Better Living Without Chemistry: An Alternative View for Addressing Drug Addiction

Chemical Dependency Might Not Fully Explain Drug Addiction

As much as I love my job, I often spend time contemplating theories and strategies for crime reduction. Although fewer arrests for crimes means less of a need for criminal defense attorneys like me, reducing criminal activity is better for local communities and for greater society. I read an interesting article recently written by a man named Johann Hari who has penned a book called “Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.” In the article, Hari discusses drug enforcement policies and changing concepts of what causes addiction. Illicit drug use, in addition to being illegal in its own right, tends to lend itself to a whole host of other illegal activities such as larceny or burglary when the drug use moves into abuse or addiction. As such, how to eliminate addiction to narcotics is considered an important goal.

The theory has long been that it is physical and/or psychological dependence on a chemical which leads to drug addiction. This idea has been held up by the medical establishment, rehabilitation programs, and general opinion for so long that it is rarely questioned; it is simply taken for granted. If you believe that it is chemical dependency that causes addiction, then the most obvious solution is to eliminate access to the chemical in question – hence, most countries’ policies of outlawing narcotics. The chemical dependency argument gained traction in the 1980s after a series of experiments using rats showed that when placed in a cage with two bottles of water to drink from (one containing plain H2O and the other containing water laced with cocaine or heroin), almost every time the rat will choose the substance laden water to the exclusion of the plain water. Seems fairly straightforward, right? However, when later researchers tried the same experiment, only in a cage that contained lots of toys, good food, and other rats to interact with, the consumption of the drug laden water went down more than 75% as compared to the isolated rats in empty cages.

Rats are obviously different than humans, but a human version of this experiment has occurred in Portugal. In 2000, despite having one of the worst drug problems in Europe, Portugal decriminalized the use of all illicit drugs. Money that had been used to arrest, prosecute, and punish drug crimes was instead redirected into programs targeted towards helping addicts make a place for themselves in society. Addicts were guided into clean, safe housing and assisted in finding jobs by government workers who were more interested in lending a helping hand than in passing judgment. Addicts are offered therapy and are linked into support networks to help them reintegrate into communities. The result has been an astounding 50% decrease in the use of injectable narcotics, as well as equally significant drops in the rates of addiction as a whole.

What do the rats in research laboratories and the addicts of Portugal have in common? An environment that encourages connections to peers.

When the rats in the research lab were placed in an environment where they could interact with other rats, didn’t have to worry about food, and had other activities to stimulate them mentally, the rates of narcotics consumption plummeted. In Portugal, when addicts were helped to link back into society and given a reason to get out of bed in the morning, rates of addiction dropped. As Hari speculates in the article, in many instances drug addiction can be more accurately described as “drug bonding,” where a person has bonded with a drug in the absence of being able to bond with society as a whole. Since high rates of drug addiction are often seen amongst populations where a person’s connection to society might be thinner (such as the chronically poor, the mentally ill, the depressed, etc.), the so-called disconnection theory of drug addiction can offer some truly valuable insight into how we deal with substance abuse and addiction.

I’ll be the first to admit that this radical way of thinking can’t explain all addiction. Alcohol, after all, is one of the most addictive substances humans regularly consume and drinking alcohol is often linked to communal events such as sporting events, parties, or nights on the town. An alcoholic may be more prone to drinking alone, but it is also possible for an alcoholic to get their fix amongst other people. Additionally, there are people with good jobs, stable family lives, and outside interests who find themselves addicted to drugs. To deny the role that chemical dependency may play in drug addiction would be foolish. However, this emerging research could put America and the rest of the world on a new path for addressing drug abuse. Such a change could ensure that our justice system focuses on pursuing important crimes, rather than petty drug offenses.