly not to drink to excess.
SS: Has the drug use problem become also more excessive in the past 15 years or it’s just the alcohol.
CH: No-no. Drug use has become much more acceptable now. There was a time when somebody who was using drugs would have been separate and isolated and really not mixing, but nowadays cocaine use is very common in social settings, and also, to a certain extent, some of the more designer drugs are being used in social settings without a stigma that used to come along with it.
SS: Has that led to more drug-addicts? Because some say that if drugs are accessible than people are not interested in them anymore…
CH: I think the opposite is true. The more drugs are available, the more people are likely to use them. 15-20 years ago it was very unusual for people to use heroin as the first drug they would ever take, whereas that is now probably much more common that people’s first experience of drug use could be heroin. Fifteen years ago it was the end result of drug use. Things have shifted a lot due to the availability of drugs. Thirty years ago, gram of heroin was 30 pounds, a gram of heroin now is 50 pounds, so it’s completely disproportionate to inflation, and therefore, there are an awful lot of drugs around.
SS: Is it even possible to live a normal, long life with drug use if it’s done safely and kept under control?
CH: This is where I certainly differ from those people who advocate methadone, and I don’t believe that being dependent on methadone, needing to take your methadone every single day otherwise one is going to go into withdrawal – I don’t believe that is a stable lifestyle, it’s a lifestyle that is dominated by the drug use and I don’t therefore believe that it’s possible to have a normal life once you’re frightened that if you don’t have drugs the next day, you’re going to go into withdrawal.
SS: So you’re probably against the idea of drug rooms, where addicts could inject drugs under medical supervision?
CH: Completely, I think it’s a vast waste of money. I’m sure it’s probably going to save one or two lives, but the money involved, having to staff those places, having to have them, having to find somewhere to go to, having to change the laws to make it acceptable – all that is going to cost a huge amount of money. Probably in a region or a small area, like Bridgton, about 300,000 pounds a year easily. For that sort of money you could put 30 or 40 people through rehab, and many more of them would be saved and many more of them would go on to give up drugs completely.
SS: What would you say is the global solution to this widespread drug use in Britain that has become more excessive? Do you have an idea in your head, what should be done, what measures should be implemented.
CH: Unfortunately the answer is quite a big answer. You have to go right back to making sure that people come through their childhood feeling confident and having some self-esteem and not going through childhood in such a way that by the time they are able to take drugs they find that drugs are the answer to their problems. My son, for instance, who I hope has been brought up in a loving way, now that he is 20, doesn’t feel the urge and the need to go off and take drugs. I think to solve the problem of people needing to be intoxicate or have their mood changed is a very-very big problem.
SS: So, you’re saying – if we generalize – the solution is that parents need to be good parents.
CH: I would say it’s, put at its most simple – yes, that’s nice, that’s the way of dealing with it. Better education, better home life…
SS: How do you make that happen?
CH: Well, that’s a big problem. I’m not going to be able to do that in my lifetime, but I would hope that we would start to look at the better education for people, and altogether looking at the better way of family life. Family life is not that great at the moment.
SS: But for those of them who are already using drugs, things like arrest, prosecution, punishment for drug possession and abuse – to what extent does this help addicts? I know that didn’t work for you, but are there people that actually stop and think “I really have to get my act cleaned up”?
CH: I think I was particularly stubborn, and even though there were many things that happened to me that should have been the kind of turning point for me to stop using: getting arrested, committing crimes I was quite ashamed of, going to prison – these were things that would normally have made a normal person probably stop using. Unfortunately, sometimes it can have the reverse effect of giving one a sense of kudos amongst the group that I was mixing in. So, I think it’s different for everybody. Certainly for me, it wasn’t about going to prison, it wasn’t about kind of a destitute and homeless life – it was merely a tiny moment to do with my daughter that made me finally decide to get clean.
SS:I mean, some say that even if you kick off the drug addiction, it’s a life-long struggle. Not one day passes by when you don’t struggle with yourself on whether you’re going to relapse or not. Has it been the case with you as well, do you still think about drugs, even though you’ve been clean for so many years?
CH: No. Absolutely not. I haven’t had any desire to use drugs from about 3 days into rehab. I do not struggle on a daily basis not to use, it doesn’t even occur to me. I have a very firm belief and a knowledge that drug use is going to be very, very detrimental for me, whereas normal life may be difficult and painful at times, but it is much less painful than a life of drugs. For me, it’s an easy thing. I don’t spend my day, trying to fight against drinking or using.
SS: Another huge topic is the legalization of marijuana, and it’s been legalized in some of the U.S. states, Latin-American countries, also some EU countries – do you think governments are just trying to make money off of this – or this is really a way to combat crime?
CH: I’m sure that whoever produces the legalized marijuana when it does arrive, will be making money on it. I think it’s probably likely to happen, I think it’s probably the only drug where you can put forward substantial argument for its legalization – it is a recreational drug that is used very commonly, without many side-effects, and I think probably it will be legal world-wide within about 20 years; but I certainly think that whoever makes it is going to be making money out of it. Nobody produces anything just out of altruistic social reasons.
SS: But when you look globally at the world’s illegal drug industry and what it’s worth, the numbers are mind-blowing. It’s worth 500 bn dollars at least. That’s actually close to the entire UK budget – so when you have an impressive number like that, you just can’t help but wonder how can anyone combat an industry this large and hope to win?
CH: I think you can become easily paralyzed by the enormity of the problem and in the process not try to help the individual, who is suffering on the ground. It is a huge problem, it is a long-term problem, it’s probably always going to be with us, but I wouldn’t like to just give up and surrender to the enormity of the problem and in the process miss helping people get better.
SS: Thank you so much for this really interesting interview, for sharing your personal experience with us, for encouraging those who are in need of encouragement. We were talking to Chip Somers, an ex-heroin addict who is now helping those abusing drugs and alcohol to overcome addiction. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, we will see you next time.