How Addiction Scientists Reckon without the Drug War
an open letter to Professor Thad Polk
Professor Thad Polk is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Psychology at the Weinberg Institute for Cognitive Science at the University of Michigan. He teaches a course on the Wondrium teaching platform entitled "Addiction and the Brain"
Dear Professor Polk:
I am a longtime Wondrium client and have "taken" (audited) many courses with them. I must say, however, I am very leery of taking a course entitled "Addiction and the Brain," and wondered if I might share with you the reasons why.
Please keep in mind that I am unfamiliar with your work. You may not hold any of the problematic views that I cite below. This essay is merely about the content that I fear that a course is likely to involve when it is titled "Addiction and the Brain," thereby implying (to me, at least) that the professor will be discussing the matter without reference (or at least without sufficient reference) to the role that the Drug War and prohibition play in creating addiction in the first place. I'm talking here of the term "addiction" as it is generally used in America today, to mean: "The regular use of a substance of which politicians disapprove." In reality, of course, the term "addiction" contains a subjective element, referring to the perceived problems that the drug causes for the "addict." But this subjective determination is extremely problematic in the time of the Drug War, when prohibition and government policy are doing their best to create problems for the "user," by denying them jobs in America (through drug testing) and by ensuring that the quality and quantity of their drug supply will always be at the whim of amoral or immoral street "dealers." In short: problem-free "daily use" can suddenly become "addiction" thanks to government policy alone, regardless of the brain chemistry of the individual concerned.
Take opium, for instance. Prior to 1914, users of the drug were considered habitues. After the outlawing of opium, however, these same people were perceived as "addicts," with all of the pejorative connotations that the term implies when used non-scientifically. Now, we can go on to speculate, of course, why these users might have been attracted to opium, but we should never lose track of the reason why that use was suddenly perceived as pathological. The drug had not changed between 1913 and 1915. The users and their desires had not changed. What changed is the law, namely thanks to legislation that essentially outlawed a plant, which I might add was in violation of the natural law upon which Jefferson (inspired by John Locke) had founded America (which tells us that Mother Nature's bounty is for the use of all and does not belong to government to dole out or withhold as it desires). The fact that opium suddenly became problematically "addictive" was a self-fulfilling prophecy, because the once problem-free nature of use was suddenly rendered problematic by drug law.
The very name of the course ("Addiction and the Brain") makes me worry that the course contents will have a tendency to normalize this substance prohibition, as if the criminalization of mother nature's psychoactive godsends was somehow a natural baseline from which to speculate about drug use, rather than an unprecedented state of affairs for most any society prior to the 20th century. Such an approach, I believe, blinds us to the truths about drug use in the age of prohibition and the role of government in creating pathologies out of whole cloth - now abetted with the help of science, it would seem to me, that now wants to tell us how the very desire for outlawed substances is not only illegal, but actually traceable to a brain chemistry anomaly. (It sounds a little "convenient" to me that something that government does not want us to do is suddenly being identified as a brain disease. Did Ben Franklin have a brain disease because he enjoyed opium? Did the Vedic people create their religion because they had a brain disease that predisposed them to seek out drugs like soma?) When we blame neurochemistry, we are giving prohibition a giant Mulligan for the many obstacles that it places in the way of users in their attempts to use drugs wisely (obstacles that are killing young people even as we speak, by denying them safe use info and incentivizing an unregulated and therefore dangerously unpredictable drug supply).
This is why I am leery of auditing a course with the title "Addiction and the Brain."
I believe that as long as we outlaw almost all psychoactive substances that provide self-transcendence, we have no way to speculate on the causes of addiction. It would be like speculating on the causes of a "sweet tooth" in a country in which all food was outlawed except gruel. Scientists in such a country might pathologize the desire for strawberry shortcake and find that some people are biochemically predisposed to have a "sweet tooth," but that misses the main point, which is that the country in question has outlawed all decent food and thereby created pathologies out of whole cloth. I do not for a moment deny that individuals have propensities for liking specific substances thanks to chemical receptors in their brains. What I'm saying is, we cannot call these factors problematic (let alone decisive causal factors) until we first get rid of the Drug War's many efforts (including prohibition) to ensure that drug use IS problematic. The first step is to stop forcing users to partake of substances of dubious quality - the first step is to regulate the drug supply - so that folks can choose the safest substances. Until then, addiction studies involve the hopeless task of separating the effects of the dealer's immorality and incompetence from the effects of "addiction" in the abstract. (Patient "A" died because of addiction? Really? Did they not rather die because, unbeknownst to themselves, they had received a dose that was twice as potent as their last purchase?)
