Addiction As Particularized Process, Not Isolated Condition

In The Addiction Experience, Stanton Peele writes:

Addiction is not caused by a drug or its chemical properties. Addiction has to do with the effect a drug produces for a given person in given circumstances—a welcomed effect which relieves anxiety and which (paradoxically) decreases capability so that those things in life which cause anxiety grow more severe. We are addicted to the experience the drug creates for us.

Addiction is clearly a process rather than a condition….it cannot be viewed as an all-or-nothing state of being, one that is unambiguously present or absent….Addiction is an extension of ordinary behavior—a pathological habit, dependence, or compulsion. Just how pathological or addictive that behavior is depends on its impact on a person’s life.

We cannot say that a given drug is addictive, because addiction is not a peculiar characteristic of drugs. It is…a characteristic of the involvement that a person forms with a drug….addiction is not limited to drugs….any activity that can absorb a person in such a way as to detract from the ability to carry through other involvements is….addictive. [As cited in ‘Seven Things We Must Understand About Addiction to Undo the Mistakes of the Past 40 Years‘]

Addiction is the name given to a complex set of behaviors understood as pathological in context. The relevant context is the overall economy of the patient/user/agent’s life: what are their goals and ends in life? What is their scale of values? Does the behavior in question threaten these? These questions answered, the characterization can begin.

Put this way, addiction is not, for instance, an isolated, abstract, relationship between a ‘user’ and a drug; put the drug and the user together, and it pops into view. Rather, it is highly particularized. This user, when using this drug, in this circumstances and environment, given his or her expressed desires, ends, and values, is engaging in addictive behavior because those same desires, ends, and values have been compromised by these behaviors. The user does not have ‘an addictive personality’; the drug is not ‘addictive’. Change the circumstances and environment, you might obtain a different set of behaviors; freely–this is crucial–change your desires, ends, and values in such a way that these new ones are not compromised, and that same set of behaviors is not ‘addictive.’

As Peele notes, many activities and substances can be addictive–as the notions of ‘workaholic’ and ‘sex addict’ and the increasingly frantic calls to ‘unplug, disconnect, and get off the grid’ seem to confirm. Certainly the rise of social-media-blocking programs–the modern version of the addict locking himself into a room to prevent another visit to the dealer down the street–is ample confirmation that we find our world-denying relationships to social media pathological in at least one dimension. Perhaps our modern culture’s greatest sleight of hand in this regard has been to relegate the partaking of recreational drugs to the bin of addictive behavior while valorizing other forms of addiction–like working eighty-hour weeks.

In the meantime, we can continue to congratulate ourselves for having made ‘addictive’ drugs illegal and for locking up their users, all the while blithely ignoring circumstance and context. Pathology should be unsurprising.

Political Schooling Via The Usenet Newsgroup

As my post yesterday should have indicated, we are educated by a variety of modalities. A powerfully formative one for me was my exposure to Usenet newsgroups.

I discovered newsgroups in 1988, shortly after I began work as a research assistant with the Computerized Conferencing and Communications Center at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. I ‘worked’ long hours in our laboratory; email and newsgroups occupied much of that time (in between writing code, debugging code, and stepping out for coffee and cigarette breaks). I had arrived in the US from India in 1987,  a bachelor’s degree in hand; I considered myself well-read, but this inflated estimation of my edification was soon to be revised.

In the late eighties and the early nineties, Usenet newsgroups were largely populated by those with some form of university affiliation: faculty, students, staff, post-doctoral fellows. (Commercial affiliations were not unknown, but these were outnumbered by academic ones; the .edu address was most commonly visible.)  That demographic, unsurprisingly, voluble and prolific in its writing. (It is to the credit of the hacker community that so many of its members wrote often, and well, on newsgroups.)

The following hierarchy of newsgroups captures their eclectic and comprehensive nature:

  • comp.* — Discussion of computer-related topics
  • news.* — Discussion of Usenet itself
  • sci.* — Discussion of scientific subjects
  • rec.* — Discussion of recreational activities (e.g. games and hobbies)
  • soc.* — Socialising and discussion of social issues.
  • talk. * — Discussion of contentious issues such as religion and politics.
  • misc.* — Miscellaneous discussion—anything which does not fit in the other hierarchies.

I read a few of the .sci, .soc, .talk, and .rec groups on a daily basis. These were the time-sucks of their day; you could spend hours and hours, reading, responding, and engaging in flame wars. They were how you filled lunch and coffee breaks; they could make you stay up late at night, and log in frequently to see if new articles had shown up, to see if anyone had responded to your post.

It was here, in Usenet newsgroups, that I read many, many well-written, articulate, clearly argued and defended, points of view that I had never read before: free speech absolutism, the legalization of drugs, Palestinian self-determination, women’s reproductive rights, privacy rights, gay and lesbian rights, free software versus proprietary software, feminism, interpretations of the American constitution.  And many more. (I also spent a great deal of time reading and discussing cricket in the cricket newsgroup and the Grateful Dead in rec.music.gdead; ) When world-shaking events like the fall of Berlin Wall or Tiananmen  Square occurred on the world stage, they provoked corresponding discussions in the relevant groups. I read furious debates; refutations and counter-refutations; angry tirades; racist and xenophobic rants; calm, reasoned, erudite quasi-dissertations.

