Book Review: "Addict in the Family"


As an anti-prohibitionist organization, DRCNet tends to focus on the harms, social and personal, caused by drug prohibition. But it behooves drug reformers, no matter how caught up in the polemics of the drug war, to recognize the very real harms that sometimes occur as the result of drug use. And while the very notion of "addiction" is itself controversial in some drug reform circles, there is no denying that some people sometimes use some drugs in an obsessive, repetitive manner that is harmful to their physical and mental well being. They can't stop -- or won't stop. How do you deal with it?

In "Addict in the Family: How to Cope With the Long Haul," Australian physician and author Dr. Andrew Byrne speaks directly to the families and friends of heroin addicts, but his calm, reasoned and humane approach to the problem will be of great use to anyone confronted with a friend or relative carrying any serious drug habit. For Byrne, addiction is a treatable condition like other potentially serious health problems, not a moral failing -- although he recognizes that addicts frequently resort to immoral or unethical behavior -- i.e. lying and stealing.

The addict should be approached non-judgmentally and calmly, says Byrne. Friends and relatives should offer sympathy and support, consult with experts and people who are "in recovery," and assist the addict with his or her chosen form of treatment. They should not panic, cut off dialogue, or "give cash to the addict," although Byrne encourages friends and family to assist with financial problems in a way that ensures the money is not diverted to drugs.

But Byrne also makes clear that drug prohibition exacerbates the harms associated with drug addiction, and even allows that some heroin addicts may use the drug in non-problematic ways while remaining productive members of society. Such talk is blasphemy for much of the treatment community, but once again reflects Byrne's non-ideological, common sense approach to the problem.

In a chapter that will be very helpful for people confronting addiction, Byrne also lays out the different approaches to addiction treatment, ranging from the abstinence-based approaches of Narcotics Anonymous to methadone maintenance and even prescribed heroin. He is careful to remind readers that no one method will work for everyone and that they should support the treatment choice of their loved one.

Byrne provides a quick and easy overview of research findings on addiction, drug use and related matters, making this slim volume even more useful for those suddenly faced with an addict in the family. Byrne's book will also be a balm for those overwrought parents who discover a pot pipe in their youngster's room and fear the end is nigh. Although rigid ideologues such as drug czar John Walters might disagree, most people will probably appreciate such level-headed passages as: "Just because a teenager uses cannabis occasionally or takes an ecstasy tablet does not mean they are destined to turn into heroin addicts."

Reading "Addict in the Family" is probably one of the smartest things anyone faced with this situation can do. It is calm and compassionate, yet well-informed and authoritative. It can soothe uninformed or misinformed fears, yet pulls no punches in describing the dangers of addiction. Byrne offers a caring and humane approach that may be anathema to drug war zealots, but that can be profitably embraced by people for whom the issue of drug addiction has suddenly come home.

Byrne's "Addict in the Family (1996, Tosca Press, $11) can be read online at in full. Copies of the book can also be ordered through Common Sense for Drug Policy.

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