We’ve got addiction all wrong

So, as mentioned, I’m reading a terrific book on the War on Drugs called Chasing the Scream by Johan Hari.  As evil and stupid as I already thought the war on drugs to be, I know realize it is even far more evil and stupid than I had already realized.  I truly think 100 years from now, society will look back on this with a “what the hell where people thinking?!”  Among the most compelling sections of the book is on the science of addiction and how our basic models of addiction seem to be largely wrong.  It’s not that drugs ruin lives (they do), but that people with ruined lives turn to drugs.  The vast majority of people who use most drugs– including opiates– never become addicted.  That should tell us something, but we cling to this model of purely physical addiction.  (Now, go and read that Rat Park comic I linked in quick hits).  Hari has a nice piece at HuffPo summarizing all the evidence on addiction.  Well worth your time to read:

If you still believe — as I used to — that addiction is caused by chemical hooks, this makes no sense. But if you believe Bruce Alexander’s theory, the picture falls into place. The street-addict is like the rats in the first cage, isolated, alone, with only one source of solace to turn to. The medical patient is like the rats in the second cage. She is going home to a life where she is surrounded by the people she loves. The drug is the same, but the environment is different.

This gives us an insight that goes much deeper than the need to understand addicts. Professor Peter Cohen argues that human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It’s how we get our satisfaction. If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find — the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe. He says we should stop talking about ‘addiction’ altogether, and instead call it ‘bonding.’ A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn’t bond as fully with anything else.

So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection…

But the Office of the Surgeon General has found that just 17.7 percent of cigarette smokers are able to stop using nicotine patches. That’s not nothing. If the chemicals drive 17.7 percent of addiction, as this shows, that’s still millions of lives ruined globally. But what it reveals again is that the story we have been taught about The Cause of Addiction lying with chemical hooks is, in fact, real, but only a minor part of a much bigger picture.

This has huge implications for the one-hundred-year-old war on drugs. This massive war — which, as I saw, kills people from the malls of Mexico to the streets of Liverpool — is based on the claim that we need to physically eradicate a whole array of chemicals because they hijack people’s brains and cause addiction. But if drugs aren’t the driver of addiction — if, in fact, it is disconnection that drives addiction — then this makes no sense.

Ironically, the war on drugs actually increases all those larger drivers of addiction. For example, I went to a prison in Arizona — ‘Tent City’ — where inmates are detained in tiny stone isolation cages (‘The Hole’) for weeks and weeks on end to punish them for drug use. It is as close to a human recreation of the cages that guaranteed deadly addiction in rats as I can imagine. And when those prisoners get out, they will be unemployable because of their criminal record — guaranteeing they with be cut off even more. I watched this playing out in the human stories I met across the world.

Great stuff.  And huge implications for how we think about what we do with drugs.  Also, a nice TED talk on the matter if you are so inclined.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

One Response to We’ve got addiction all wrong

  1. John F. says:

    Just imagine all the other implications this has on relationships, family, and society beyond drug addiction. This realization is truly mind altering.

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