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Aleem writes: "What if everything about the way we thought about drug addiction was backwards? What if the war on drugs was the purest distillation of this backward thinking?"

Billie Holiday. (photo: Fulton Archive/Getty Images)
Billie Holiday. (photo: Fulton Archive/Getty Images)


Everything You Think You Know About Addiction and the War on Drugs Is Wrong

By Zeeshan Aleem, Policy.Mic

19 February 15

 

hat if everything about the way we thought about drug addiction was backwards? What if the war on drugs was the purest distillation of this backward thinking?

Those are the questions that animate Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, a new book by journalist Johann Hari that's brimming with shocking findings about the origins and misadventures of America's century-long war on drugs.

Hari, whose own family members dealt with serious drug addiction during his youth, recently embarked on a three-year journey through nine countries to establish why drug addiction is so misunderstood throughout the world — and what can be done to correct that misunderstanding.

He recently wrote about the ideas in his book for the Huffington Post in a widely read piece titled "The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think." Hari discussed how he thinks that the roots of addiction aren't moral failure or physiological compulsion, but rather an existential thirst for connection.

Mic sat down with Hari to hear more about the implications of his findings.

Billie Holiday in 1958. (photo: Associated Press)
Johann Hari, author and journalist (photo: Johann Hari)

Mic: Tell us about your research on the likely causes of drug addiction and why popular attitudes toward it are misguided.

Johann Hari: If you asked me four years ago, "What causes heroin addiction?" I would have looked at you as if you were simple-minded. I would have said, "Well, heroin causes heroin addiction." It's obvious. We've been told this story about addiction for a century now that's so deeply ingrained in our consciousness it seems like common sense.

We think that if you and me and the next 20 people to walk past this cafe all used heroin together, on day 21 we'd all be heroin addicts, because there are chemical hooks in heroin and our body would physically need those chemical hooks by the end of it, and that's what addiction is. It turns out that's not really the case.

A doctor in Vancouver explained it to me like this: If you and I step out into the street and you get hit by a car and break your hip, when you're taken to a hospital, it's very likely you'll be given a lot of diamorphine. Diamorphine is heroin. It's much better heroin than you'll ever score on the streets — it's medically pure. They've been giving it for quite a long period of time; it's happening in every hospital all over America.

If what we believe about addiction is right, what should happen? Those people should leave the hospital as addicts, right? That virtually never happens. That alerted me to the fact that something is not right about the story we've been told, but I couldn't quite figure it out — until I met an incredible professor named Bruce Alexander. He explained to me that our idea of addiction comes from a series of experiments conducted early in the 20th century.

They were really simple experiments. A rat would be placed in a cage and given two water bottles: one containing only water and one containing water that was laced with heroin or cocaine. The rat almost always preferred the drug water and almost always killed itself within a few hours. So there you go — that's our theory of addiction.

Bruce came along in the 1970s and said, Hang on a minute, we're putting the rat in an empty cage. He's got nothing to do, except use the drug water. Let's do this differently.

So Bruce built Rat Park. Rat Park was heaven for rats. Anything a rat could want, it got in Rat Park. It had lovely food, colored walls, tunnels to scamper down, other rats to have sex with. And they had access to both water bottles — the drug water and the normal water.

Aerial view of Rat Park (photo: Bruce Alexander)
Aerial view of Rat Park (photo: Bruce Alexander)

What's fascinating is that in Rat Park, they didn't like the drug water. They hardly ever used it. They only used it in low doses, none of them ever overdose and none used it in a way that looked compulsive or addictive.

What Bruce says is that this shows us that both the right-wing and left-wing theories of addiction are wrong. The right-wing theory of addiction is that it's a moral failing and hedonist. The left-wing theory is that you get taken over, your brain is hijacked. Bruce says, It's not your morality, it's not your brain — it's your cage. Addiction is an adaptation to your environment. Human beings need to connect, and when we can't connect with each other, because we're traumatized or beaten down or cut off, we will connect with something that will give us some sense of relief or pleasure. If you can't bond with people, you will obsessively bond with something that gives you some sense of purpose.

