Hat tip to Andrew Tobias.
A controversial British journalist named Johann Hari has written a book, Chasing the Scream, (which I haven’t read) , arguing that drug addiction is not caused by the body’s response to the drugs themselves.
He said addiction is caused by people being so disconnected from society and so lacking in life’s normal satisfactions that the pleasure of taking drugs is life’s best alternatives.
Hari based his conclusion on two experiments. One involved rats. The other involved the people of Portugal.
Experimenters in the 1950s and 1960s found that caged rats, when offered the option of self-administering heroin, would take the heroin in preference to food and water.
But another scientist, Bruce Alexander, noted that rats are social, active and sexual creatures. A rat in a cage is equivalent to a human being in solitary confinement. He wondered what normal rats would do if exposed to heroin.
Starting in 1977, he created a “rat park”—a kind of paradise for rats—in which there was plenty of cheese, and brightly-colored objects, tunnels to hide in, plus other rats to hang out with, including sexy members of the opposite sex.
These rats had no interest in morphine-laced water, even when mixed with sugar to make it more attractive.
Furthermore rats that had been turned into heroin addicts in cages lost interest in drugs when released into the rat park.
So the government tried a different approach. They reduced the penalty for possession of small amounts of illegal drugs—a supply of less than 10 days—to a minor offense, equivalent to a traffic ticket.
But instead of just leaving it at that, the Portuguese government put the resources that formally went into drug enforcement to helping drug addicts lead a normal life—for example, by subsidizing salaries so they could get jobs.
There is something about this that doesn’t sit quite well with me. Why should an addict get help from the government that is not available to someone who keeps free of addiction? It is like Jesus’s parable of the Prodigal Son. Why should the son who goes away and wastes his life be treated better than the faithful son who stayed at home and did his duty?
But this is not rational thinking. The fact is that the Portuguese solution worked. Drug addiction didn’t vanish, but Portugal has one of the lowest addiction rates in Europe. Mercy, forgiveness and human kindness work (in this case) better than a narrow idea of justice.
Afterthought [6/7/2015]. Of course chemical addiction is a real thing, and withdrawal symptoms are real. And very often all the love in the world won’t necessarily cure an addiction.
Hari mentioned people who have been given morphine in hospitals, and do not become addicts. These people have been given small and controlled amounts of morphine and so do not suffer withdrawal symptoms.
I believe he is right to emphasize the human connection and the need for purpose in life. To “just say no” is not enough. And I believe he is right to emphasize mercy, forgiveness and human kindness over harsh punishments.
But I don’t know enough to make categorical statements.