I had often entertained conventional views on or all some of these topics before I encountered newsgroups; very few of them survived their encounter with newsgroup discussions.  I read a great deal of revisionist history; I was offered many perspectives on world historical events that I had glibly thought I had understood  well. I had been complacent; I was no longer so. The sense of instability in my beliefs was alarming, but it was also exhilarating. I learned that seemingly air-tight arguments and refutations often contained fatal fallacies and weaknesses that could be exposed by close reading and careful attention to their logical and rhetorical form.

Some discussions were tedious, and many were repetitive, and later in the mid-nineties as the Internet bloomed and blossomed, I found the newsgroups less useful. I stopped reading them soon thereafter. But I never forgot those early readings–which produced in me a kind of ‘shock of the new.’

Many, many thanks are due to all those unnamed teachers of mine.

Maureen Dowd Lays Her Mile-High Bum Trip On Us

It might have been predicted, with probability one, that in the wake of Colorado legalizing marijuana, we would be inundated with tall tales of reefer madness sweeping the state, scouring the slopes and plains of that mountainous land like one of those snowy avalanches that sometimes afflict its more outdoorsy folk.

That moment is now upon us. And leading this undignified panicky charge is a long-time resident of that wasteland of privileged, pompous fatuity, the New York Times Op-Ed page:  Maureen Dowd.

Ms. Dowd, it seems, ate a marijuana-infused candy bar in Denver, and then had a bad time. Or rather, Ms. Dowd consumed an edible item without making the slightest attempt to determine what was in it, a strange move to make given marijuana’s known properties. Perhaps a query at the counter might have been helpful? You know, along the lines of, “Hey, how much pot is in this thing?”, or, perhaps, “How much of this should I eat at one time?”

Imagine traveling to an imaginary land, which has recently legalized an intoxicating substance–let’s call it Shmisky for the time being–and made it available for sale in bottled form. You know, as a grown mature adult, that this substance, if consumed in excess, can cause vomiting, loss of motor and sensory control, and perhaps even death. Yet, consumed in reasonable quantities, it leads to a loosening of inhibition and a pleasant sensation of well-being; many societies, just for that reason, have used it to enliven many forms of social gatherings.

On your first day in town, you walk into a shmaloon–places where shmisky is sold to the paying public–push open its batwing doors, park yourself at the counter, and say, “Garçon, hit me up with your finest shmisky.” Your friendly server pushes over an unlabeled bottle containing a dark liquid, suggesting you might like one of shmisky’s variants, blended with a sweet soft drink; some folks like drinking it in this form to change its taste. You begin consuming glass after glass, tossing them down, digging the sweetness of the additive, not bothering to ask your newly made friend what the potency of the drink is.

Hours later, you awake in the street. Your jaw aches, your wallet is missing, and a foul odor suggests you have thrown up all over yourself. You dimly remember a game of pool, and saying to a a large man with tattoos, “I’ll whip your ass all the way from here to kingdom come.”

You realize you were an idiot. You walk back to your hotel, take a shower, call the police and tell them about your missing wallet. When the police press for details, you shamefacedly admit you consumed an intoxicating substance without bothering to check the quantity you were consuming.  The police snicker, but keeping a straight face, continue to politely and solicitously take down your report.

When you return home, still chastened, you write an article on a national soapbox, telling your readers to not be a colossal idiot like you were.

You’re probably not Maureen Dowd.

Note: On a related note, read my post on Lohocla, the killer drug.

Marijuana Legalization: States Lead, the Center Follows, and Obama Stops Giggling?

Jacob Sullum at Reason.com looks at the marijuana legalization initiatives under way in Colorado, Washington and Oregon, and notes that there might be parallels with the repeal of alcohol prohibition, where the lead was taken by state initiatives:

By the time the 21st Amendment ended national alcohol prohibition in December 1933, more than a dozen states had already opted out. Maryland never passed its own version of the Volstead Act, while New York repealed its alcohol prohibition law in 1923. Eleven other states eliminated their statutes by referendum in November 1932.

We could see the beginning of a similar rebellion against marijuana prohibition this year as voters in three states—Washington, Colorado, and Oregon—decide whether to legalize the drug’s production and sale for recreational use. If any of these ballot initiatives pass, it might be the most consequential election result this fall, forcing both major parties to confront an unjust, irrational policy that Americans increasingly oppose. [link in original]

The figures in Sullum’s article seem to indicate that while Oregon’s voters currently seem disinclined to approve their state’s legalization initiative, those in Colorado and Washington appear far more in favor of finally bringing an end to the catastrophic insanity of the continuing illegality of marijuana.