Mic: What are the implications of the Rat Park experiment for addiction and the war on drugs?

JH: The war on drugs is built on the idea that the chemicals are the problem. Once you realize that disconnection and isolation are the drivers of addiction, you suddenly realize that what we do actually makes addiction worse. We take addicts who are addicted because they're isolated and suffering, isolate them in prison cells and make it impossible for them to get jobs when they leave, and inflict more pain and suffering on them. As the doctor from Vancouver said to me, if you wanted to create a system that would make addiction worse, you would create the system that we have.

I went in Arizona to a prison called Tent City, where I went out with women who were forced to go out on a chain gang wearing t-shirts saying "I was a drug addict." When I went to the isolation unit where they're kept, they're literally put in a cell that that makes you think, "This the closest you could get to a human reenactment of the rat cage that guaranteed addiction — the one in the first set of experiments."

Mic: Many Americans think of the war on drugs as something that began under the Nixon administration and escalated under Reagan, whose presidency marked the beginning of a massive expansion of the prison population. But your book describes how that war began far earlier.

JH: Two global wars begin in 1914. One lasted four years, and one is still going. The one that's still going is obviously the drug war. Drugs were banned in the U.S. in 1914, which means they were transferred from being controlled by doctors and pharmacists, which worked pretty well, to being controlled by armed criminal gangs, a model that isn't working out so well.

If you ask, "Why were drugs banned?" I would guess that most people would say that they were banned for the same reasons we give them for banning them now. We don't want people to become addicted, we don't want kids to use them. That kind of thing.

But those barely come up if you study the time period. Drugs were banned in the United States in the middle of a race panic. There was a belief — which was obviously wrong — that African-Americans and Chinese-Americans were taking drugs, forgetting their place and attacking white people.

The way I tell this in the book primarily is through the story of Billie Holiday, and how she was stalked and killed by the man who launched the war on drugs. In 1939, not that far from where we are right now, Billie Holiday climbed onstage and sang the song "Strange Fruit," a song against lynching. It was incredibly shocking at the time.

Billie Holiday in 1958. (photo: Associated Press)
Billie Holiday in 1958. (photo: Associated Press)

That night, she was told by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics to stop singing that song. The bureau was run by a crazed racist named Harry Anslinger, a man who was regarded as a crazed racist even by other crazed racists of the 1930s. He used the N-word so often that his own senator said in an official memo that he should have to resign.

Holiday grew up in segregated Baltimore, and she promised herself that she would never bow her head to any white man. She effectively said, Screw you, I'm going to carry on singing my song. And that's when Anslinger decides to have agents stalk her. He has her sent in prison in 1947, and when she gets out, he makes it almost impossible for her to sing anywhere, because she needs a license to perform anywhere alcohol was served, and that was denied to her.

When she collapsed with liver cancer in her early 40s in 1959 and was taken to the hospital, the agents handcuffed her to the bed. They didn't let people see her, they took away her flowers and candies and she went into withdrawal. One of her friends insisted she be given methadone, and she started to recover. But 10 days later, they cut off her methadone and she died. One of her friends told the BBC that she looked like she'd been violently wrenched from life.

Mic: For many, the notion of drug abuse as a moral deficiency that must be fought in absolutist terms is quintessentially American. But in fact, before drugs were banned in 1914, and even in the immediate aftermath of the ban, Americans had a far more measured response to addiction.

JH: Drugs were not banned without a massive fight, and without huge numbers of people pointing out accurately what the drug war would mean for people. The ban was fiercely resisted by some of the most popular and prestigious people in the United States.

