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December 14, 2006

Addiction and the Ipswich Murders: Theodore Dalrymple argues that the five murdered women were driven on to the streets not by addiction itself, but by myths about addiction

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

Five prostitutes have been murdered in Ipswich. Theodore Dalrymple - the author of Romancing Opiates: Pharmacological Lies and the Addiction Bureaucracy - argues that it is not addiction which is driving these women on to the streets of Ipswich but that it is myths peddled about addiction that is driving them on to the streets.

What goes without saying should generally go without being said: that the murderer of the prostitutes in Ipswich should be caught and brought to justice as soon as possible.

However, I have noticed that the victims of these horrible crimes have often been described in the press as having been "driven" on to the streets to ply their trade by their addiction to illicit drugs. In other words, they had no choice but to become what I must now call, if I am to follow the established conventions of our most distinguished medical journals, sex workers. Once addicted, you are but a feather on the wind, or hurricane, of circumstance, blown hither and thither, into the face of the on-coming needles and syringes, as it were.

This, no doubt, is an example of the sentimentalisation of the only accepted hero or heroine of our times, the victim. The victim must be entirely passive, and have things done to him or to her; he or she must make no contribution whatsoever to his or her own misfortune. What is done to harm him or her is of course done by deep-dyed villains, usually the beneficiaries of an iniquitous social system. It is clear that, in our thinking about the world, we still inhabit the world of the Victorian melodrama.

Of course, the murderer of Ipswich really is a deep-dyed villain: unless, of course, he should turn out to be a chronic schizophrenic undergoing care in the community, in which case the official commission of enquiry will find that the whole tragedy was caused by a lack of communication between the agencies involved in his care, or rather neglect, a neglect that would then turn him into a victim himself.

If the murderer of Ipswich had merely confined himself to burgling the houses of five respectable householders, he would automatically have been awarded membership of the victim class, worthy of sympathy and understanding, since he would then only have harmed members of the oppressing classes; but since he has attacked and killed five people who were already victims, he is entitled to no such sympathy and understanding.

But let us return to the question of addiction and the necessity to go on to the streets. "I have a habit to fund", as an Ipswich sex worker is reported to have said, when asked whether she would continue to walk the streets of the town. No further questions were asked of her: the explanation was complete. Our fearless press did not feel any need to inquire further.

If those five workers were victims of anything, it was of the ideas of addiction that have been assiduously peddled in literature since the time of Thomas De Quincey, who published his Confessions of an English Opium Eater in book form in 1822. It was he, together with the arch-equivocator and liar Coleridge, who first used the metaphors and imagery about addiction that have been used ever since: chains, slavery and so forth. Indeed, I believe that the word in Dutch for addiction is enslavement.

But this is all nonsense. Physiologically speaking, withdrawal from opiates is trivial, unlike (say) withdrawal (sometimes) from alcohol, which can be genuinely dangerous. It is not true that it is easy to become addicted to opiates: most addicts have taken heroin on and off for about a year before they take it regularly, so it is not true that heroin "hooks" addicts, rather addicts - that is to say those who are determined to addict themselves - "hook" heroin. It is simply not plausible that addicts do not know, as they put it, "what I was getting myself into" when they started taking heroin; they started it because they thought the antinomianism of heroin addiction was chic, or perhaps I should say cool.

The relationship of crime to addiction is more complex than is usually given out. Most addicts who end up in prison for crimes that they have committed have extensive criminal records before they ever took heroin. In other words, insofar as there is a causative connection between addiction and criminality, it is that an inclination to criminality inclines a person to addiction as well.

Addicts can give up if they want, and millions have done so. Mao had a short and typically brutal way with them, and held a few mass executions. The rest gave up - millions of them. The fact that it would not have made sense to threaten people with death if they got, say, hypothyroidism, suggests that there is a difference between real disease and addiction.

