The opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it’s connection: Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari

Viewing drug addicts as law-breakers that need to be punished has been common for many years. It has been more than a hundred years since drugs were first banned in the US, however, instead of registering meaningful successes on the war against drugs, addiction has become an even bigger concern. Troubled by this unsettling reality, British journalist Johann Hari embarked on a fact-finding mission. He wanted to understand why did the drug war start, why does it continue; why can some people use drugs with no problem while others can’t? What really causes addiction? What happens if radically different policies are tried?

‘Chasing the Scream, the first and last days of the war on drugs’ (2015) is Hari’s excellent manifesto on drug addiction. He describes in detail how the war on drugs started in the US, what fuelled it, and what were its consequences. Beyond the facts, Hari is a captivating storyteller, which makes his book a fascinating read. He travelled the world and met dozens of people who are, or have been, involved in attempts to address addiction from different perspectives. Here are some of his observations:

Bruce Alexander, a professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, created an experiment where rats where divided into two cages. In one cage the rats lived in solitary confinement where they only had their fix (morphine). The other cage, a ‘paradise for rats’, contained everything a rat could want – wheels and coloured balls, the best food, and other rats to play with. He called it Rat Park. In both cages the rats had access to two drinking bottles; one contained only water and the other, morphine (an opiate rats process in a similar way to humans and that behaves like heroin when it enters their brain). Alexander and his team discovered that the rats in the isolated cages used up to 25 milligrams of morphine a day, but the rats in the happy cages used hardly any morphine at all – less than 5 milligrams. Alexander’s conclusion was that it is not the drug that causes the harmful behaviour, it’s the environment. An isolated rat will almost always become a junkie. A rat with good life almost never will, no matter how many drugs are available to him. As Alexander put it, “addiction is not a disease, it is an adaptation. It’s not you, it’s the cage you live in.” In other words, if you change the social circumstances for most drug users you could change their behaviour.

One recovering heroin addict said that addiction is a disease of loneliness, and it appears that heroin subculture gives addicts bonds with other human beings. “It’s a lot better to be a junkie than to be nothing at all…This is life. It’s better than no life,” says Alexander. Human beings become addicted only when they cannot find anything better to live for and when they desperately need to fill the emptiness that threatens to destroy them, he says.

Hari quotes scientists who explain the difference between physical dependence and addiction. “Physical dependence occurs when one’s body has become hooked on a chemical, and you will experience some withdrawal symptoms if you stop; addiction is the psychological state of feeling you need the drug to give you the sensation of feeling calmer.” With this understanding, Hari describes a number of programs across the world that have confronted addiction in newer, more humane ways.

In European countries that provide addicts with safe rooms where they are watched over by nurses as they use their drugs, deaths from overdose ended.

In Vancouver’s Portland Hotel Society, where a safe ground was established and people could go to inject their drugs, the addicts were starting to look at themselves differently. They found the will to live. Bud, an addict, felt for the first time in his life as if he had a home, a community, and people to fight for. His life was becoming like Rat Park; he wanted to be fully alive and a person making a difference in the world. It was an attempt to reverse the common approach where the war on drugs is a war against hope and compassion and care.

Viewing drug addicts as sick persons rather than criminals, in Portugal the persecution of drug users and addicts officially ended in 2001. Treatment is based on respect rather than on punishment; it was felt that when you give hard-core addicts the option of a safe legal prescription and allow them to control the dose, the vast majority would stabilize and then slowly reduce their drug consumption over time. Prescription, they argued, is not an alternative to stopping drug use, it is – for many people – a path to stopping it. “The goal is to gradually build a life for addicts so they can put something else into that empty glass: a social network, a job, some daily pleasures, a chance to recover the control they have lost. You need to change the culture so people find life less unbearable…we have to build a society that looks like Rat Park and less like the rat race”, says Hari.

The result is that in Portugal more people use drugs, yet addiction fell substantially. Punishment – shaming the person, incarcerating them, making them unemployable – traps them in addiction. Taking that money and spending it instead on helping them to get jobs and homes and decent lives makes it possible for many of them to stop.

In the USA, 90 percent of the money spent on drug policy goes to policing and punishment, with 10 percent going to treatment and prevention. In Portugal the ratio is the exact opposite. In Portugal, those running the program believe that if you remove the stigma and shame caused by making addiction a crime, it is possible to invite addicts into a welcoming web of care and treatment and support because, they argue, using drugs is only a symptom of suffering. Once you address the suffering, symptoms can start to dissolve. Since drugs aren’t going away, instead you need to give people the internal tools – the confidence, the knowledge, the support – to make better decisions for themselves.

In Washington, a campaign to legalize drugs was driven not because they are safe, but because they are dangerous. It’s precisely because they are dangerous that it’s critical to take them back from the gangsters and cartels and hand them to regulated stores; the tax money gained would pay for prevention and treatment. If the minority of addicts are determined to continue their drug use it’s better and safer to use drugs from the clinic than drugs from the Mafia.

The understanding that binds these newer programs and others is that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it’s connection. “If you are alone, you cannot escape addiction. If you are loved, you have a chance.” The war on drugs has the potential more than anything else to kill this attempt at healing.

–Ella Amir

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