September 26

Why We’re Losing the War on Drugs

Singapore’s arrival card. The big red letters leave no doubt as to their policy.

In the past 40 years, we’ve spent trillions of dollars on the War on Drugs in an effort to eliminate supply. Yet drug overdoses are up over 1,200%. We’re losing the war. And not for lack of trying.

We’re losing the war because the very premise of it is flawed.

Trying to solve the drug problem by eliminating the supply presumes, as many conservatives believe, that drug addiction is a choice. Eliminate the supply and people will make better choices.

It’s like those candy displays at the cash register of your local store: you want it because it’s there. It’s tempting. That’s called an impulse buy. And if it didn’t work, they wouldn’t keep doing it.

But drugs are not an impulse buy. Yes, the first time a person uses is clearly a choice, unless it’s given by a medical professional. And that does happen.

But once a person becomes addicted, the drug fills a need that nothing else does. It’s no longer an impulse buy. It’s a requirement.

As I argue in my book, The Soul of an Addict, for an addict the drug provides more than just relief from withdrawals and from past traumas and pains. It provides certain basic human needs which the user has not found anywhere else. These include identity, purpose, meaning for life, structure, and a moral code consistent with these.

Without the drug, in the absence of a suitable alternative, the person is miserable. They’re not waiting for an impulse buy. They are actively looking for relief, and they will do anything and pay anything to get it.

This is a ready-made market, a demand for the substance. And, as anyone who has taken an economics class knows, where there is a demand there will be a supply. Scarcity and risk cause the price to go up. But the person who needs drugs will find a way to pay that price, because they quite literally believe they can’t live without the drug. And that means the methods they use to obtain money may cross the line of legality, from theft to prostitution– and worse.

Is it even possible to stamp out the availability of drugs?

I say no, and here’s why.

Singapore is a small, island nation off the southern tip of Malaysia. It is ideally suited to control what crosses its borders because there are very few ways in or out. And Singapore has one of the toughest drug smuggling laws ion the world. Their arrival card makes it clear: the penalty for smuggling drugs is death. And they’re not kidding: smugglers are executed.

If anyone could eliminate the supply if drugs, it would be Singapore. Yet they had 14 drug overdoses in 2017. Their rate of overdose has more than doubled over the past 30 years. Yes, that’s far better than the U.S. rate of overdoses. Singapore’s is 0.25 per 100,000 people; ours is 18.75. They also have better health care and social services and less wealth inequality than we do, which would tend to drive down the rate of drug abuse and overdose.

But, even with supposedly absolute control and strict penalties, drugs are still available in Singapore. And if they can’t stamp them out with limited access points and draconian penalties, how do we expect to?

The War on Drugs is doomed to fail because it’s impossible to address the problem on the supply side. So long as there is a demand, someone will take the risk to make money by providing a supply. (Singapore’s penalty is death, yet people still risk it!)

And we can’t address it by locking up those who use drugs. We’ve spent trillions of dollars trying. Our prisons are full. Yet the problem keeps getting worse.

There’s got to be a better way.

And there is, but we’re not going to like it.

We’re not going to like it because it calls into question our post-modern ethos of consumerism, the whole premise that life can be fulfilling because of what we buy. That ethos is false, yet that’s what it takes to keep our economy afloat. People have to keep buying. When people start saving money instead, the Federal Reserve gets nervous. They need us to be happy consumers, floating in a sea of debt buying stuff we don’t need (but think we do).

Some of us may be satisfied with this purpose for life some of the time. But the fallacy is revealed in the rise of drug overdoses, alcohol deaths, and suicides. Consumerism doesn’t answer the big questions in life. Like, “What is it all for?”

That’s the realm of religion, not social policy. And religion is something society doesn’t prescribe for us. In fact, it has increasingly fallen out of favor. Over the past 40 years, the number of Americans who identify their religious affiliation as “None” has risen from 7% to 21%.

But even that number may be optimistic. I’ve been to many churches where the point of going to church is to go to church. It’s what we do. Yes, there’s a vague message that we should live good lives, but no specific guidance for doing so.

I’ve been to other churches which focus on what happens after we die. For someone like me, a recovering addict, this fails to answer the burning question of my life: how do I live now? (And if the afterlife is so much better, isn’t that an argument for a sooner death?)

Sociologist Emile Durkheim suggests that a religion provides identity, meaning, structure for life, and a moral code. If that is so, then much of what we experience in church fails to meet the requirements of a religion. It doesn’t provide these basic human needs. No wonder the fastest growing religion in America is “None”! And no wonder deaths of despair are rising.

