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The addiction stranglehold

Conservative politicians seem to think it’s a simple enough matter to quit doing drugs. Just quit, that’s all. Just stop doing them. Just say no. They believe a more punitive approach to drug use will yield the desired results. If we wield a big enough stick, addicts will decide drugs aren’t worth it, and will quit.

But of course it doesn’t work that way. Look to the US for evidence of this. Their hugely expensive war on drugs continues to be an unmitigated failure of colossal proportions. (Unless you consider massive expansion of the prison industrial complex to be a success, which is probably true of current US and Canadian leaders.)

The reason the “tough on crime” approach does not solve the drug problem is because addiction is not, at its heart, a crime problem. Addiction can not be conquered by the threat of punishment. Most addicts are already risking far more than punishment, and are living lives that would serve as the ultimate deterrent to anybody who still has a choice.

People are vulnerable to addiction if they don’t have enough dopamine receptors in their brains. Dopamine is a brain chemical associated with a sense of well-being. If they take stimulants, they experience an increase in the levels of dopamine and a profound increase in perceptions of well-being.

Unfortunately, the very drugs that flood their brains with dopamine, thus compensating for the shortage, also further reduce the natural levels of dopamine receptors in their brains. This leads to the vicious cycle which characterizes addiction. It also means that the original condition which led to the addiction is even worse than it was before the addiction.

I became addicted
to amphetamines the first time I tried them. They made me feel exactly the way I’d always wanted to feel: energetic, creative, confident, connected, exquisitely happy. I spent the next few years as a full-time drug addict, although the high became increasingly elusive over time and I felt like I was always in pursuit of that exquisite happiness rather than in possession of it. I obsessively adjusted the dose and other variables in hopes of recapturing it; occasionally I succeeded.

One reason it’s so hard to quit is because you’re attempting a supremely difficult thing while you’re emotionally and physically depleted. You’re doing the hardest thing you’ve ever done with the fewest resources you’ve ever had.

It can also be a lonely and isolating experience. You can’t hang out with your usual friends and the larger society doesn’t want anything to do with you. You don’t belong in either world for a long time. Your social support systems may long since have abandoned you because addicts have a way of burning out their families and friends. Caring about an addict is exhausting, frustrating and heartbreaking, especially if you’re trying to “fix” them; people give up.

So, given that an addict is likely to be physically, emotionally, nutritionally, financially and socially depleted, and that the original problems leading to the addiction are now worse than ever, and that their only friends are other addicts, and that they’ve given up everything in order to sometimes feel the way they want to feel, it’s amazing that anybody ever successfully breaks free.

But people do. Sometimes the stars just align themselves. Sometimes the transcendental or defining moment just strikes a person like a lightning bolt out of nowhere. And if the necessary help is available at the critical moment, the stranglehold of addiction can be broken and recovery can begin.

Insite is there for addicts in Vancouver. It’s there in a harm reduction capacity, to help protect them from death and disease while they’re caught in the trap, and it’s there to offer treatment at those critical moments when escape is possible.

The four pillars of an integrated drug strategy – prevention, harm reduction, treatment and enforcement – are not mutually exclusive. This is not complicated stuff; I don’t know why it’s so difficult for Conservative politicians to wrap their heads around it.


14 comments to The addiction stranglehold

  • sheila

    Wow, Zoom, your post is very moving and eloquent. Very. I believe that many, many people should read this.

  • Georgiana

    Thank you so much for this… you’ve managed to encapsulate the horrors of addiction and the difficulties of quitting with wonderful compassion and eloquence.

  • I’m so glad you made it through. I’m helping my sister put her life back together after a crack addiction. I was one relative she didn’t burn out when she was getting high, then getting arrested, but she reached out to me when she got serious about getting sober and I’m doing what I can now to help her. Your post gives me hope that she’ll stick to it.

  • Oma

    Excellent post, Zoom. Thoughtful, touching and informed.

  • XUP

    I don’t get this either, Zoom. Addiction (and prostitution) are not crimes. So much time, energy and money is wasted treating them as such instead of actually working on solving the issues that lead to addiction and prostitution and mitigating the issues for those already in the life. There must be some sort of financial benefit to continuing this “war on drugs” nonsense to some corporation somewhere along the line. Anyway, I’m glad you survived and have channeled your addictive tendancies to beer breakfasts.

  • eh

    This may be really cynical of me, but I don’t think that the Conservatives actually believe their tough on crime approach to drug use will be effective. They are not stupid, and there is tons of evidence to suggest the futility of the war on drugs, and loads more to support treating drug use as primarily a health problem. I think they are just aware that the electorate historically responds positively to a ‘tough on crime’ campaign. Until we change the minds of ordinary Canadians and eliminate the stigma around drug abuse (which so clearly exists today), I don’t think we will ever get out of the war on drugs or the battle for harm reduction. We need to give both Conservative and Liberal politicians a reason to go out on a limb for drug users and their families.

  • So happy you are here to write about this. You are brave.

  • Payton

    You should send this as an op ed, or at the very least a letter to the editor, to the Globe or the Post. Something with national reach. Seriously.

  • Zoom, you said: “I don’t know why it’s so difficult for Conservative politicians to wrap their heads around it.”

    My knee jerk reaction was to think, “Because they are caught up in their own “addiction” to power and political advancement.”

    I bow to you in reverence Zoom…

  • Another excellent post, Zoom. Very well said!

  • Yet another informative and thought-provoking post, Zoom. One of my biggest fears used to be that one of my kids would grow up to be a drug addict — I had no idea how I would approach such a situation or how I would ever begin to help them. Hearing your personal story has made me feel like I could at least offer them compassion and understanding instead of just knee-jerk fear and ultimatums. I definitely think that more people need to hear this point of view — there needs to be a change in people’s attitudes in this country. You’re a great spokeswoman for the cause!

  • Thank you all for the kind comments. It means a lot to me.

    Toni – I hope things work out well for your sister. Hang in there, both of you.

    XUP – I think since Harper wants to follow the US into privatizing correctional services, there’s definitely some money to be made by some McPrison corporation. Scary.

    Eh – I think you’re bang on the money there. Stephen Harper’s policies wouldn’t see the light of day if it weren’t for ordinary Canadians falling for his lies. A lot of people understandably WANT there to be simple answers to complex issues, so they are easily seduced by the false promise of such. So. How do we convince ordinary Canadians?

    Payton – that’s an idea. Maybe I’ll do that. (But will they publish a letter signed ‘zoom’?)

    Woodsy – get up, get up, get up! LOL.

    Lynn – I think that’s almost a universal fear among parents in the western world. It really could happen to any of us, so I think we should all band together and demand a humane approach to drug policy in this country.

  • I think I probably just learned more from that post than I did all last month. Thanks for sharing all of this with us. Now that I have read this, I’m wondering why I didn’t learn this a long time ago. You would think that with all of the anti-drug campaigns that someone would have said something about the actual chemical reasons for addiction instead of just waffling on about a high. Knowing the cause certainly would change the way treatments are constructed.