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.