I read a fascinating article recently titled, “A War Well Lost Sam Harris and Johann Hari discuss the “war on drugs”.”(samharris.org 4/7/15) It is a riveting, however lengthy article and prompted me to weigh in on this topic in my blog. Additionally, local NPR is airing stories on the opiate problem in Massachusetts and what is being done right here in our own state to address this issue. I am motivated to blog about this subject as I have direct personal experience as an addict/alcoholic, almost 3 years into recovery.
We have a problem in this country and it is my feeling that our models for addiction treatment in this area are inadequate and often don’t address the core issues that those caught in the throes of this awful scourge, much face. Some of the misinterpretation of addicts and alcoholics stems from past history of the “war on drugs” combined with a model of addiction as more of a personal failure and requiring much more personal responsibility than of many can muster to face and deal with the issues at the core of why addiction was chosen as a mode of coping. We addicts (I am including alcoholics under the umbrella of addicts from here on), don’t wake up one day and say to ourselves, “hey, I feel like screwing up my own life and the life of those around me and risk spending the rest of my life in a personal hell of which might be included being arrested, sent to jail and/or instituted or dying”. It’s not that simple. While for me, I had the support of family and friends and financial resources to get a foothold in recovery and continue on a journey of self discovery and personal responsibility via the 12 step program, many are not so fortunate.
Here in the United States, addiction is seen as more of a moral problem and not a health problem. This creates issues from the start. Countries such as Portugal have decriminalized possession of anything less than a 10 day supply of every substance from marijuana to heroin. If a person is found in the possession of less than a 10-day supply of anything from marijuana to heroin, he or she is sent to a three-person Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction, made up of a lawyer, a doctor and a social worker. The commission recommends treatment or a minor fine; otherwise, the person is sent away with no penalty, the majority of the time. The money spent on arresting and prosecuting addicts is poured into other social support systems such as recovery programs involving employment opportunities and loans to get the addict back on their feet. The end result is a huge fall in drug induced deaths, lifetime, yearly and monthly prevalence of drug use.(mic.com, Zeeshan Allen, 2/11/15)
Environment is a factor. I’m sure most remember hearing about a study that was described a while back where they put a rat in a cage where it had nothing to do but choose between drugged water and plain water. We all know what happened. So Bruce Alexander, in the 1970s, tried the same study a bit differently. He built a very different cage and called it “Rat Park”, where they had everything a rat could possibly want. And they had both the water bottles, drugged water and otherwise. They hardly ever drank the drugged water, and if so, not in a way that looked compulsive. (samharris.org 4/7/15) There’s this component to explaining why our war on drugs model for drug users in this country fails, as addict returns to “rat cage”, not “rat park”. Released from rehab to go back to the same circumstances and lifestyle that fueled the addiction in the first place, with few tools or viable resources to improve their environment. The post rehab admonishment of “go to meetings”, is often too slow and tedious a process to handle, the addict is set up to fail once again.
Our view of addicts as human beings, not derelict criminals, despite active addiction, has to change. There’s a story about a group of heroin addicts in Vancouver, British Columbia, who had a leader that stalked the then conservative, right wing mayor, Phillip Owen, for two years until the mayor went incognito to meet with addicts. He was totally blown away. He ended up opening the first safe injecting room in North America in 70 years and 10 years later, death by overdose was down 80%.(samharris.org 4/7/15) This story illustrates compassionate drug policy and the results shown by treating addicts as human beings. We fall short in this country, repeatedly and thus is seems despite all our focus on rehab and recovery, addicts continue to seep up through the cracks in society and end up filling our prisons and institutions where few seem to be looking at why they became addicts in the first place and what we can do to help them. In the meantime, keeping them alive and educated is a huge first step.
Mental health is an enormous issue for addicts. Many addicts deal with underlying mental health issues precipitating and perpetuating addiction. Mental health calls for a psycho-therapeutic aspect of addiction treatment. Psychotherapy as well as 12 step groups help. What I love about the 12 step program is the chance to look at one’s life history through the process of acknowledgment, accounting for harm done and making amends. This undertaking is excruciating at times, but one comes away with a deeper understanding of what drove them to addiction in the first place and how they can begin to forge a conscious path to a new way of living. In my opinion, the 12 steps should be taught in schools as a model for honest living. However, it takes much time, time that many cannot tolerate and despite their well meaning efforts to start on this journey, the urges to use or drink again is too much to ignore.
From a standpoint of possibly shortening the phase of self discovery, come several other alternative treatments are proving successful in clinical trials. MDMA assisted psychotherapy is one of them. I’m not talking about dropping some ecstasy and coming to a place where one is free from addiction. This involves trained therapist-assisted, monitored MDMA sessions requiring patients to meet certain protocols for entry into the studies and follow up support with therapy and re-immersion to a life of support via community programs such as 12 step. The key is that the MDMA as a psychoactive substance, brings to one’s awareness of key emotions and feelings that one is often unable to access at baseline.
As well, another psychoactive substance, ibogaine, shows much promise. Ibogaine is derived from the root of an African plant. “Studies suggest that ibogaine has considerable potential in the treatment of addiction to heroin, cocaine, crack cocaine, methadone, and alcohol. There is also indication that it may be useful in treating tobacco dependence. A single administration of ibogaine typically has three effects useful in the treatment of drug dependence. Firstly, it causes a massive reduction in the symptoms of drug withdrawal, allowing relatively painless detoxification. Secondly, there is a marked lowering in the desire to use drugs for a period of time after taking ibogaine, typically between one week and several months. This has been confirmed by scientific studies. Finally, the drug’s psychoactive nature is reported to help many users understand and resolve the issues behind their addictive behaviour” (http://www.ibogaine.co.uk/)
So any sort of focus on the “war on drugs” makes my skin crawl. My personal experience and continual research leads me to conclude that much is lacking in this country in terms of adequate support for recovery and reentry into a meaningful productive life in which the recovering addict has a chance other than being caught in the continual cycle of addiction. There are alternative solutions and the raising awareness that our traditional solutions are not working, is encouraging. However, our underlying, long standing views of addiction must be addressed and the addict given lucrative psychological and environmental supports and tools to gain a leg up as a contributing member of society before any sort of progress can be made.
This is not to diminish in any way, those currently employed in the recovery field on the front lines and behind the scenes, as I have found, again from personal experience, much compassion and personal support. True heroes. It is discouraging that few make it, and statistics are grim for relapse, as many as 50 to 90% of those recovering eventually relapse.
As I continue on my own path in recovery, I am grateful for all those who believed in me, supported me both financially and otherwise, and guided me to many fantastic resources which have all aided me in my ongoing awareness of my own potential for raising human consciousness through the channels of addiction recovery. That I am able to sit here with the presence of mind to have an opinion and a voice to write this blog, speaks volumes to the fact that hope springs eternal.