In a world mired with drug abuse, economic collapse, war, homelessness and an infinite number of subsequent issues; it is easy to see how people get lost in the throes of addiction. The title of this article was coined by Johann Hari, author of the 2015 book, Chasing the Scream, which is a comprehensive analysis of drug addiction and drug management. In his book Hari traveled 30,000 miles and met with every professional drug addict, scientist, doctor, and lawmaker he could find to uncover the stark truth about drug addiction the world over: that we as humans are disconnected from one another. This simple disconnect has meant death for millions of drug addicts in the last 100 years and begs the question; what are we doing wrong?
In the 1970’s an American psychologist by the name Bruce Alexander conducted a reimagining of an experiment that had taken place years before correlating rats to drug addiction. In the original study it was found that rats, when placed in a box, would overdose on hard drugs if given the opportunity. The rats were housed in empty glass cases and given two sources of water, one laced with hard drugs like heroin and cocaine, and one that was only water. In the experiment it was found that the rats would overdose and die nearly 100% of the time. Bruce Alexander came along years later and noticed something. The rats had been deprived of anything that might give their lives meaning. They had no toys, no mates, no friends, and nothing to do. They were completely isolated and bored. Alexander decided he would reconstruct the experiment and create the original conditions side-by-side with a “rat heaven” which contained everything a rat could ever want. Both enclosures contained water bottles with drugs and without. What Alexander found was astonishing: the rats who had purpose in their lives hardly ever used the drug water. They were far too busy enjoying their interactions with their friends and their environment. Their lives had meaning and thus the rats ignored the drugs to connect with those around them. This concept has not been so easy for humans to accept, because the idea that drugs are unnecessary when life is good seems foreign compared to what we have been taught.
According to research conducted by the World Health Organization and Statista, 12% of the human population uses some form of addictive drug daily. This may sound like a small number, but to put that in perspective, with a world population of seven and a half billion, that is nine hundred million people (almost three times the population of the United States of America) who have been recorded as using some form of addictive substance every day. Since the dawn of the drug war over 100 years ago, drug addiction has been stigmatized. We see drug addicts as inherently bad. They are people who are undesirable and morally flawed. The age old stereotype of drug addicts stealing from loved ones and giving up their lives for their substance of choice is ingrained in our media and in our hearts. While this stereotype is often true, how many times have you stopped to ask yourself why?
Drug addicts seem to forsake everything they care about to spend their days in isolation with only a substance to keep them company. The truth is that many drug addicts isolate themselves at first, but experience much more widespread isolation from the world around them than they do from their own hearts and minds. Gabor Mate is a Canadian physician and author of the book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, an in depth look into what would happen if we treated addicts with love instead of hate. With understanding instead of discrimination. With companionship instead of condemnation. Gabor played an instrumental role in keeping alive the “Heroin Hotel” that existed in Vancouver Canada. This hotel (then named the Portland) was an abstract approach to treating drug addiction. The hotel functioned like an apartment complex for addicts who were free to use their drugs of choice, but also free to recover. It was fully staffed with care providers who spent time with addicts and simply wished to convey the message that they were loved and not alone in the world. Many died, but many found recovery in that place. In his time with the Portland, Mate found that drug addiction was not what he had been told it was.
“Drug addiction is not a choice or a moral failure, it is a response to human suffering.” (“Mate” 2020) More often than not Mate found that the drug addicts he worked with were using their drugs of choice to escape the feelings associated with traumas they had undergone in their lives. They didn’t want to stop simply because they had no greater purpose for themselves and no means of dealing with the traumas that had led them to drugs in the first place. This starts to paint a very different picture than the drug addict robbing your grandmother for her pearls, and starts to paint him/her as someone in immense pain who needs help more than judgement. Punishment has been the traditional means of handling drug addicts in many countries like the U.S. and Canada. Criminal records, prison sentences, denial for housing, inability to obtain federal funding for college and public assistance programs like food stamps, lack of gainful employment, and a myriad other forms of penalization have been imposed as the sentence for many seeking reprieve. However, as the data is starting to suggest, compassion might be a more effective prescription than punishment. With all of this in mind we have to ask ourselves, is anyone handling this issue correctly? The answer is yes.
