The war on drugs, the addicted brain and just about everything regarding drug addiction is highly and ferociously debated. The United States is witnessing a national health crisis with addiction, with nearly one in every ten American adults having a substance abuse problem, according to the Center for Disease Control. There have been similar epidemics in other Western countries, such as Portugal and Switzerland, where outbreaks statistically surpassed what the United States is seeing now.
In 2000, Portugal had one percent of all citizens addicted to heroin. The reaction was to decriminalize all drugs and use all money that would have been spent to make the lives of the people addicted worse, and spend it on ways to make their lives better. The result was that drug use by injection dropped by 50 percent, overdose deaths fell, in fact graphs of all kinds related to drug use in Portugal show steady and typically significant decline. The drastic measures they took worked.
A recent publication of Johann Hari, author of Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War On Drugs, illuminates seven facts about drug addiction that throw commonly held beliefs about the disease to the wind. One of the seven facts bring into question what causes drug addiction, as it relates to heroin, in the first place. So, what does cause heroin addiction? The proposed answer, surprisingly, is not heroin. How can that be? Let’s look.
The cause of heroin addiction seems to be a lack of meaningful human connection, which equals distress. Humans are social creatures and as such we require supportive, loving relationships with others. This is certainly not news, but perhaps people should be reminded that if this fundamental need is not met, everything seems to go haywire. Between the internet, TV, and every man for himself culture, it is no wonder that there are so many people turning to a syringe to feel okay.
The support for this theory comes from a several experiments. First, there is a famous and simple experiment often cited when referring to addiction, namely the Skinner Box experiment. The experiment involves a rat in a cage with two water bottles, one water and the other heroin or cocaine laced water. The rat chooses the drug laced water, obsesses over it, keeps going back to it until overdose and death occur. The problem with the experiment is that the rat is stuck in a cage by itself, hence another researcher decided to create an essential rat utopia and gave all rats within the environment the same option of plain vs. drug water. The rats drank the plain water, never obsessed over the drug laced water, and never overdosed.
What This Means for People
There are other experiments and events pointed to that support the psychosocial aspect of addiction. One in five American soldiers in Vietnam used heroin, however upon returning home they simply stopped using without the aid of rehab and without withdrawals. The reason this happened is simply that the person’s environment changed drastically and the synthetic human connection was no longer needed as these people found the real thing upon returning home.
It seems that whenever people, or any social animal, becomes isolated, discriminated against, or generally unwelcomed and unappreciated, the person suffers. Everyone is different, however it seems to be true on a mass scale. Americans are becoming less connected to each other. Have you ever meet your neighbors and if so, how well do you know them? If you find it difficult to bring their names to mind, you are not alone. We as a culture have become addicted to more than drugs. Netflix, TV, video games, are pseudo replacements for real friendship and connection. The people on the TV are just an echo and do not love you back.
Perhaps we as a society need to look at the social aspect, and therefore cure for addiction. Together we can overcome this disease, but not if we sit on the couch and blame people we do not know anything about. The successes in countries such as Portugal seem due to the fact that those addicted were no longer marginalized and judged, but instead given help and support to turn their lives around. This simple, yet amazing concept is exactly the sort of policy we need to see implemented in the United States now.