Why We Need to Combat Addiction, Not Drugs
Putting the Wrong Target in the Crosshairs
Declaring war on drugs—as the U.S. did back in the early ’70s—relies on a faulty assumption: that a collection of substances is the true cause of the addiction-related problems in society. By preventing access to those drugs, the theory goes, addiction will slowly disappear and we’ll live in a healthier, happier and safer society. The big issue with this is that every drug addict was once somebody who’d never used drugs.
Science tells us that addiction is a complicated biological, psychological and social phenomenon, borne out of genetic susceptibility and poor coping mechanisms for unpleasant emotions, as well as a smattering of peer influence and cultural expectations. Some people are at risk of addiction before they ever pick up a beer or light up a joint; the physical addiction may take hold later, but there are definite reasons some people open themselves up to the risk while others don’t.
Why Fighting Individual Drugs Doesn’t Work
The problem with the war on drugs theory is perfectly demonstrated by the story of what happened when OxyContin—a narcotic painkiller closely tied to the prescription drug epidemic—was switched to an abuse-resistant formulation. When people suffering from addiction could no longer get high using that specific medicine, did their addictions clear up? Sadly not. Instead, OxyContin users simply switched over to other opioids or heroin. As Elements Behavioral Health’s Dr. David Sack wrote, “Addicts will always find a way to get high.”
The substance doesn’t really matter, because the psychological grasp of addiction is much stronger than the physical pull of one drug ever will be. The OxyContin users might have become dependent on the painkiller, but their real problem was that when faced with negative emotions, they learned to seek out substances as a method of dealing with them. Preventing abuse of one medicine doesn’t teach people healthier ways to cope with these emotions, it just presents a very minor barrier to continuing in the same addicted behavior. The same can be said for any drug: a cocaine abuser cut off from cocaine won’t immediately turn his life around. He’ll probably find something else to fill the void, whether another substance or a behavior like sex or gambling.
Addressing Addiction: The Real Enemy
What we need to understand is that addiction is the problem, not the drugs. Arresting people for possessing a particular substance may discourage use of that specific substance, but it does nothing to help anybody understand why they were drawn to that substance in the first place. As two-thirds of Americans already understand, those struggling with the brain disease of addiction—just like people suffering from any other disease—need treatment instead of punishment.
A rehab program doesn’t teach you how to not take cocaine; it teaches you how and why using any substance or engaging in any addictive behavior is counterproductive, and it also provides you with practical strategies for coping with difficult emotions or situations. The only way to reduce the damage drugs do to society is to tackle the underlying issues that drive their use, and that is something the war on drugs has spectacularly failed to do.
Ending the War on Drugs
We are not fighting a war. We are fighting a disease. As we increasingly realize this, it’s time for society to move away from punitive measures and start thinking about more effective ways we can accomplish the true goal. Drug courts, while not perfect, are one example of the way forward. Instead of sending offenders to jail, they’re provided with the treatment they need to get clean, and they appear in court regularly to ensure that they’re making progress. There is punishment for those who don’t comply, but successful individuals are rewarded and are considerably less likely to re-offend than those not attending drug court. In Portugal, where all drug use has been decriminalized since 2000, the approach is very similar and has enjoyed a great deal of success.
The important lesson is that moving away from the war on drugs-inspired, punishment-based approach is a viable option that can and does work. The more we widen the eligibility criteria for drug courts, or establish new ways of getting addicts into treatment instead of jail, the more we help combat addiction itself. Larger-scale measures—particularly improving opportunities for people most at risk, such as those of low socioeconomic status—could help to minimize the number of people who get addicted in the first place, and while they’re harder to implement, the rewards to society would be huge.
Declaring war on drugs to stop addiction makes as much sense as declaring war on white sugar to stop diabetes. The more we treat addiction like any other disease, the better off we’ll be as a society.