I take this personally. As a young person with depression issues, I was called an "addictive personality" when I complained about the shabby niggardliness of psychiatric offerings for my complaints. I knew that drugs like coca, opium, laughing gas and, yes, even speed could cheer me up pronto - and I disliked the idea of being tranquilized by Big Pharma meds. But materialist science (looking in the microscope and ignoring "mere" happiness) insists that illegal drugs do not "really" work and that the desire for them is pathological - and that is ideology, not science. Even if we find brain correlates in those who crave such drugs, who's to say that those correlates prove pathology, as opposed to a positive trait: a trait from someone who wants to live large, not tranquilized? It would have seemed suspiciously "convenient" if neuroscience had claimed at the time that I was an "addictive personality," because then psychiatrists could ignore my complaints about their unconscionably limited pharmacopoeia, and tell me I had to be treated with mind-numbing meds for my own good. To see the evil of such reasoning, imagine if the government decided that concern for civil rights was a brain disease. Outrageous, right? Well, it's just as bad when the government says that desire to use godsend medicines - some of which have inspired entire religions - is pathological. The last thing I need is for government to tell me that my very desire for self-transcendence is pathological. Talk about an Orwellian diagnosis!
In short, I just do not believe that we can talk meaningfully about addiction without talking about the Drug War and prohibition at the same time. Nor can we discuss the situation meaningfully if we do not mention the inconvenient truth that 1 in 4 American women are dependent upon Big Pharma meds FOR LIFE. We talk about the downsides of "addiction," but the worst downside is surely dependence on someone else. In this sense, dependence on Big Pharma meds is worse than dependence on heroin or opium because a dependence on Big Pharma meds turns the user into an eternal patient, with all of the expensive, time-consuming and morale-lowering baggage that such a status entails. Say what you will about drug dealers, but they do not require their purchasers to tell them the details of their life and whether or not they've considered suicide since their last drug refill. Drug dealers would not be such busybodies. But psychiatrists and LPNs not only ask such questions, but they themselves are often half or even one-third the age of the "patients" to whom they are directing these humiliating queries.
LPN: Have you ever considered suicide?
ME: Only when I think how psychiatry and the Drug War have turned me into an eternal patient.
To create a course about addiction in the abstract seems highly problematic in these sociopolitical circumstances.
Until we re-legalize all medicines and teach safe use, how can we know how much of a problem addiction really is - or if addiction really exists, except as a natural byproduct of a failure to access, use and understand ALL substances properly? We are so brainwashed by the desire to fear substances that we cannot even envision a world in which we can literally use any and all psychoactive substances to help human beings experience self-transcendence safely. Until such freedom dovetails with a true desire for knowledge rather than propaganda, we'll continue to blame drugs for all problems in the world, and neuroscientists will, in my opinion, just be Drug War collaborators whose job is to normalize prohibition by ascribing "problematic" drug use to neurochemical pathology, failing to recognize that the problems thus created can almost all be traced to prohibition and the suppression of safe use information. To repeat: I do not deny that there are predilections for enjoying certain kinds of drugs, some of them no doubt neurochemical in nature, but before we tout them as sufficient explanatory causes, we first must acknowledge the presence of the gorillas in the room: namely, the Drug War and prohibition, which in combination do everything they possibly can do to make sure that use becomes abuse in the first place (sometimes, of course, merely by equating use with abuse, as the DEA does to this day whenever a substance has not been prescribed by board-certified physicians or their agents).
I myself use drugs - or rather I would like to use drugs - to follow up the spiritual and philosophical research of William James. But drug law will not let me do so. Now, it's bad enough that the government thus outlaws philosophical research, but it adds insult to injury when neuroscientists start ascribing my love for philosophical inquiry to a problem with my neurochemistry.
Our society outlaws almost all means of self-transcendence and then we profess surprise and chagrin when problems result with "drug use." Of course problems result: government policy is to NOT teach safe use; government policy is to incentivize dealers to sell unregulated product. We have caused these problems. They are not the result of some newly discovered neurochemical problems: people want transcendence. Always have, always will.
Addiction implies a usage pattern that is problematic for the user. Therefore, the topic of addiction cannot be fairly discussed until we acknowledge the myriad problems that prohibition and the Drug War create for users, thereby creating what we call addiction. Until we have "called out" Drug Warriors for causing these problems, the study of chemical propensities seems to me like a scientific attempt to take prohibitionists off the hook for the evil that they continue to work today, by keeping drug users ignorant and subject to the whims of an unregulated market.