In the year 2000 Portugal was struggling with a mass epidemic of hard drug addiction and homelesness. More than 1% of their total population was addicted to heroin and they were facing huge incarceration and death rates. The problem was spinning out of control. Portugal had attempted to handle things as we do in the United States with punishment coming before understanding, and it was failing them. The Portuguese government decided that it was time to take action. Portugal decided that all of the funding it was using to punish addicts should be used instead to establish programs that would help them connect with the people around them as opposed to cutting them off. They created job programs in which companies who employed drug addicts and prisoners would be paid 50% of their wages back if they could keep them working for a year. They put programs in place that travelled through destitute areas to find homeless addicts and offer them help instead of prison. This not only worked, but worked on a scale they couldn’t have imagined. According to Johann Hari “It’ll be 15 years this year since that experiment began, and the results are in: injecting drug use is down in Portugal, according to the British Journal of Criminology, by 50 percent, five-zero percent. Overdose is massively down, HIV is massively down among addicts. Addiction in every study is significantly down. One of the ways you know it’s worked so well is that almost nobody in Portugal wants to go back to the old system.” (Hari 2015) Portugal has broken barriers in terms of offering love over hate to people suffering from addiction and their model is effective. So effective in fact that it has been adopted by Switzerland as well, and has shown massive success there. They placed purpose in the hands of people who had none and found that, shockingly, when people had something to live for they chose life more often than not.
No country is free of drug addiction. We simply differ in our approaches to handling it. Where countries like Portugal and Switzerland have shown success, countries like the U.S.A, Russia, Africa, Brazil, Colombia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and many more still follow the punishment model. These countries are spending billions of dollars on punishing drug addicts and very little on reform and understanding. Guns are prioritized over words. Handcuffs are prioritized over conversation. The world is drowning in a sea of narcotics and the flotation device is right in front of us if we only choose to see it. That device is connection. The overarching storyline of addiction has pushed the narrative that drug addicts are inherently flawed human beings that can not be helped, and that is an easy thing to believe when it is all anyone ever hears. This is not true. The enemy is hate and the weapon against it is compassion. This concept works.
I am a heroin and cocaine addict and have been since the age of 14. I nearly killed myself countless times and did not find peace until I was nearly 24. I used hard drugs every day of my life in an attempt to escape the things that had happened to me when I was a boy, and as far as I got from my problems; I always found them in my pocket at the end of the day. I nearly lost my left arm to infection from injecting heroin (still missing half of it) and have little function in certain parts of my body and brain, but I survived. I spent 10 years in complete misery with everyone around me slowly abandoning ship. As more survivors jumped from the bow, I found myself more isolated, more depressed, more hurt, and more willing to continue using drugs. One day I woke up nearly dead, detoxing from heroin, cocaine, xanax, and alcohol on the floor of yet another jail cell and that was enough. I decided that I was meant for more and that it was time for me to discover my purpose.
Nearly five years later and here I sit, writing this article, at the tail end of a degree, and the owner of a mental health nonprofit organization that is guided by the principle that the opposite of addiction is connection. We strive to connect with all of those around us who are in desperate need of anyone who cares to do so. My mission in life has become to connect with people who need a shoulder to cry on, or a bed to sleep in, and to provide them with those things to reinforce the idea that they are loved and understood. The problem with our world is that we grow increasingly disconnected from one another. The internet rules the planet. “Since the 50’s the amount of floor space in our homes has dramatically increased while the number of close friends we have has dramatically decreased.” (Hari 2015) We are all unplugged from each other, it is simply more noticeable with drug addicts because we are the center of many discussions. Humans thrive on the love and connection that we have far too little of in this day and age. While the worldwide issue of drug addiction seems to be a faceless, endless battle, it isn’t. It has many faces and many names, all of which simply need for those around them to understand them. The message I leave you to consider is not that drug addicts are free from flaws, or are blameless victims in their own lives. There is just more to the narrative than what we have been told and have told ourselves. We all make decisions and mistakes. We have all done things we wish we hadn’t. The interpretation of those actions has been misread. The message I leave you with isn’t that we need to overlook the issue of drug addiction or treat it as innocent. It isn’t. There are bad things in the world that happen because of drugs. The message I leave you with also is not that drug addicts are the only ones who suffer from this world wide disconnect. Everyone does. We have all removed ourselves from each other and replaced the handshake with the thumbs up, and the hug with the emoji. The message I leave you with is strikingly simple: Connect.