Doing Something Different

There is an answer to the drug problem. The Twelve Step programs recognize it. Every aspect of those programs is designed to give people identity, purpose, structure, and a sense of belonging. Although most of these programs aren’t religious, they do a better job of practicing a religion, in the sociological sense, than some churches.

Why can’t churches do what the Twelve Step programs do? They could. So could non-religious groups. But that would mean bucking the national religion of consumerism– and potentially being branded un-American, or worse. It would mean pushing back against the long-embraced idea that religion belongs in the private sphere. If your purpose and structure for life comes from your religion, it’s going to show.

Do we really believe that it’s better to spend trillions of dollars on trying to stamp out supply and incarcerate users, no matter the price tag? Is that a necessary “overhead expense” to maintain our consumer economy? Or is that just what we’ve always done?

In either case, it isn’t working. The problem is getting worse.

It’s time to do something  different.

September 9

Praise for Soul of an Addict

“The book elucidates the agony of addiction in a fresh, new way. It emphasizes the role of trauma in setting the stage for debilitating behaviors, and explains the importance of community support in the healing process. With anecdotes of many people who grapple with addiction and have survived, as well as sad stories of addicts who died, this book provides healthy doses of grit and inspiration.” –Christopher Key Chapple, Loyola Marymount University

September 3

Getting Out

Whether it’s jail or rehab, how does an addict stay clean when they get out?

I met William in his last week at a program that helped former inmates deal with addiction and prepare for the real world. We talked for almost an hour. I told him my history, and about how I stayed clean. He seemed excited to know someone in recovery. He took my number, and promised to call as soon as he got settled in his new apartment.

I never heard from him.

The are literally hundreds of thousands of men and women incarcerated for drug related offenses, many of them nonviolent. What happens when they get released? Some of these go to halfway houses or rehabilitation programs. Do these improve their chances? Thousands are voluntarily in rehabs. Are their chances any better?

There’s one aspect of addiction that few programs, and few theories of addiction, take into account: Addiction is a way of life. It defines what we do with our time. Conversely, it tells us what to do when we don’t know what to do.

This means the first day or two after getting out, whether from incarceration or from a program, are critical. Structure has been removed. Even if there’s a job to go to, which there often isn’t at that stage, there are still 16 hours in the day to navigate. In an unfamiliar world. With complete freedom of choice. After months or years of complete structure, the person is suddenly expected to know what to do with their time.

That’s not a reasonable expectation. Anyone who has become unemployed, or who has faced a quarantine that disrupts their normal routine (and that’s most of us now), knows that it isn’t easy to find a new routine. And we generally start with what we know, whether that’s exercise or prayer.

What an addict knows is not exercise or prayer. I say this as one who struggled with addiction for many years. The drug becomes the center of our lives, defining our identity and our purpose. And it tells us what to do with our time.

How long will a person wait for something new to happen before returning to their old ways? My experience indicates that it may be as little as 24 hours, and certainly not more than a few weeks.

This is the window of opportunity for the person to develop not only a new routine, but a new circle of friends and support. In the absence of those, he or she is alone and without tools for navigating their new reality.

If you think about how long it takes to find and adopt a new routine, find support, and make friends, this is a nearly impossible task.

So what is the answer?

Those who have relationships with supporters and friends before their release are more likely to succeed. They already have some of the most important pieces in place. If we want to support addicts in staying clean, this should begin while they’re still inside, whether it’s a rehab or a jail.

But secondly, when they get out we shouldn’t expect them to reach out to us. They have been conditioned not to trust, and to believe that those who need help are weak. It takes time for those beliefs to change– time they may not have. There’s also the shame factor. They may be ashamed of their social status, and of their need for help. They also may be afraid of rejection, betrayal, or abandonment– all common occurrences in the world of addiction.

We need to reach out to them! And we need to do so with persistence, but not harassment. They may or may not respond. They may or may not stay clean. Working with addicts always risks heartbreak, including the ultimate heartbreak of funerals. But we do it because there would otherwise be even more funerals.

William, my new friend who disappeared, taught me one thing: not to just give out my number, but to take his. I didn’t do that for him, and he is likely back in the trap of old behaviors. But I have done it for others since then.

For more on addiction, read The Soul of an Addict: Unlocking the Complex Nature of Addiction.