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For too long in our country, the rhetoric in the War on Drugs has focused on representing drug users as the “other,” as the bad guys in this culture war. Those who preach compassion and rehabilitation and harm reduction instead of criminalization are often dismissed as “bleeding heart liberals” willing to give anyone a free pass for bad behavior. When those who advocate a compassionate approach to drug addiction point out users’ self-reported histories which often include abuse and trauma, those histories are met with skepticism at best and generally are dismissed as unimportant. Now, research is showing that those histories and the social stigma created by treating drug addicts as users are a substantial component of what keeps people addicted.
In an article published on Alternet promoting his book, Chasing the Scream:The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, Johann Hari discusses research by Bruce Alexander about the root cause of addiction. While the popular theories on addiction focus on chemical “hooks” which keep addicts coming back for more or genetics, Alexander’s research focuses on environmental factors that create addictive behavior, and what he found was compelling.
He kept some rats isolated in small, boring cages with access to opiate-laced water (as well as fresh water). Compared with rats living in a social, engaging environment, they consumed much more of the drugged water. The happy rats consumed roughly 25% of the amount of drugged water that the lonely rats did. Even more amazing is the fact that the addicted rats, when moved to the social environment after 57 days of self-medicating their misery with drugged water, went through withdrawal, and then they stopped using the drugged water and rejoined rat “society.”
Now humans aren’t rats, of course. And our culture has several generations of enculturation telling us that we shouldn’t accept those addicts back with open arms, that we should treat them as weak, sub-human or useless. But that shunning won’t deter people from using drugs; some people seek out drugs when they are hurting. Instead, we must reach out to those with addiction problems and offer them help without judgment. If addicts can be supported and loved while working through the root cause of their addiction, and if they have a safe, engaging environment with real social connections, perhaps they too can put the past behind them and find healing and happiness.
So what does real compassion for addicts look like? It looks like letting people with addiction issues know that they are still loved despite their flaws, instead of casting them aside if they refuse rehab. It means supporting families with an addict in them, not tearing them apart. It looks like ensuring addicts (and all humans, honestly) have safe housing, access to clean water and food, clothing and shoes to protect them from the elements and most importantly, access to health care including mental health care for when they are finally ready to dig to the roots of their addiction and do the difficult work of overcoming it. It looks like not judging a person by their past if they are making an honest attempt to change. After all, they are not “other,” they are simply humans who need help and love, not judgment, castigation and isolation.
The first George Bush to hold the office of president famously said that the government would build more prisons in order to lock up all the drug users, and he sure wasn’t kidding. Strangely enough, criminalization of drug use has done almost nothing to lower the demand for drugs. Treating drug addicts like scum, like sub-humans who have nothing to contribute to society, is a large part of why those people can’t “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” as proponents of tough-love policies encourage them to do. Only when our society is willing to help these people with love and without stigma will we truly see a reduction in addiction and addiction-related crime.
For previous Ladybud Magazine articles about addiction, click here.
Photo Credit: Flickr via naunasse