The war on drugs has been waged for over 100 years. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, we spend $500 per second on the war on drugs. The consequences of this war are easy to identify, a black market that makes millions of dollars for criminals, mass-incarceration of nonviolent drug users, and increased overdose deaths.
Why are we at war with drugs? Because addiction can ravage communities and those we love. Jail has long been seen as a deterrent, the stick waved to prevent people from falling into the traps of addiction, but is this really the best way to prevent harm done to our communities by addiction? The war on drugs supposes that drug users take drugs for reason of recreation, and not the more accurate motivations of misery and despair.
The Addiction Diagnosis
The accepted view of addiction is that a chemical process in the brain robs those addicted of “free will.” It is thought in the case of drugs: heroin, opiates, cocaine, that the drugs themselves are physically addictive. Drugs work by energizing the brain’s “pleasure center,” flooding the brain with dopamine, the same center that is activated by a decent meal, gambling, or by a consumer purchase. Dopamine plays a role in both pleasure and learning, and so addictions are thought to be hard-wired into the brain through stimulating pleasure and creating compulsive behavior. Withdrawal symptoms are part of drug dependency and motivate habitual use.
Johann Hari, author of “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs,” and advocate for progressive drug policy, would disagree, saying that “We’ve created a society where significant numbers of our fellow citizens cannot bear to be present in their lives without being drugged.”
“20% of American troops in Vietnam were using heroin a lot, right? It was thought—because they believed the old theory of addiction— “My god, these guys are all going to come home, and we’re going to have loads of heroin addicts on the streets of the United States.” What happened? They came home, and virtually all of them just stopped, because if you’re taken out of a hellish, pestilential jungle, where you don’t want to be, you can die at any moment, and you go back to a nice life in Wichita, Kansas, you can bear to be present in your life.”
The problem with treating drug addiction physiologically is that a doctor would attempt to treat the “hard-wiring” of the brain. A study published in 1980 by Bruce Alexander known as Rat Park intended to prove that drug dependence in rats could be attributed to living conditions. Alexander believed, “severely distressed animals, like severely distressed people, will relieve their distress pharmacologically if they can.”
To test his theory, Alexander constructed a housing colony, 200x the floor area of a standard laboratory cage. There were 16–20 rats of both sexes in residence, an abundance of food, balls and wheels for play, and enough space for mating and raising litters. Rats who had been forced to consume morphine hydrochloride for 57 consecutive days were brought to Rat Park and given a choice between plain tap water and water laced with morphine. For the most part, they chose the plain water. “Nothing that we tried,” Alexander wrote, “produced anything that looked like addiction in rats that were housed in a reasonably normal environment.”
Alexander’s study would suggest that if we elevate drug addicts from misery to again feeling part of a community, we may see the consequences of drug addiction, like poverty, misery, and deprivation, disappear.
Solutions from Portugal
In the year 2000, 1% of Portugal’s population was addicted to heroin. In a state of desperation and lacking the funds to continue policing and prosecuting drug users in the methods of America’s war on drugs, they convened a panel of doctors, scientists and judges to develop a solution.
Their recommendation was to decriminalize possession of ‘drugs of dependence’ and use the money previously spent on arresting, trying, and jailing drug users, on harm reduction programs instead, whose aims are to re-integrate addicts into society. The intention is as simple as giving drug addicts a reason to get out of bed in the morning. If a drug addicted former mechanic sought employment, the government would pay half of the employee’s wages for the first year. Methadone programs were expanded and specific centers of drug rehabilitation were established in most provinces. The government provided micro-loans for addicts to begin their own businesses. The solution listened directly to the lessons of Rat Pak, seeking to help normalize the drug addict’s environment, while treating the symptoms of drug withdrawal. Since decriminalization, drug deaths are down, HIV infection among drugs users is way down, and overall drug use is down. Never intended as a cure-all for addiction, the new system recognizes that some will always find solace in oblivion.
If the intention of the war on drugs is to protect communities, learning lessons from Rat Park and Portugal might put us on a path of reducing policing costs and, more importantly, misery and despair in the communities we aim to protect.