In short, I fear, based on the title of your course, that you might be "reckoning without the Drug War" in your Wondrium lecture series. I'd be glad to learn otherwise, of course. However if you have treated these subjects fairly, then I would strongly suggest that you change the name of your lectures to something like "Addiction, the Brain, and the War on Drugs," thereby acknowledging the outsize role that substance prohibition plays in shaping our views about and attitude toward the subject of addiction.
Finally, we've got to talk about WHY people use drugs! They want self-transcendence.
To pathologize that instinct is not only anti-scientific, it's anti-human being.
Author's Follow-up: July 22, 2023
Until addiction scientists put prohibition front and center, their search for the supposed causes of addiction is always going to be suspicious to me. They seem committed to finding answers in the same way that OJ was committed to finding his wife's murderer: by first ignoring the most obvious suspect.
ME: "What are you gonna give me for my depression, doc? MDMA? Laughing gas? Occasional opium smoking? Chewing of the coca leaf?" DOC: "No, I thought we'd fry your brain with shock therapy instead."
Until we legalize ALL psychoactive drugs, there will be no such thing as an addiction expert. In the meantime, it's insulting to be told by neuroscience that I'm an addictive type. It's pathologizing my just indignation at psychiatry's niggardly pharmacopoeia.
We don't need people to get "clean." We need people to start living a fulfilling life. The two things are different.
Until we get rid of all these obstacles to safe and informed use, it's presumptuous to explain problematic drug use with theories about addiction. Drug warriors are rigging the deck in favor of problematic use. They refuse to even TEACH non-problematic use.
5% of proceeds from the sale of the above product will go toward getting Brian a decent haircut for once. Honestly. 9% will go toward shoes. 50% will go toward miscellaneous. 9% of the remainder will go toward relaxation, which could encompass anything from a spin around town to an outdoor barbecue at Brian's brother's house in Stanardsville (both gas and the ice-cream cake that Brian usually supplies).
You have been reading essays by the Drug War Philosopher, Brian Quass, at abolishthedea.com. Brian is the founder of The Drug War Gift Shop, where artists can feature and sell their protest artwork online. He has also written for Sociodelic and is the author of The Drug War Comic Book, which contains 150 political cartoons illustrating some of the seemingly endless problems with the war on drugs -- many of which only Brian seems to have noticed, by the way, judging by the recycled pieties that pass for analysis these days when it comes to "drugs." That's not surprising, considering the fact that the category of "drugs" is a political category, not a medical or scientific one.
A "drug," as the world defines the term today, is "a substance that has no good uses for anyone, ever, at any time, under any circumstances" -- and, of course, there are no substances of that kind: even cyanide and the deadly botox toxin have positive uses: a war on drugs is therefore unscientific at heart, to the point that it truly qualifies as a superstition, one in which we turn inanimate substances into boogie-men and scapegoats for all our social problems.
The Drug War is, in fact, the philosophical problem par excellence of our time, premised as it is on a raft of faulty assumptions (notwithstanding the fact that most philosophers today pretend as if the drug war does not exist). It is a war against the poor, against minorities, against religion, against science, against the elderly, against the depressed, against those in pain, against children in hospice care, and against philosophy itself. It outlaws substances that have inspired entire religions, Nazifies the English language and militarizes police forces nationwide.
It bans the substances that inspired William James' ideas about human consciousness and the nature of ultimate reality. In short, it causes all of the problems that it purports to solve, and then some, meanwhile violating the Natural Law upon which Thomas Jefferson founded America. (Surely, Jefferson was rolling over in his grave when Ronald Reagan's DEA stomped onto Monticello in 1987 and confiscated the founding father's poppy plants.)
If you believe in freedom and democracy, in America and around the world, please stay tuned for more philosophically oriented broadsides against the outrageous war on godsend medicines, AKA the war on drugs.
PS The drug war has not failed: to the contrary, it has succeeded, insofar as its ultimate goal was to militarize police forces around the world and help authorities to ruthlessly eliminate those who stand in the way of global capitalism. For more, see Drug War Capitalism by Dawn Paley. Oh, and did I mention that most Drug Warriors these days would never get elected were it not for the Drug War itself, which threw hundreds of thousands of their political opposition in jail? Trump was right for the wrong reasons: elections are being stolen in America, but the number-one example of that fact is his own narrow victory in 2016, which could never have happened without the existence of laws that were specifically written to keep Blacks and minorities from voting. The Drug War, in short, is a cancer on the body politic.
Rather than apologetically decriminalizing selected plants, we should be demanding the immediate restoration of Natural Law, according to which "The earth, and all that is therein, is given to men for the support and comfort of their being." (John Locke)
Andrew, Christopher "The Secret World: A History of Intelligence" 2019 Yale University Press
Aurelius, Marcus "Meditations" 2021 East India Publishing Company