Until 1914, drugs were legal everywhere in the world. You could go to your local store and buy opiates, mostly in liquid form, and cocaine-based products. Coca-Cola really did contain the same extracts as cocaine, albeit a small amount. The vast majority of addicts prior to criminalization were somewhat depleted but they had jobs, they had lives and they were no more likely to be poor than other Americans.

There was a deliberately written loophole in the law banning drugs in 1914, very deliberately written, which said this basically doesn't apply to addicts. Addicts should be able to get their drugs from their doctors. A number of doctors used this loophole to continue giving heroin to addicts after the ban, because they thought it was better that they get the drug from them than from criminal gangs who mark up the prices enormously and sell unregulated product.

But under Anslinger, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics led a massive round-up of doctors across the U.S., arresting something like 17,000 in a huge sweep. Doctors really resisted this, as did some politicians. The mayor of Los Angeles came out saying, in effect, You will not shut down this clinic. It's good for L.A.

Harry J. Anslinger announces a series of raids in the nation's big cities aimed at crippling the narcotics traffic in New York on January 4, 1958. (photo: Associated Press)
Harry J. Anslinger announces a series of raids in the nation's big cities aimed at crippling the narcotics traffic
in New York on January 4, 1958. (photo: Associated Press)

Mic: If the war on drugs is futile, what are the alternatives?

JH: It's important to understand this is not an abstract or a theoretical question. There are societies that have moved beyond the war on drugs.

In the year 2000, Portugal had one of the worst drug populations in Europe. One percent of the population was addicted to heroin, which is mind-blowing. Every year they tried the American way, and every year the problem got worse. One day the prime minister and the leader of the opposition got together and realized they couldn't go on like this. So they set up a scientific panel of doctors, scientists and judges, and they agreed in advance that they would try whatever that panel recommended they would do, and just took it out of politics.

The panel said: Decriminalize everything, from cannabis to crack. Take all the money we currently spend on arresting, trying and imprisoning drug addicts and spend it on really good drug treatment. It's not drug treatment the way we normally think of it — some of it is, but not most of it. It's drug treatment that learns the lesson of Rat Park. Portugal's system is predominantly about reconnecting addicts to society.

Portuguese decriminalization was an effort to make sure that every addict in Portugal had a reason to wake up in the morning. The biggest part of the program included subsidized jobs or micro-loans for addicts. Say you used to be a mechanic, and became a smack addict. The government, when you're ready, will go to a garage and say, If you employ this guy for a year, we'll pay half his wages. They made it really easy to give addicts jobs — the exact opposite of what we do, which is make it extremely hard for addicts to get jobs.

It's been nearly 15 years in Portugal, and the results are in. Injecting drug use is down by 50%. Every study shows broader addiction is down. Overdoses are massively down. HIV transmission is massively down. And one of the ways you know it's been successful is that almost nobody wants to go back.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. You can learn more about Johann Hari's book Chasing the Scream here.

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-95 # Firebird 2015-02-19 18:32
Anybody that knows anything at all about drug abuse knows how unbelievably stupid this story is.
 
 
+98 # Majikman 2015-02-19 23:13
Anybody who knows anything at all about drug abuse/addiction knows how unbelievably stupid your comment is.
 
 
+25 # Merlin 2015-02-20 05:41
Hello troll (aka Firebird),
May I suggest that you follow the advice of my drill sergeant in basic training? Get your head out of your soft warm place!
 
 
+22 # jon 2015-02-20 09:33
Republicans are incapable of ever admitting they were wrong about anything. It is a congenital defect.
 
 
+8 # reiverpacific 2015-02-20 13:14
Quoting Firebird:
Anybody that knows anything at all about drug abuse knows how unbelievably stupid this story is.


You seem like one of these Calvinist twits who get up in the morning and declare "Ah' it's a beautiful morning. We'll bloody well pay for this!"
Take da stick out and breathe free!
 