Recently, two episodes have revealed why people take heroin or similar drugs. They take it because they like it. There was a spate of deaths from overdose of heroin in Dublin recently when some addicts received an additional social security payment that allowed them to buy more heroin. The addicts were seeking pleasure, not "feeding a habit". In and around Chicago, a very strong opiate, called fentanyl, became popular recently with addicts after illicit laboratories started to manufacture it. Many - perhaps some hundreds - died of it. The explanation given in The Lancet for its popularity was that it gave a particularly pleasurable "rush" to those who like this kind of thing. There was nothing about alleged "compulsion" to take it.

In short, the women in Ipswich were not driven on to the streets (the use of the passive mood is often a giveaway of special pleading). They drove themselves on to the streets by their wilful adoption of a lifestyle. They, like us, were full human beings, who made choices: very bad ones, but choices nonetheless.

This does not mean that we should have no sympathy with or for them. If we can sympathise only with the utterly blameless, then we can sympathise with no one, for all of us have contributed to our own misfortunes - it is a consequence of the human condition that we should. But it does nobody any favours to disguise from him the origins of his misfortunes, and pretend that they are all external to him in circumstances in which they are not. We should stop talking about addiction as if it were something that just happens to people, about which they can do nothing, and against which they can exercise no resistant will. It is these ideas that drive women out on to the streets of Ipswich, not any addiction itself, and we should stop peddling them.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and recently retired as an inner city and prison doctor. He is the author of Romancing Opiates: Pharmacological Lies and the Addiction Bureaucracy, (Encounter Books, 2006).

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Yes, the Dutch word for an addiction, in the sense of an addiction to drugs, is 'een verslaving', which means 'a condition of enslavement'.



Posted by: llamas at December 14, 2006 05:34 PM

Dr Dalrymple has hit the nail right on the head with the word antinomianism. This made me think of the following:

Don't let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshipped, so that he sets himself up in God's temple, proclaiming himself to be God. (2 Thessalonians 2:3-4)

But the Greek says ho anthropos tes anomias, which puts me in mind of Durkheim’s anomie. Were those antinomian scribblers a cause of the anomie in today’s society, or was it going to happen anyway?

Be that as it may, not long ago I was watching part of “the 50 Greatest Cartoons”. The presenters were tittering about all the (supposed?) drug references in the BBC version of “The Magic Roundabout”. Our media, even the supposedly conservative Daily Telegraph, are in varying proportion littered with clever-clogs who think evil is good. Where is the Hercules who will clean out this Augean Stable?

Oh, and while we’re on Coleridge:

In Xanadê did Chairman Hê
A useless pleasure dome decree
Where Thames, the muddy river ran
Through channels measured out by man
Down to the slimy sea.
Posted by: Robert H. Olley at December 15, 2006 07:54 PM

In my (admittedly fairly limited) experience, addiction is driven by boredom or the need to be entertained.

Posted by: Rob Spear at December 16, 2006 01:53 AM

I agree. When we regard addicts as helpless, we no longer hold them responsible for their behavior. But, if they are helpless, without the freedom to choose one action over another, then they are no longer moral creatures, and their lives have no meaning. Morality requires choices and intentions; automatic behavior is mechanical, not moral. A creature with no control over itself is like a puppet, where someone or something else pulls the strings. Or like a wind-up toy, which can perform only mechanical behavior that never varies. In either circumstance the behavior would be ultimately trivial and pointless.

When we hold people accountable for their behavior, we are acknowledging their freedom to choose, however difficult that choosing may be. We are saying that their lives have meaning, and that their decisions have consequences. We are respecting their dignity as individuals, and are upholding their humanity. We are affirming that they are not hopeless, mindless robots----nor are we.

Posted by: Ernest Helliwell at December 17, 2006 08:57 PM

Clearly the best article I've read on the subject of the Ipswich murders. I whole-heartedly agree. Anyone who is a free agent has choices. It's time to stop making lame excuses for destructive behavior, what a cop-out.
I say de-criminalize all drugs but the tax-payers who fund NHS shouldn't have to bear the burden of the cost for pleasure-seeking addicts.

Posted by: Companera at December 26, 2006 05:02 PM
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