When I was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, drug addiction was explained to me in a very simple way, says Peter Kelly

 

There are some drugs that are so addictive it does not matter who you are or what socio-economic background you are from, if you take these drugs just once you will become a lifelong addict.

Drug addicts only have themselves to blame because they chose to try these drugs even though they knew they would become addicts. I had no reason to question this portrait of drug addiction and I believed it.

I recently interviewed Johann Hari who wrote a book on drug addiction called ‘Chasing the Scream.’ He agreed with me that his view on drug addiction was the same as mine growing up. However, after travelling the world researching his hugely successful and critically acclaimed book, he now holds a different view.

When I qualified as a pharmacist, I met drug addicts for the first time. I began to question my understanding of what a drug addict is. From speaking to drug addicts, I learnt that many had severe mental health problems or learning difficulties, many of them had been physically, emotionally, psychologically and/or sexually abused as children and many of them had grown up in and still lived in extreme poverty.

In 10 years working in two different countries I never met a drug addict who I thought had the same upbringing of love and support I had, free from mental health problems and poverty who simply destroyed their life because they chose to take a drug that was so addictive it became the sole focus of their life.

Over the years I read everything I could on addiction to better understand the people I was dealing with. I learnt that who you are (your genetic make-up) and your environment play a huge role in drug addiction.

They are a much more determining factor than the drug. If you grow up with severe mental health issues that make social integration difficult to impossible, you will be at a higher risk of drug addiction.

If you grow up in poverty and are a victim of abuse you will be at a higher risk of drug addiction.

Nobody chooses to be born into poverty. Nobody chooses to be born with genetics that makes them more susceptible to mental health issues. Nobody chooses to be abused in childhood. Many people choose to try drugs but only a small percentage become addicted and they are the ones we choose to punish.

They become addicted because they are the most vulnerable and are living in the most difficult circumstances. Johann qualifies this by saying: “People can see where our addiction is at its worst is where people are in the most pain.”

Our solution to tackling drug addiction is based on the simple view I believed growing up – that it is all about the drugs and so we spend huge sums of money punishing drug addicts by putting them in jail and trying to cut off the drug supply unsuccessfully.

If we collectively had a better understanding of drug addiction, we would redirect that money to reduce poverty, pay for more appropriate mental health services and protect vulnerable children from abuse. This, I believe, would reduce drug addiction in our society.

Is there any evidence to support my hunch? In Johanns’ book he cites the case of Portugal where they have moved resources from punishment to health and social care for addicts. The rate of drug addiction is declining in Portugal. He also cites the case of Arizona where they are doubling down on punishment for addicts and rates of addiction are increasing.

I finished my chat with Johann by asking whether the reception to his book was different in the UK to the USA. He replied the response has been the same. He still receives 50 emails a day from addicts or relatives of addicts, thanking him for explaining their addiction to them.

He recently spoke to a woman whose brother was an addict. She had not spoken to him for seven years. After reading Johanns’ book she met up with him to say she was no longer angry with him for his predicament but was now angry at the way he was treated.

Johann Hari’s TED talk and animation video about addiction have been viewed over 16 million times. The more we educate the public to truly understand addiction the sooner we can move as a society to treat it as a health and social issue rather than a criminal one.

 

Peter Kelly is a London-based pharmacist. You can follow Peter on Facebook: the friendly pharmacist.

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