“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.” That’s the conclusion that Johann Hari came to while writing his new book, Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.
Nations, particularly the United States, have been prosecuting and locking up people who struggle with drug addictions for a century now. Not only has the approach not worked, it misses the whole point of what is driving addiction in the first place, the author argues.
“Human beings are bonding animals. We need to connect and love,” Hari writes in an article he penned for Huffington Post. “But we have created an environment and a culture that cut us off from connection, or offer only the parody of it offered by the Internet. The rise of addiction is a symptom of a deeper sickness in the way we live — constantly directing our gaze towards the next shiny object we should buy, rather than the human beings all around us.”
The role that a lack of connection plays on addictions is well illustrated through a variation on an experiment made famous by the Partnership for a Drug Free America. In the original version of the experiment, rats were given a choice between normal water and water laced with cocaine or heroin. The rats almost invariably chose the later, and then drank and drank until they eventually died. The study was used as an example of the dangers of drugs and their addictive properties.
However, psychologist Bruce Alexander recreated the experiment, only instead of isolating individual rats in a cage with no stimulation, he made the drug-laced water available to rats living together in a larger cage with plenty of toys and other things to occupy them.
“The compulsive drug use of these animals has been shown to be an artifact of the radically isolated conditions of the standard experimental situation,” Alexander said in a speech about his work. “Socially housed animals have little trouble resisting ‘addictive drugs.’”
What’s more, when Alexander tried the experiment with isolated rats again, they showed the typical signs of over-consumption and addiction, but they stopped as soon as they were returned to the cage with their companions.
Addictions aren’t limited to just substances like opiates and alcohol, either. Many people become addicted to other pursuits like gambling and sex.
“You can have all the addiction, and none of the chemical hooks,” Hari writes. “Nobody thinks you inject a pack of cards into your veins.”
Of course, the chemicals implicated in substance abuse do play some role in addiction by breeding physical dependence. However, Hari points out, consider the case of cigarettes: Only 17.7 percent of smokers are able to quit using a nicotine patch, which supplies the chemical hook that is supposedly at the root of dependence and addiction. Clearly, there are other factors at work.
“I define addiction as any behavior that has negative consequences, that one is compelled to persist in, and relapse into and crave, despite those negative consequences,” said Dr. Gabor Maté, an addiction specialist who practices in Canada, in a video about his work.
“The addictive personality is someone with the sense of deficient emptiness, with the sense of inchoate distress, without the capacity to sooth themselves and regulate themselves without that external source of relief.”
Hari’s findings are yet another strike against the misguided and failed U.S. War on Drugs. Not only has attempting to deal with addiction through the criminal justice system caused vast amounts of unnecessary and counterproductive human suffering, the very premise of drug laws, that you can fight addiction by outlawing the chemicals involved with it, are rendered absurd.
In fact, Hari notes, the marginalization, stigmatization, violence and isolation that result from prosecuting drug users only make the root causes of addiction worse.
There are other options. In Portugal, for example, instead of jailing people addicted to drugs, the state in 2001 decided to provide them housing, jobs, treatment and other support. Now, according to a study published in the British Journal of Criminology, intravenous drug use has dropped by half.
“Contrary to predictions, the Portuguese decriminalization did not lead to major increases in drug use,” the study states. “Indeed, evidence indicates reductions in problematic use, drug-related harms and criminal justice overcrowding.”
A better solution than criminalization, Hari suggests, is love. “For a century now, we have been singing war songs about addicts,” he writes. “We should have been singing love songs to them all along.”