The massive war on drugs which kills people from the plazas of Mexico to the streets of Liverpool, is based on the claim that we need to physically eradicate a whole array of chemicals because they hijack people's brains and cause addiction. But what if drugs aren't the driver of addiction— but , in fact, it is disconnection with society that drives addiction. The writer George Monbiot has called this the "age of loneliness." We have created human societies where it is easier for people to become cut off from all human connection.
Vancouver psychology professor Bruce Alexander noticed something odd about a drug experiment experiment. A rat is put in the cage all alone with a choice of normal water and water laced with a drug. It has nothing to do but take the drugs. What would happen, he wondered, if built a lush cage where the rats had colored balls and the best rat food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat could want. What, Alexander wanted to know, would happen then? The rats with good lives didn't like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats had used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did.
Alexander took the test further. He repeated the early experiments, where the rats were left alone and became compulsive users of the drug. Then he took them out of isolation, and placed them in Rat Park. He wanted to know, if you fall into that state of addiction, is your brain hijacked so you can't recover? Do the drugs take over? What happened is striking. The rats seemed to have a few twitches of withdrawal, but they soon stopped their heavy use, and went back to having a normal life. The good cage saved them.
During the Vietnam War, Time magazine reported heroin was "as common as chewing gum" among U.S. soldiers, and there is solid evidence to back this up: some 20 percent of U.S. soldiers became addicted to heroin there, according to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry. Many people were understandably terrified: they believed a huge number of addicts were about to head home when the war ended. But in fact, some 95 percent of the addicted soldiers, according to the same study, simply stopped using. Very few had rehab. They shifted from a terrifying cage back to a pleasant one, so they didn't want the drug anymore.
If you happen to say, break your hip, you will probably be given diamorphine, the medical name for heroin. In the hospital around you, there will be plenty of people also given heroin for long periods, for pain relief. The heroin you get from your doctor will have a much higher purity and potency than the heroin being used by street addicts, who have to buy from criminals who adulterate it. So if the theory of addiction is right—it's the drugs that cause it; they make your body need them—it's obvious what should happen. Loads of people should leave the hospital and try to score smack on the streets, to meet their habits. But here's the strange thing. It virtually never happens. Medical users just stop, despite months of use. The same drug, used for the same length of time, turns street users into desperate addicts—and leaves medical patients unaffected.
The junkie is like a rat in the first cage: isolated and alone, with only one source of solace to turn to. The medical patient is like a rat in the second cage: going home to a life where she is surrounded by the people she loves. The drug is the same, but the environment is different. This gives us an insight that goes much deeper than the need to understand addicts. Professor Peter Cohen argues that human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. If we can't connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find—gambling or drugs. A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn't bond as fully with anything else. So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.
Smoking is one of the most addictive processes around. The chemical hooks in tobacco come from a drug called nicotine. So when nicotine patches were developed in the early 1990s, there was a huge surge of optimism—cigarette smokers could get all of their chemical hooks, without the other filthy, and deadly, effects of cigarette smoking. They would be freed. But the Office of the Surgeon General has found that just 17.7 percent of cigarette smokers are able to stop using nicotine patches. That's not nothing. If the chemicals drive 17.7 percent of addiction, as this shows, that's still millions of lives ruined globally. But what it reveals again is that the story we have been taught about the cause of addiction being chemical hooks is real, but it's only a minor part of a much bigger picture.
The war on drugs actually increases all those larger drivers of addiction. When drug offenders get out of prison, they will be unemployable because of their criminal record, guaranteeing they will be cut off even more.
Another approach has been tried and tested.
Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe. They had tried a drug war, and the problem just kept getting worse. So they decided to do something radically different. They resolved to decriminalize all drugs, and take all the money they once spent on arresting and jailing drug addicts, and spend it instead on reconnecting them—to their own feelings, and to the wider society. The most crucial step was to get them secure housing and subsidized jobs, so they had a purpose in life, and something to get out of bed for. In warm and welcoming clinics, addicts are taught how to reconnect with their feelings, after years of trauma. One group of addicts was given a loan to set up a removals firm. Suddenly, they were a group, all bonded to each other and to society, and responsible for each other's care.
The British Journal of Criminology found that since total decriminalization, addiction has fallen, and intraveneous drug use is down by 50 percent. Decriminalization has been such a success that very few people in Portugal want to go back to the old system. The main campaigner against the decriminalization back in 2000 was Joao Figueira, the country's top drug cop offered all the dire warnings we would expect from the Daily Mail or Fox News but everything he predicted had not come to pass—and he now hopes the whole world will follow Portugal's example. This new evidence challenges us politically, it obliges us to change our minds and our hearts. The present drug message is that an addict should be shunned. Nor should we ignore that pharmaceutical companies urge us to deal with our problems, largely produced by economic and political forces out of our control, by taking a drug, one that will both chill us out and increase their profit margins. We are told that anything that does not make us feel good is not worth bothering with.
We need now to talk about social recovery; how we all recover, together, from the sickness of isolation. It is time to talk about real genuine social-ism.