But if Oregon does not make marijuana legal this year, I suspect its position as a neighboring state to Washington will complicate its position in the years to come.  Perhaps trans-border ‘marijuana tourism’ will pick up, infuriating Oregon’s law-enforcement officers and creating more headaches for them. This could lead to pressure on Washington, from Oregon, to increase the regulation on sales of marijuana (much as coffee-shops in the Netherlands sometimes do, to make sure that Belgian and German kids aren’t jumping on a train heading across the border to pick up a stash.) Conversely, the loss of such revenue to a neighboring state could perhaps aid the drive to legalization in Oregon. (‘Why lose all that cash to Washington?’)

The most significant effect of such state legalization initiatives will be the empirical data they will provide for national designers of drug policy: What are its effects on patterns of drug usage, on the so-called ‘gateway effect’, on crime statistics? Perhaps the presence of such data will indicate to other states that their worst fears about legalization are not being realized in states bold enough to just say ‘no’ to the war on drugs. And perhaps it will induce some seriousness into our president whose ‘leadership’ in drug policy thus far has consisted of a passable imitation of an ostrich. (One that snickers; see below.)

Sullum goes on to note:

As The Seattle Times observed in a recent editorial endorsing Initiative 502, “The question for voters is not whether marijuana is good. It is whether prohibition is good.” The voices rejecting prohibition in Washington and Colorado include city council members, state legislators, former U.S. attorneys, clergymen, retired cops, and two national police organizations—a hard group to dismiss as a bunch of silly potheads, which is President Obama’s usual approach to the issue. [links in original]

Do chase down the link to the video of Obama, and his faithfully acolytic audience, giggling–like a bunch of silly potheads–at the mere raising of the question. I had never imagined that an expensive, racist, deadly policy could be so funny.

Should Latin America End the War on Drugs?

Should it? That’s the question asked in today’s ‘Room for Debate’ over at the New York Times. Well, depends. Only if it does not want to persist in its present commitment to the expensive, counterproductive and catastrophic-to-civil-liberties course of action that the United States is currently pursuing.

The real question–as most would acknowledge–is not whether Latin America should end the war on drugs, but whether the US will let it. South of the border, the legalization of drugs as a policy serious option remains in hock to the larger crisis of US-Latin American relationships: the oversized dependence of the region on US aid. Furthermore, the massive law-and-order-enforcement-industrial complex that derives its raison d’etre from the whack-a-mole escapades that are its forte, is certainly not going to be favorably inclined. Military advisers to conduct quasi-civil wars in rainforests and Andean highlands, the expanding and sizeable drug-war related portion of the budgets of the FBI, CIA and DEA, all speak against the plausibility of the US ever changing its stance.

In this context, the visible pronouncements–earlier this year in April– of Latin American leaders–a veritable insurgency–came as a pleasant surprise:

The very word “legalization” has been taboo for so long that it was a shock to hear it mentioned as a sensible option by unimpeachable allies of the United States like Juan Manuel Santos, president of [Colombia]; President Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala; and Laura Chinchilla, president of the normally low-profile and peaceful nation of Costa Rica.

Given this trend of increasing consideration for the legalization option, the Latin American leadership summit in Cartagena promised interesting, possibly radical, action. The US–in drearily predictable fashion–had already made its opposition known. As Barack Obama stated the day before the summit:

 [L]egalizing and decriminalizing drugs would not eliminate the danger posed by transnational organized crime.”

Of course, that ‘transnational organized crime’ exists precisely because the US has exported its war on drugs, or rather, not so subtly, rammed it down the throats of Latin America. The drug war spreads across borders all too easily:

[Gautemala’s planning minister, Fernando] Carrera, a thoughtful and soft-spoken economist who has an MA in philosophy and political development from Cambridge, talked about the pernicious way the drug trade is never defeated when it is attacked, but simply migrates from one country to another, leaving a disaster in its wake. “What Mexico has done [during President Felipe Calderón’s five-year-old war against the drug trade] is to sweep the problem under the rug and all the way over to us, and in turn we swept it over to Honduras. Honduras is today one of the most violent countries in the world, and the principal thoroughfare for drugs on their way from the producing countries in the south to the consuming countries in the north.

(What was interesting about the Cartagena summit that followed was the grim focus by the US media on the Secret Service-n-prostitutes scandal, and on ‘Swillary.’ Indeed, had I not been reminded about Molina’s announcement and the US opposition to it, I might have forgotten about the pro-legalization initiative entirely, so engrossed was I by the salacious details of the Secret Service’s romps and the amazing news that adults drink beer after work.)

The US did not actively intervene at the summit to derail talk of legalization, but it did next the best thing: recommended its further ‘study.’ So, the final word for now–discussion of the legalization initiative is in the hands of the OAS (‘a recognized burial ground for sweeping initiatives of any kind’)–remains with the US President:

The United States is not going to legalize or decriminalize drugs…because doing so would have serious negative consequences, in all our countries, in terms of health and public safety.

Read that and weep. There is no way Obama can possibly believe it, yet parrot it he will, relentlessly, to the continued detriment of this country and its neighbors.

Note: All quotes are from Alma Guillermoprieto’s recent article in the New York Review of Books [linked to above in the reference to the pro-legalization announcement made by Latin American leaders].