Ms. Vigdís Finnbogadóttir
An Address by Ms. Vigdís Finnbogadóttir
Distinguished Conference Guests
May I begin by expressing my admiration and gratitude that this conference has come to Iceland and thank you for inviting me to participate in a very vital discussion that concerns us all. We are increasingly realizing how much of a problem drugs are, and this problem is growing rather than decreasing.
For a long time Iceland was relatively free from drugs, and hard drugs were quite rare. But over the past decade or more we have seen, regrettably, that there are disadvantages as well as advantages to the fact that our former geographical isolation has been broken. All the same, Iceland is small enough community that it could with some optimism launch a programme several years ago aimed at creating a drug-free Iceland around the present time. While this noble aim will clearly not be achieved, we must not despair by abandoning this ideal and this goal. Awareness is our strongest weapon in the battle against drug abuse, and complacency and indifference are mistakes which we cannot afford to make.
Our main approach for trying to change course that these events are taking is not to judge, but appeal to wisdom and intelligence, and find ways to call out so loud that people notice - and hesitate - before they start taking drugs.
What is the best thing that any nation has, - any community? Of course it is its people. We sometimes talk these days about human resources, and although that term is a little impersonal or businesslike, (everything is business nowadays…) it does make us think of each individual's usefulness and potential - what everyone can become capable of through intelligence and know-how. It is always a tragedy, both for the person concerned and for the community as a whole, when human potential goes unrealized, resources go unfulfilled, lives are wasted. We see this most blatantly in warfare, but it also takes place in this other war which is invisible. Politicians often talk about the war on drugs, but in fact it is the other way round: drugs and drug dealers have declared war on our society. Innocent victims are exposed to a horrific fate, just because people with no sense of values or conscience see this as a way of making money.
Let us imagine a drug dealer whose loved ones and family fell victim to drugs too. Could he really accept this? It is almost incomprehensible how such hypocrisy can still be found in our day and age which likes to think of itself as ethical and enlightened.
Most of us, I think, regard "addiction" as a medical term. I was therefore surprised to come across a very revealing definition of what "addiction" originally meant. In Latin, the word "addictus" was used of a citizen of ancient Rome who had built up debts that could not be repaid and was therefore delivered by the courts into slavery under his creditor. This is precisely the relationship between drug addict and drug dealer today. Even in a relatively peaceful society such as Iceland, we hear stories about the appalling violence connected with drug debts and their collection. The threat of being maimed or even murdered adds a double horror to the hopeless psychological situation in which many drug addicts find themselves.
Addiction, then, originally meant slavery, and it still does today. That sounds a long way removed from the "recreational drugs" which casual users are said to experiment with. Essentially, that term puts them on the same level as entertainment, but can be misleading, since the outcome is often not the freedom that leisure should bring, but rather imprisonment - not real physical imprisonment, but personal captivity. I am certain that no one starts using drugs from a desire or determination to be a slave to them. No one deliberately sets out to become a junkie. What people are looking for is an escape, which should mean freedom, but they fail to realize or accept the consequences.
So why do people start taking drugs? We hear arguments about individual psychological or biological tendencies, but society itself must take some of the blame too. Society puts young people today under enormous pressure to conform to norms over which they have no control. People hardly have the peace or the time any more to be alone with their thoughts, alone with themselves. But the terrible truth is that a person on drugs is more painfully alone with himself than we can possibly imagine, with no one else to rely upon or look to for support than his own helpless, confused, desperate and very weak self.
Globalization, the world of fashion, the market forces that manipulate young people - these are highly intolerant towards those who fail to meet the impersonal standards they set. They present young people with images to conform to, preferably if you buy all the required goods to look that way, but then you look in the mirror and see that, in spite of everything, you still don't fit the pattern. Of course I am not saying that this is what makes people turn to drugs, but merely that it is so easy today to lose sight of the real values in life. Idealistic experimenters with drugs in the 1950s and 1960s used the term "altered consciousness" to describe what they were seeking - but the difference between altered consciousness and the altered appearance that the modern age demands is perhaps very slight indeed. Can we really expect every day to be a party? There is really no such thing as a party if the party never ends and everyday reality never takes over.
Drugs are an escape from reality. At one level they can be simple escapism - seeking to find a reality that is better than the one all around us, which perhaps rejects us or finds fault with us. But to think that a better reality can be induced artificially with no mental effort on the part of the drug taker perhaps shows how seriously our consumer society has distorted our sense of values. I mentioned before that escape should mean freedom. Freedom from what? I would say that the freedom from drugs is a basic human right, just as it is a basic human right to be free from being murdered. This is also a question of education, knowledge and wisdom, the three roots of human well-being. I believe that all citizens have the right to freedom from people who want to enslave them, especially when they are so young that they have not had the time or reached the maturity to acquire education, knowledge and wisdom, and thereby chose for themselves.
I would venture to suggest that the best way to prevent drug abuse is to teach it early. Some people might be worried that telling infants about the problems of drug addiction would make them curious about trying drugs, but I do not think this would be the case. Anti-smoking campaigns have been particularly successful in schools when they try to make smokers look silly or "not cool," instead of frightening people about the dangers. We can try to put across the message that drug-taking is a sign of weakness of character rather than something tough, that drug users are "losers", and also that they hurt not only themselves but their nearest and dearest as well.
We can appeal to concepts such as "stay in control," "don't lose control over yourself," "take control of your own life" - something positive and inspiring without sounding like an order from parents or teachers.
I keep talking about how "we" can do this and that, but above all I am referring to you, young people. I had the privilege and pleasure to meet with the Youth Forum of this conference yesterday. As usual my faith in young people strengthened. Youth has regularly to be told and retold that we the elder admire them and believe in them. I am particularly impressed by the positive response that students in Iceland have shown to an awareness campaign known as "Jafningjafræðsla" organized by people of their own age, many of whom have personally fallen victim to drug abuse. I have heard that it is a particularly effective deterrent for youngsters to find out about the personal experience that people just like themselves have gone through, rather than hearing words of warning from authority figures. After all, many people start using drugs to compensate for lack of personal contact, and personal contact seems to be the best way of preventing others from treading that precarious path.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
I am told that specialists in many countries are impressed by how much research we Icelanders have done and how much statistical information we have concerning drug abuse in our country which can serve as guidelines elsewhere; - how all this can be linked with defined factors in our society, such as parents not spending enough time with their children, the pattern of night-life that young people are given freedom to adopt at an early age and the decisive influence of their peer-groups. Linked also to the ruthlessness of the drugdealers and how organized they are in getting hold of an increasing number of customers, i.e. victims of a savagely cruel crime. I also know that there is a group of people with a know-how in Iceland with an ambition that our country could take the initiative to bring here together leading experts, celebrities and young people from different countries to raise the flag in defence of the youth of the world.
In the meantime, ladies and gentlemen, I wish you rewarding deliberations - and that your voices may be heard widely in your countries after your stay in the awakening spring in Iceland.