 
+48 # Anarkismo 2015-02-19 23:24
I was expecting to be writing a negative comment after reading the headline but I have to agree with most of his assessments. Everyone I associate with are recovering addicts. This has been my life for 38 years now. Most of my friends in recovery express having felt different than their peers growing up. It's been described as not being a part of the social structure.
When we come together suddenly we ARE a part of each other and most of us learn how to transfer the feeling of being a part of into our lives outside the group.
The original thought that we were somehow inadequate that precipitated our dependence on mind altering substances, gradually disappears as we experience a life free from that bondage.
Thanks for the article, people do deserve a better alternative for addiction than imprisonment. We do all we can, and there are wonderful stories of lives being not just saved but transformed into something unrecognizable from the past.
 
 
+18 # jcdav 2015-02-20 08:11
One of the goals of recovery a'la 12 step programs is to reintegrate the addict back into society...this article is very accurate and informative...t he economics of street drugs wields much power ...perhaps involving the government at the top of the chain...the current system serves those at the top very well, thank you.
 
 
+32 # Majikman 2015-02-19 23:50
The Vancouver MD the writer refers to is Dr. Gabor Mate. His astounding book "In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts" outlines his ground breaking work in addiction. Dr. Mate has been interviewed many times on Democracy Now by Amy Goodman, and many of his lectures can be viewed on u-tube.
 
 
+32 # Merlin 2015-02-20 05:53
The undeniable proof is the Portugal study!

Can the US do that? Would the powers that be, want to?

Imagine a few things like these.

Can you imagine the CIA being stripped of its most potent weapon and the justification to invade other countries?

Can you imagine the jobs now supported by this farcical "War on a concept… er Drugs, going bye bye?

Can you imagine local law enforcement being stripped of its power and justification to brutalize people? They might actually have to work for, instead of against, The People who hired them. Yeah, I'm dreaming again.)

Lots to imagine… Add your own.
 
 
+17 # jcdav 2015-02-20 08:07
CIA might also loose a revenue stream---it was deeply inolved in opium/heroin traffic in Laos/Cambodia in the 1960-70's,,, perhaps in Central America's cocaine traffic in the 1980-90's, and just possibly in the Afgan opium trade today? What do YOU think?
 
 
+9 # ericlipps 2015-02-20 06:03
If to solve the drug problem we have to change the system under which we live, we're not going to solve the problem any time soon.
 
 
+13 # Bruce-Man-Do 2015-02-20 08:38
Quoting ericlipps:
If to solve the drug problem we have to change the system under which we live, we're not going to solve the problem any time soon.

It's not the whole system that needs to change to end America's failed drug war, it's just the drug laws and the people who make their money off perpetuating the misery our current laws inflict on us who have to get new jobs. The rest would happen almost automatically, as it did when Prohibition (of alcohol) ended. For example, the first year after repeal, the violent crime rate fell 65%. We allow treat alcoholics their self-respect and they can remain employed if they can control their addiction on their own or with their family's and society's support. If not, we have low-stigma rehab... it's not rocket science and could easily happen with other drugs now illegal, all of which are far less problematic than alcohol and less physically-addi ctive than nicotine.
We just have to give up our addiction to intolerance.
 
 
-4 # Linda 2015-02-20 09:37
I have always thought that the key to sobriety for drug addicts doesn't lie in these Methadone clinics that keep the cycle of addiction going. For the most part they are not given real therapy or help to find a job and become contributing members of society . I do think the 12 steps are a good way of life for anyone and applied as suggested in AA it can change a person's life .
I have always felt that if you give an addict a reason to get up in the morning they would feel better about themselves instead of handing them a disability check which is only making them feel worthless to society .
I really don't think it is a good idea though for a drug addict to mainly associate with other drug addicts outside of the group therapy and that is because if one slips back into drug use the other is bound to follow suit . I think they need to have the support and friendship of non drug addicts outside the group so they can see the difference in how a non addict thinks in comparison to an addict . Behavior modification is the key to right thinking !
 
