I recently watched the BBC Three documentary ‘Heroin Haters’ (part of the ‘Drugs Map of Britain’ series), which follows a violent gang in Manchester who persecute and violently assault heroin addicts in their area. It is shocking to see the way these men talk (it is worth noting that they are all cocaine addicts themselves; however this is apparently completely different and puts them far above heroin addicts) and it really got me thinking about the way we treat addiction in our country, and the assumptions we are guilty of making about those who fall victim to substance abuse dependencies.

Many of us tend to form an idea of what a drug addict looks like early on; poor, desperate, going to whatever lengths they can for drugs and putting others (perhaps even their own loved ones, who they have of course lost any regard for in the grips of their own weakness) in danger if necessary. But this lazy stereotype is a dangerous one which leaves little room for thinking of addicts as people, with complicated stories and feelings behind how they became involved with drugs. Then the idea of some kind of addict hierarchy? How do we order this? With smokers being at the top (if you include them at all, since of course these are addicts least frowned upon in society), then heroin addicts somewhere down at the bottom of the heap? Do we degrade ourselves so much to consider them a faceless, heaving mass of addicts beyond all help? Most people consider themselves above this kind of labelling and bigotry, but how often do we really think about the issues?

Take, for example, the assumption by many that if you are homeless you must be addicted to something and therefore we refuse to give them money since they’ll only spend it on drugs and hey, you’re doing them a favour really. This is of course in some cases true, but even in these cases, do we think what that must be like? How did they get where they are? Drugs may have been unavoidable, living in a circumstance that normalised it or coming from a background so severe they need something to numb the pain. We have, of course, all been there: rushing past someone asking for change, head down and eyes averted, justifying it to yourself by saying you were in a rush, they probably would have spent it on drugs, or someone else will stop. This does not immediately make you a bad person, or indeed a bigoted one, but perhaps we should think more about our feelings towards this.

One episode of the same series followed Valium addicts in Scotland, and showed a man beside himself with the cocktail of drugs he was on, telling the tale of how he first took Valium. Aged 13 or perhaps 11, he could not recall, curiosity had gotten the better of him, and he had tried some of ‘mammy’s little helpers’ in order to see how exactly they ‘help’. Aged 29, we see him unable to speak or to stand up, taking blue pills (made by someone with no real idea what they’re doing), from the plastic yellow egg found within a Kinder Surprise. He is kind and friendly, a lovely young man who in different circumstances could have ended up somewhere very different, and we forget so easily that in many cases these people are victims. The heartbreaking series really opened my eyes to the depth of this almost invisible issue, and the extent to which we close our eyes to those who so badly need our help. Drugs is an important issue which goes all but unnoticed by society as a whole, and this needs to change if we are to save curious young boys from lifetimes of addiction and isolation.