When It Comes to Addiction, Drugs Are Not Really the Problem

Columbia University neuropsychologist Carl Hart has written a bestseller, High Price, comprising two related parts: his research with drugs showing that drugs’ effects are secondary in relation to the rewards associated with them (pay addicts enough and they quit), and his experience of life in the Miami ghetto, in which the introduction of crack to the community, and crack’s ultimate disappearance from it, had no impact on the social depredations pervading that community.

The bottom line of both experiences: drugs are not the problem.

But we never learn that. In fact, we have a government industry led by Nora Volkow, the acclaimed director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, based on the propaganda that drugs are bad (note the term “drug abuse” in the title of her agency).

For Volkow, drugs change the brain to make people irresponsible and immoral. Ergo, when Volkow and her ilk cure drug addiction—the never-ending yellow brick road extending infintitely into the past and future—we’ll solve all of our social problems! 

Oh, since Volkow was appointed director of the NIDA, in 2003, both heroin and prescription painkiller addiction and death rates have hit record levels. This remarkable achievement was at one time considered impossible, since it was felt that the two narcotic addiction habits substituted for one another, such that a decline in one inevitably produced a rise in the other. 

The U.S. government, at its website, crows that Volkow’s “groundbreaking discoveries about the brain have revolutionized our understanding of drug addiction, enabling us to respond effectively to the problem.” Meanwhile, Volkow has performed the modern anti-miracle of creating simultaneous painkiller and heroin epidemics!

How did she do it? By explaining that drug use causes people to behave in criminal, antisocial ways no matter the conditions under which they live, to wit:

It is not enough to say that addiction is a chronic brain disease. What we mean by that is something very specific and profound: that because of drug use, a person’s brain is no longer able to produce something needed for our functioning and that healthy people take for granted, free will.

Volkow is the anti-Hart. Whereas Hart says “drugs are not the problem,” Volkow says “people's lives are not the problem—drug use and addiction are.”

Which brings us back to the crack scare, drug predators, and the Clintons.

Remember that Bill Clinton’s choice for drug czar was general Barry McCaffrey—itself a bizarre comment on our country’s century-long insanity about drug use. McCaffrey was anti-medical marijuana, a great D.A.R.E. backer, and—along with Bill and Hillary—he opposed needle exchange programs. Thus the Clinton administration’s policy led to tens of thousands of AIDS deaths among IV drug users.

Meanwhile, the Clinton drug policy excluded those convicted of even marijuana possession from receiving welfare, food stamps, or public housing. The logic: "If you use drugs, you’re not a real American.” This approach fed into Clinton’s role in the mass incarceration of African-Americans.

Do you see the pattern yet, a pattern from which we can never seemingly extricate ourselves, no matter how self-destructive the consequences? Yes, the biggest addiction of all is the one the U.S. has with its dysfunctional views of, and policies toward, drugs. This dysfunction, this addiction is, of course, rampant in the current political discourse. Drug use is a disease that only more treatment and scientific cures for addiction can solve!

Do you remember New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s viral video about his classmate who became addicted to drugs, left his family, and died alone in a motel? Do you recall the drug his friend used and died from? It was Percocet. Christie (and every other politician) calls for these three things in relation to the Christie’s friend’s story:

1) Don’t imprison drug addicts. Fair enough. But Christie’s friend was never arrested or jailed. Of course, he wasn’t using a per se illegal drug.

2) PROVIDE MORE TREATMENT! Umm, only Christie said recounted how, over a decade leading to his death, his friend was “in and out of rehab.”

3) Limit access to narcotics. Really? If we hurt ourselves, have an operation, or our children have their wisdom teeth removed or break their leg, they shouldn’t get painkillers?

Why don’t we limit painkillers for you? As for me and my family, we prefer to pick and choose. My two-year-old grandson was born with malformed fingers requiring a difficult operation, after which he received painkillers. A two-year-old! Surely, he is a prime candidate for addiction—no drugs for him!

Okay, I’ll stop dilly-dallying.  The correct answer is: 1) drugs will always be with us, we have to learn how to use and control them as an ordinary part of our lives; 2) we need to create, par Hart, communities and a world in which people find it worthwhile to live.

Otherwise, and even so, addiction will always be with us. But at least if we create a world worth living in and people who welcome living in it, we as a society will manage addiction, something which will always be with us.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.