 
+1 # Merlin 2015-02-20 10:13
Linda,
“Behavior modification is the key to right thinking !”

You have this totally backwards, if the concept would work at all. You must be a B.F. Skinner fan. Behavior modification is forcing change against a person’s desire to change. It creates anger not “right thinking.” It definitely does not create happiness. And what ever do you mean by the judgmental term “right thinking?” Who is the judge of that, and how do you define it.

The rest of your post is a bunch of opinionated statements of your beliefs, and are not worth commenting on.

Please do some reading and study on the subjects you comment on. Ignorance can be embarrassing.
 
 
+4 # Caliban 2015-02-20 11:32
Merlin--I think that by "behavior modification" Linda does not mean Skinnerian theory but rather the personal commitment to sobriety, perhaps through very accessible, effective, and free programs like NA (Narcotics Anonymous).

If so, it is not her "ignorance" that is embarrassing.
 
 
+2 # Merlin 2015-02-20 21:41
Caliban
A “personal commitment to sobriety” is a goal & totally different than the method you choose to gain that goal. The 12 step programs approach is but one method of getting to that goal. You can not equate the goal with the method.

These 12 step programs are successful for only a small minority of people who access them. They are not, as you believe, “effective.” The conventional MSM fantasy is that these programs do great work. They don’t. I gave one link, in a previous post, showing that. Here is another. A book by the psychologist Claude Steiner, called “Games Alcoholic’s Play.”

For what it is worth, I’ve been deeply involved in dealing with drug addiction. For just one problem, my 30 year old stepson committed suicide with booze. (I personally have no addiction problem.)

On “ignorance,” I meant whole post, not just her opinion on behavior modification. Almost all her opinionated statements, sentence by sentence, can easily be shown to be “off base,” as popular and lovely as they sound. For instance, people love to hear things like this:

“I think they need to have the support and friendship of non drug addicts outside the group so they can see the difference in how a non addict thinks in comparison to an addict.”

This sounds great and warms the heart, “so everybody cheers,” but it is simply untrue. Cure does not work that way. To say this is to show ignorance of psychology. The rest of her post does the same.
 
 
0 # Majikman 2015-02-21 01:39
Thank you, Merlin, excellent points. The only people who truly understand addicts are other addicts or professionals dealing with them. A non-addict may be sympathetic, but cannot-- by definition-- be empathetic as it implies a "been there, done that" understanding.
The causes and treatment of addiction are complex and heartbreaking for loved ones when treatment fails.
 
 
+2 # Anarkismo 2015-02-20 14:53
Quoting Linda:
I have always thought that the key to sobriety for drug addicts doesn't lie in these Methadone clinics that keep the cycle of addiction going. For the most part they are not given real therapy or help to find a job and become contributing members of society . I do think the 12 steps are a good way of life for anyone and applied as suggested in AA it can change a person's life .
I have always felt that if you give an addict a reason to get up in the morning they would feel better about themselves instead of handing them a disability check which is only making them feel worthless to society .
I really don't think it is a good idea though for a drug addict to mainly associate with other drug addicts outside of the group therapy and that is because if one slips back into drug use the other is bound to follow suit . I think they need to have the support and friendship of non drug addicts outside the group so they can see the difference in how a non addict thinks in comparison to an addict . Behavior modification is the key to right thinking !

The behavior modification programs I am familiar with are just the first phase of a lifelong practice.
We get people from those programs when they "graduate" and many of them make the transition from a controlled environment to being "really free" very well.
Just behavior modification on it's own will not keep a real addict or alcoholic from relapsing. There are few exceptions if any.
 
 
+2 # Merlin 2015-02-20 22:08
Anarkismo,
The behavior modification programs I am familiar with are just the first phase of a lifelong practice.

Just behavior modification on it's own will not keep a real addict or alcoholic from relapsing. There are few exceptions if any.

Well stated, I agree.

