Tidbits on Drug Policy

Another two cents thrown in

On Addiction

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In our mainstream cultural framework, illicit “drug use” and “drug addiction” have become practically synonymous. Addictiveness is viewed as an inherent property of an illicit drug, similar to such internal properties as its texture or taste. Placing of addiction with a drug rather than with a user of a drug is one of the rhetorical fallacies that both sides in the drug policy discussion often commit. Of course, if nobody would be ingesting a drug in question, there would be no addictive property to speak of.

To look at addiction (and, subsequently at drug use) from a rather different angle, let us first consider what addiction actually means. “Addiction” as a term was first introduced in the beginning of the century in reference to opium use. It has subsequently evolved to mean dependence, a state in which a body/individual needs the drug for “normal” functioning. Addiction can be physical or psychological, although there exists a lively debate about the definitions of various types of addiction and even about what constitutes addiction itself. To illustrate, consider the following hypothetical:

After a hard day’s work, Mr. Smith likes to have a glass of scotch. This has become somewhat of a tradition – hardly a day goes by when Mr. Smith doesn’t have his usual drink. The alcohol amount is hardly sufficient to inebriate Mr. Smith, but a drink is a welcome soothing cap to a hectic day. One day, Mr. Smith run out of scotch and went to bed without his usual drink. His mood soured, he had trouble falling asleep and developed a headache.

Is Mr. Smith addicted? If yes, is his addiction physical or psychological? What if, instead of alcohol, Mr. Smith had a habit of listening to classical music for half-an-hour before going to bed, to calm his nerves? He could have easily developed the same symptoms (sour mood, insomnia, headache) if deprived of this little treat. Does it mean that Mr. Smith is addicted to classical music?

Some maintain that addiction is simply a medical term for a habit. I would venture to say that if most of us are suddenly deprived of our long-standing habits, we would exhibit certain signs of distress. So, can we actually claim that regular drug use is simply a drug habit? Mr. Smith likes to listen to classical music before going to bed and Mr. Jones prefers to roll himself a small marijuana joint. Did we simply create a new disease out of behavioral condition?

Whether addiction is actually a disease or simply a very hard to kick habit is irrelevant – after all, even most mundane undesired behavior can be looked at as a disease and thus, medically treated. What I wanted to demonstrate by discussing it is that addiction as something inherent to an individual, just like a preference, habit or a predilection, and not primarily a quality of a drug. Some people may like scotch, others – marijuana, yet others prefer to smoke opium. Some people may like scotch so much that they become alcoholics; others can go through life drinking a couple of glasses of wine per day and never have any problems arising out of their alcohol consumption. Or, consider a “harder” drug: contrary to the popular belief, there is a large number of recreational users of heroin, known as “chippers”, who regularly use the drug, but seem not to run into problems normally associated with heroin use. Does it mean that those people are addicted? Of course, there are plenty of others who get habituated with heroin (or, more conventionally, addicted to heroin) to a detrimental extent. So, it seems that some people are addicted to some drugs more than others. Well, some people like classical music (or wine, or scotch) more than others.

Addiction is primarily a function of a user, not substance. Before drug use reaches the level of addiction (if ever), it is merely a drug habit. Just like with any habit, there are some people who may prefer a drug more than others. Speaking of addiction as a demon inside a particular substance that is sure to destroy anybody who ingests it smacks of medieval ideas of persons possessed by devil.

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