$700 billion a year. Yes, that is the whopping bill the USA has to fork out because of addiction every year. This is the cost in terms of health care, lost working days to the nation for addiction to drugs, alcohol and smoking, just to name a few. What is the solution? The first step would be to understand what really causes addiction and what is the latest scientific explanation for this. Secondly, we could look at the role of decriminalization of drugs and how this may lead to a safer and healthier society.
Why do people get addicted?
The problem arises when the pleasurable activities such as sex, food, gambling or use of drugs and alcohol becomes compulsive and starts to interfere with work, health and relationships. It is interesting to note that in the early 1930s addiction to alcohol and other substances was seen as having a lack of willpower or character. But now scientists are investigating the real cause of addiction and their results are surprising, to say the least.
One view is that people become addicted to a substance or behavior because it gives them some comfort or relief from some sort of psychological stress. Alcohol can give a sense of euphoria in the short term especially when anxiety and depression are present. The long term effects are damaging to health. Even more troubling is that the addiction prevents the sufferer from looking for the cause and in seeking treatment.
Researchers have homed in on the lateral habenula region of the brain which governs whether we see something as being rewarding or having too many negative consequences. Experiments with rats seem to indicate that is one of the areas of the brain affected by alcohol, but more studies need to be done.
More rat experiments in the 1980s got a lot of publicity from ads which were run by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America (PDFA). Here, one lone rat was put into a cage with two bottles, one containing water and the other a mix of water and cocaine. The rat became addicted to the drugged water, kept on coming back for more and then died. The advert then warns:
“Only one drug is so addictive, nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it. And use it. And use it. Until dead. It’s called cocaine. And it can do the same thing to you.”
The message was clear that there were strong chemical agents which were causing the craving and addiction. You can see some of the PDFA ads which were broadcast in 1987 here. Chemical agents could not explain an addiction to gambling, however.
The view from Rat Park
But Professor Bruce Alexander of Simon Fraser University and author of The Globalisation of Addiction: A study in poverty of the spirit, was not so sure. He started experiments with the famous Rat Park.
He put some rats in solitary confinement with a water bottle and another with a mix of drugs. Then for another group of rats, he created Rat Park. This was an ideal environment for them where they had exercise wheels, balls to play with and great food. The researchers noticed that the rats in solitary were addicted to the cocaine mix while the rats in Rat Park hardly touched the stuff and were extremely happy and contented. None of them died.
Alexander’s crucial question was whether humans might be similar to the rats. Could one’s environment and psychological state really determine whether a person would become addicted or not? Unfortunately, the impact of the study on the theory of addiction was almost nil and Rat Park was closed.
The questions that need answers.
People on medication do not become addicted whereas the typical street addict is hooked for life, unless he or she seeks rehab. Could it really be just due to the fact humans need to bond and receive affection from a loving and caring environment? The figures from the return of the Vietnam War veterans would seem to support this theory.
It is a well known fact that about 20% of these soldiers were heroin or cocaine addicts. But after they returned home, a whopping 95% of these addicted soldiers simply gave up the habit. Only a tiny number actually needed rehab. Like the rats in the cage, they had no need of any drugs once they were back in a safer and more caring environment. We cannot imagine a more terrifying cage than war!
Is decriminalization the answer?
Look at what Portugal did. In the year 2000, the government decided to decriminalize drug use. They wanted to treat drug addicts, rather than punish them. Now, more than 10 years later, the drug use ratio has fallen by 50%. Of course, more innovative treatment methods and reducing some of the risk factors played a part in this turnaround.
This may well be the way forward. The vast sums of money spent in chasing, arresting, trying and imprisoning drug users was used in helping drug users to reconnect with society again and to help give them a purpose in life. In other words, they have helped them get out of their solitary confinement cage.