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Addiction Talk

We’re talking far too much about addiction these days. How we talk about this thing called “addiction” has been radically transformed into something well beyond the simple fact of an individual using drugs.

Addiction has become an abstraction. Hollywood shows us the junkie shooting up in the alley or the nasty drug dealer as a portrait of the dark side of life. Law enforcement sees itself as the white knight astride the white horse at war with forces of addiction. Former Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, was more than willing to pervert logic and science in his crusade against addiction. Growing marijuana in the US earns more severe prison sentences than rape. Extreme language is attached to drugs: Mothers Against Drunk Driving calls a DUI a “violent crime,” and posters featuring a skull and crossbones warn “Meth is Death.” A former mayor of Maple Ridge, BC, suggested that if there were no crystal meth addicts in his city, there would be virtually no crime.

Psychologists have noted that we give drugs “agency” – a term we use in psychology that includes the ability to initiate and carry out action as if a chemical were a person. And some chemicals have greater agency than others. It makes sense to us when a woman in pain who was prescribed oxycodone falls victim to addiction.

When drug use is framed so simplistically, individual human beings are no longer part of the discussion. Addiction has become an abstraction, a symbol for the destruction of our way of life, a conspiracy against all things good and decent.

In this blog, we’ll examine some of these vague and abstract ideas to see if we need to confirm, abandon, or radically reinterpret them.  

Is Addiction in the Drug?

So often we hear that certain chemicals we call drugs are so powerful that they can control a human being. This is the popular idea that addiction is in the drug, not in the person. Some drugs are more powerful than others. A newspaper article picked up by several western news outlets in 2004 stated that 96% of those who used crystal methamphetamine twice would become addicted to it.

Giving crystal meth such power is, of course, nonsense, but it reflected the popular idea a decade ago that crystal meth had some magical power to addict anyone who used it. Today, narcotic drugs, such as oxycodone and heroin, are held up to be so addictive that anyone using them is in real danger of addiction.

These stories don’t match up with the scientific evidence. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse—the biggest drug research institute in the world—explained, “Everyone given an opiate … will become physically dependent, but not everyone will become an addict.” Volkow points out that physical dependence on a drug does not equal addiction. And we have to remember that there are drugs, such as cocaine and LSD, that are not physically addictive.

According to neuroscientist James Kalat, addiction is not in the drug. It’s in the person. This is why, for example, most people who drink alcohol do not become addicted to it. With the legalization of marijuana in several places, we now know that most people who use marijuana do not become addicted to it. And neuroscientist Carl Hart tells us that the scientific research confirms this is true of all drugs.

Is Everyone who Uses a Non-prescribed or Illicit Drug an Addict?

When learning that someone used speed or coke or heroin, most people seem to believe that the person is an addict. The drug user can’t help it, because drugs are so powerful the individual has no choice.

There’s lots of empirical evidence that shows non-addicts use illegal or non-prescribed drugs. We know that most of the people attending rave dances, for instance, are not addicted to substances. Still, they use ecstasy or crystal meth or other drugs at the dance. We know from the photos of supermodel Kate Moss using cocaine that fashion models used (and some continue to use) cocaine to stay awake and to maintain their weight. We know from insider accounts that cocaine is a staple at Hollywood parties. We know that many students and truck drivers use stimulant drugs to keep working.

One of my colleagues pointed out that a “drug” is far more exciting than alcohol. A decade ago, everyone seemed to get excited about crystal meth. You can’t do that with alcohol. It’s too boring. “Alcohol is death!” would never fly.

Are Drugs the Cause of our Social Problems?

An alien listening in on our media would likely believe that these things called drugs are responsible for most of the car accidents, crime, and social problems. Most schools have adopted a policy of zero tolerance for drugs, because of the horrifying effect of those chemicals on non-adults. When the US doubled its prison population beginning in the 1980s, the vast majority of inmates were convicted of drug-related crimes. American authorities apparently believed that most identity thefts are committed by those addicted to crystal meth. And those real-life cop shows seem to be fixated on drug users and dealers.

Of course, three’s a great benefit in raising drugs to the level of the enemy. When we look at drugs as the problem, it lets you and me off the hook. It’s as if we say that our society is great just as it is, but those damn drugs are screwing up everything. Much harder to consider that, perhaps, society isn’t as great as we pretend it is.

Johann Hari has expressed what many addiction experts have concluded. Our society is the problem, not drugs. Hari blames addiction on our obsession with prohibition. We’ve developed a habit of banning substances we don’t want others to use, usually the poor and uneducated by the way. When society made drugs illegal, Hari pointed out all sorts of problems appeared that weren’t there before when people used drugs.

Are More People Using Drugs now Than in Past Societies?

If you listen to all the talk on drugs, you’d likely get the idea that more people are getting intoxicated today than in any time in history.

Research suggests the opposite. Before sanitation, for example, those who drank the local water pretty much guaranteed themselves a bout of nausea, diarrhea, and fever. So they drank fermented beverages. In fact, the ancient Sumerians reserved 40% of their grain for fermentation. We have records of drug use dating back thousands of years. It seems that every society we know about uses drugs, with the exception of the Inuit before white people arrived up North. In fact, addiction researchers have suggested that we might better understand chronic drug use if we recognized that we have a “substance-rich past,” not a substance-free one.

Some have even wondered whether all the hoop-la about drug use has more to do with the news media, Hollywood, and the war on drugs than it does with reality.

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