All addictions are a symptom, not a cause. It is relatively easy to treat and “control the addiction” but unless the person goes into the psychological cause that created the addiction, you have a “falling off the wagon” syndrome. It is relatively rare that a person has the guts to face their “psychological demons” and deal with them.

Thus the “changes” we see in addicted people certainly benefit society socially. (Fewer drunks and drug users to cause trouble.) People see the surface view of the “now upstanding citizen,” and believe he is “cured,” when in reality he is not.

The individual, inside himself, fights the addiction constantly. The only thing keeping him “on the wagon,” is the behavior modification he has forced himself to endure. When, or if, his emotional pain becomes greater than the modified behavior’s benefits, he is back on the stuff.

This is basic psychology, folks. And the truth hurts.
 
 
+4 # reiverpacific 2015-02-20 13:11
This country has obviously never learned a damn thing from the looney-phony, "Morality" based Volstead act, which merely encouraged criminal bootlegging, produced low-quality, lousy booze like Bathtub Gin and wine "Bricks" (Just add water and you have the worst drink in the World -Eddie Condon in "We called it Music").
Incidentally at that time, you could make and pass around massive, strong Spliffs (Gage) openly -the smokers were called "Vipers" in the parlance of the day and there is a whole litany of "Viper" tunes and songs in the Jazz repertoire ("Youse a Viper"; Stuff Smith. "Viper's Drag", Fats Waller just for two).
An unseen and -from my point of view- benefit of the organized Crime bootleg business was that they were the jazz musician's best employers; Capone and his sidekicks would close up one of the clubs he owned, buy the house -and musicians- drinks and dig the music ("It's hot an' it don't make ya blubber") and were very generous tippers.
It seems that wars on drugs, booze or anything else are wars on freedom and FUN!
And guess where the best customers of the despised Mexican drug cartels reside? And which agency does it's own share of cross-border commerce in the heavy stuff (begins with "C")?
Let's do away with the word "Morality" and replace it with "Control mechanism".

"And of't as Wine has play'd the Infidel
And robb'd me of my Robe of honor, well:
I often wonder what the Vintner buys
is half so precious as the Goods he sells"
A wise Persian.
 
 
+5 # Billsy 2015-02-20 14:26
The wisest & most compassionate of my associates in 12 step recovery have agreed that addiction is largely a disease of loneliness. This article certainly bears witness to it as does the new and successful paradigm for dealing with addiction in Portugal. Given the force & money behind our failed criminal model for attacking addiction it's a huge obstacle to overcome. Fortunately the movement to normalize marijuana use is just such a countervailing force.

As for poor "Firebird", he/she is a classic example of the "pundit" one news anchor had in mind in saying basically that now anyone with a bathrobe & a modem can be part of the conversation.
 
 
+4 # djnova50 2015-02-20 15:24
Many years ago, I worked in a hospital in Ohio. I was a float nurse with an assigned floor to which I reported; but, if I was needed in a different part of the hospital, I could be pulled. One night, I worked in the detox unit. Turned out that the young man I spent most of the night with was the brother of a girl who was a friend of mine.
I was going through withdrawal from some drug. I think it might have been heroin; but, it's been so long ago, I don't really remember.

Drugs can be physically or psychologically addictive. So can sugar,nicotine, caffeine, even alcohol.

Washington state voters approved the legalization of recreational marijuana. But, it is highly regulated. Perhaps it's time to legalize all drugs, then regulate them.

The war on drugs is like the wars on poverty and terror.
 
 
0 # Romesh Bhattacharji 2015-02-22 03:18
Dirty Harry was responsible for many other repressive acts that the world is still fighting to get out of. He through his sidekick, Adolf Lange, masterminded the repressive 1961 UN Convention against narcotics that made all signatory countries conform to the insane baseless bigotry of his times. Portugal and a handful other countries are getting out of the woods, but others are not even conscious that there is an alternative.
 

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