With the exception of the copious amounts of caffeine I consume thanks to a high coffee intake, I don’t use any drugs and don’t really have any personal direct experience with the world of recreational drug use or drug addiction. Nevertheless, our nation’s opioid crisis has always stood out to me as an important and intriguing policy issue. Despite not having first hand knowledge of drug culture in the United States, I have been able to recognize the changing landscape as more states provided legal avenues to obtaining marijuana, as policy discussions popped into my orbit about racial disparities in drug sentencing, and as prominent American figures opened up about drug addiction in their family. To better understand the issue I selected a handful of books to read to better understand drug use and addiction in America. One of the books I read was Johann Hari’s book, Chasing the Scream.
Before my mini dive into drug policy and drug use literature, I didn’t have fully formed thoughts about our nation’s response to drugs. The idea that we would lock up drug addicts and those who tampered with or misused prescription medications seemed normal. I figured that putting people in prison where they would be away from drugs and monitored as they went through withdrawals made sense, and I had no reason to question the system and approaches we used to curb drug abuse and addiction. However, as the opioid crisis spread, I recognized how incomplete my understanding was, and sought out new information to better understand why our county has faced such serious drug problems. Across the books I read, what I learned was that drug policy has been racially biased throughout American history, and that drug use and addiction is often deeply tied to pain and trauma, and worsened by the loss of community.
These themes ran throughout the books I read and made me re-think the way we approach drug addiction and how we are so quick to punish drug abuse. My sense is that most Americans think along the same lines that I previously thought along – unaware of the deep social factors that run through so much of the drug abuse and addiction in our country.
Johann Hari writes, “The core of addiction doesn’t lie in what you swallow or inject – it’s in the pain you feel in your head. Yet we have built a system that thinks we will stop addicts by increasing their pain.”
So many of the people who fall into drug addiction originally turn to drug use and misuse as a way to ease some sort of pain stemming from a deep trauma. America’s suburbs have reduced our sense of community, and furthered isolation in our country. People with pain and trauma have minimal support for mental and emotional challenges, and as a result, often turn to drugs to attempt to manage the psychological or physical pain they live with.
Our response has been punishment, not support. People with deep pain and trauma cannot be healed by making their lives more painful, more traumatic, and by putting more barriers in front of a successful and healthy life. We assume drug addicts need to face more severe consequences to scare them away from drug use, but that is because we fail to see the common threads I have been writing about over the last several weeks. The result has been disastrous for those who find themselves misusing drugs and facing a road to addiction. Punishing the thing we are afraid of in an attempt to stamp it out only entrenches it further, and makes it worse for all of society. We have to recognize the reality of pain and trauma combined with a decimation of our sense of community in regard to addiction. We have to solve those problems first before we can ask people to work with us to fight through drug abuse and addiction.