In a fast, data heavy world, contaminated by fake news, its reassuring to find a source of information that is scientific and based on fact.  ‘Knowledge is Power’, as said late 16th century philosopher Francis Bacon.  Authentic knowledge can be hard to come by in the modern age of online opinions and multi sources.  Especially in the arena of socially taboo and emotive subjects.

Step forward Suzi Gage of Liverpool University, Psychology Department.  Her new book, out today: ‘ Say Why To Drugs’, is an A-Z of psychoactive substances, an encyclopedia of intoxicants. It’s a tour de force that takes us from alcohol to heroin, salvia to nicotine, kratom and mephedrone, to synthetic cabananoids and psilocybin.  Its packed full of the latest scientificresearch, exploring the myths and stigma that surround drug use and drug users. From the War on Drugs, to the current Opioid Crisis, it is an intelligent, witty and compellingread.  It would be a useful addition to the national curriculumand will be a book that will be well placed on all fashionable coffee tables around the UK.

Hello Suzi, thank you for joining us and agreeing to answer some questions.  We very much enjoyed reading ‘Say Why To Drugs’…

What was the purpose of the book?

I wanted to compile a lot of the disparate information about drugs and their effects into one place. It’s surprisingly hard to find all this information in one place, and it shouldn’t be, as it can be incredibly useful when trying to make informed decisions. And (in my opinion anyway) drugs are a fascinating topic. And I don’t think I’m alone in this, given how headlines about them abound and they appear in popular culture constantly. But along with the public fascination comes a huge amount of misinformation too. And so I really wanted to counter that as well.

What was your most interesting finding in the research you did?

There are so many! I found the book completely fascinating to write, and ended up going down loads of avenues I hadn’t predicted when I started writing. I interviewed a vet for the chapter on ketamine – I had no idea just how useful it was in both animal and human medicine! I read loads about the history of different substances, I’ve included bits of these in the book, and also at the back there are LOADS of references and recommended readings for people who want to explore that side more.

Have you ever taken drugs?  What was your experience?

It’s funny, as a drugs researcher I’m never sure what to say about my own experiences. I tend not to mention it as I think it’s a bit of a distraction. Either I’m ignorant because I don’t have experience, or I’m an advocate so my impartiality can be discredited.

Regarding stigma, do you think it’s lessening?  Are the public more aware of the causes of addiction?

In all honesty I’m not sure. I think there is still a lot of stigma, and we have a long way to go. There’s still a feeling among a lot of people that drug use is some sort of moral failing – which isn’t remotely based on any evidence, and becomes quite hypocritical once you consider socially-acceptable drugs like alcohol. And that isn’t to say that there’s no stigma for people with alcohol dependence. I do feel like the public conversation around drugs is improving, but there’s still work to be done.

What is the most ‘dangerous’ drug in your opinion?

At the moment, looking at deaths globally it’s still tobacco. But defining ‘dangerous’ is tricky – any drug becomes more or less dangerous depending on how, why and when you use it. And no drug use is without the risk of harm.

The research on CBD currently shows it to be ineffective and may be a placebo effect?  It’s a multi million pound industry, is it the new quack doctors panacea, elixir/tonic for ‘all that ails you’?

I find the rise of CBD completely fascinating. You are right, at the moment the evidence is thin on the ground, which doesn’t mean it doesn’t have potential. However, what you can buy in health food shops, or added in to your hummus or ice-cream are tiny tiny doses of CBD, far lower than those being used in any of the medical trials going on at the moment. At the moment the only really convincing evidence seems to be for the treatment of very specific types of childhood epilepsy.

There is a lot of interest in the use of Magic mushrooms and Psilocybin for mental ill health and addictionpresently.  Could it be detrimental?

This is a tricky one. There are really interesting experiments going on, which I talk about in the book. But it’s not simply a case of ‘take the drug, have the trip, feel better’, these psychedelic experiences are administered along with months of talking therapies. And at the moment the evidence isn’t conclusive. It’s also important to acknowledge that for some a psychedelic trip can bring painful emotional thoughts, feelings or memories to the surface, which could make someone feel worse. It’s not something to be considered outside of a trial, without the therapeutic support alongside it.

The Rat Park research demonstrated that rats in a happy environment with other rats and lots of toys wouldn’t self administer heroin from a drinking bottle as much as a rat in a cage on its own.  Was the research flawed?

I think they are an important group of studies, and that the idea that environment is really important in terms of risk of addiction is important to acknowledge. The concept of Rat Park is so intuitive that it makes a great story, but as is so often the way, if a story seems too perfect, ‘too good to be true’, then it probably is. The studies were very small, and the findings were much less extreme than is often described in media discussions of the study.

Your honesty in admitting that there is little known or not enough scientific evidence is refreshing, rather than a weakness in the book.  You obviously wrote it with integrity. 

Thank you! I think it’s really important to stick within what the evidence shows us. And because of the challenges inherent in conducting a lot of this research (as I describe in the book), that will inevitably mean there are lots we don’t know about!

You explore the myths and truths around drugs.. How can we help destigmatise addiction and those suffering from it?  Why do we need scapegoats and societal villains? 

I really hope we can de-stigmatise. I would like to see media guidelines for reporting about drugs in the same way there are around mental health/suicide. Language matters – and how we talk about issues around problematic drug use can influence how easy it is for struggling people to get help.

What’s next for you?  Another book?  And is your family fed up with the subject?  How do you relax?

I’m definitely keen to write another book. My research explores links between drug use and mental health, so that’s what I’m thinking at the moment, but watch this space. My family are brilliantly supportive. They’re the first people I thanked in the acknowledgments section of the book, and they are just awesome. I couldn’t have done this without them.

For me, I like to relax by reading – the best thing about finishing the book is I have been able to start tackling the pile of books that built up while I was busy writing. I also like to sit down at the piano and play – it’s my version of mindfulness, clears my head of the worries of the day. I like running, cycling and open water swimming too. 

Doesn’t that make me sound wholesome…? I also love going to gigs, the scuzzier the better.

‘Say Why To Drugs’ by Suzi Gage is out now

Hodder & Stoughton 2020