Why We’re Losing The War On Drugs

How can understanding the root cause of addiction help to see the flawed strategy of the War on Drugs?

“There is no war on drugs because you cannot have a war against inanimate objects. There is only war on drug addicts. Which means we are warring on the most abused and vulnerable segments of the population.” – Dr Gabor Maté

The War on Drugs has raged since the 1960s under a belief that shaming and punishing addicts would incentivize them to stop using drugs. Fast forward half a century and epidemic of addiction has only gotten worse at incredible cost to our society’s mental health. Why did we implement such a terrible policy? What was the science that supported this policy and how was it flawed? And what can we actually do as a society to truly help addicts recover? These are some of the questions that this video, featuring Johann Hari, answer. In 8 minutes, you’ll have a whole new perspective on the War on Drugs and how what we can really do to solve the issues so many of us face in our personal lives.

One of my earliest memories is of trying to wake up one of my relatives and not being able to. And I was just a little kid, so I didn’t really understand why, but as I got older, I realized we had drug addiction in my family.

It’s now exactly 100 years since drugs were first banned in the United States and Britain, and we then imposed that on the rest of the world. It’s a century since we made this really fateful decision to take addicts and punish them and make them suffer, because we believed that would deter them; it would give them an incentive to stop. 

Almost everything we think we know about addiction is wrong, and if we start to absorb the new evidence about addiction, I think we’re going to have to change a lot more than our drug policies. 

Imagine all of you, for 20 days now, went off and used heroin three times a day. Now, we have a story about what would happen that we’ve been told for a century. We think, because there are chemical hooks in heroin, as you took it for a while, your body would become dependent on those hooks, you’d start to physically need them, and at the end of those 20 days, you’d all be heroin addicts. There’s something not right with this story.

If I step out and I get hit by a car and I break my hip, I’ll be taken to hospital and I’ll be given loads of diamorphine. Diamorphine is heroin. And you’ll be given it for quite a long period of time. And if what we believe about addiction is right — those people are exposed to all those chemical hooks — What should happen? They should become addicts. This has been studied really carefully. It doesn’t happen; you will have noticed if your grandmother had a hip replacement, she didn’t come out as a junkie. 

The idea of addiction we’ve all got in our heads, that story, comes partly from a series of experiments that were done earlier in the 20th century. You get a rat and you put it in a cage, and you give it two water bottles: One is just water, and the other is water laced with either heroin or cocaine. If you do that, the rat will almost always prefer the drug water and almost always kill itself quite quickly. In the ’70s, Professor Alexander noticed we’re putting the rat in an empty cage. It’s got nothing to do except use these drugs. Let’s try something different. So Professor Alexander built a cage that he called “Rat Park,” which is basically heaven for rats. They’ve got loads of cheese, they’ve got loads of colored balls, they’ve got loads of tunnels. Crucially, they’ve got loads of friends. And they’ve got both the water bottles, the normal water and the drugged water. But here’s the fascinating thing: In Rat Park, they don’t like the drug water. They almost never use it. None of them ever use it compulsively. None of them ever overdose. You go from almost 100 percent overdose when they’re isolated to zero percent overdose when they have happy and connected lives. 

What if addiction isn’t about your chemical hooks? What if addiction is about your cage? What if addiction is an adaptation to your environment? 

Human beings have a natural and innate need to bond, and when we’re happy and healthy, we’ll bond and connect with each other, but if you can’t do that, because you’re traumatized or isolated or beaten down by life, you will bond with something that will give you some sense of relief. Now, that might be gambling, that might be pornography, that might be cocaine, that might be cannabis, but you will bond and connect with something because that’s our nature. That’s what we want as human beings. 

Now, this has really significant implications. The most obvious implications are for the War on Drugs. In Arizona, I went out with a group of women who were made to wear t-shirts saying, “I was a drug addict,” and go out on chain gangs and dig graves while members of the public jeer at them. Now, that’s a very extreme example, but actually almost everywhere in the world we treat addicts to some degree like that. We punish them. We shame them. We give them criminal records. We put barriers between them reconnecting. 

Now, there’s a place that decided to do the exact opposite. In the year 2000, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe. One percent of the population was addicted to heroin, and every year, they tried the American way more and more. They punished people and stigmatized them and shamed them more, and every year, the problem got worse. And one day, the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition got together, and set up a panel of scientists and doctors to figure out what would genuinely solve the problem. And they came back and they said, “Decriminalize all drugs from cannabis to crack, but” — and this is the crucial next step — “take all the money we used to spend on cutting addicts off, on disconnecting them, and spend it instead on reconnecting them with society.” The biggest thing they did was the complete opposite of what we do: a massive program of job creation for addicts, and microloans for addicts to set up small businesses. The goal was to make sure that every addict in Portugal had something to get out of bed for in the morning. And when I went and met the addicts in Portugal, what they said is, as they rediscovered purpose, they rediscovered bonds and relationships with the wider society. It’ll be 15 years this year since that experiment began, and the results are in: injecting drug use is down in Portugal by 50 percent.

I’ve been talking about how disconnection is a major driver of addiction and weird to say it’s growing, because you think we’re the most connected society that’s ever been, surely. But I increasingly began to think that the connections we think we have, are like a kind of parody of human connection. There’s a study I learned about that I think tells us a lot about this. It looked at the number of close friends the average American believes they can call on in a crisis. That number has been declining steadily since the 1950s. The amount of floor space an individual has in their home has been steadily increasing, and I think that’s like a metaphor for the choice we’ve made as a culture. We’ve traded floorspace for friends, we’ve traded stuff for connections, and the result is we are one of the loneliest societies there has ever been.

We talk all the time in addiction about individual recovery, and it’s right to talk about that, but we need to talk much more about social recovery. Something’s gone wrong with us, not just with individuals but as a group, and we’ve created a society where, for a lot of us, life looks a whole lot more like that isolated cage and a whole lot less like Rat Park. 

For 100 years now, we’ve been singing war songs about addicts. I think all along we should have been singing love songs to them, because the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection. 

Music:

  • “Raising Expectations” – Evan MacDonald
  • “Iles” – Jordan Critz
  • “Luv” – Little Red Church
  • “Reflection Point” – Justin

 

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