On September 14, 1986, First Lady, Nancy Reagan, with her husband, Ronald Reagan, by her side as her moral support, gave her famous “just say no” to drugs speech that not only captured the imaginations of millions of Americans, but helped spark a larger, controversial, and tumultuous dialogue about what our nations’ role should be in the fight against drug abuse that, till this present day, are still being discussed.
But too often – and so was the case in the mid-1980s – our discussions today centers around the moral corruption of the person who engages in the risky behavior of drugs use, rather than taking into account some of the social conditions that might have propelled them to such lifestyles. We say that they are wayward, criminal-minded and that the government should crack down on them; by throwing the book at them; so that they learn their lesson and never do drugs again. Though some of those perspectives hold merit and will properly be explored later, the problem with these types of discussions is that they perpetuate the feelings of alienation and stress that victims of drug abuse are trying, every day, to overcome.
With recent statistics showing that over two million Americans are now dependent on – or have abused – prescription drugs in the past or at least 91 people a day were dying from drug overdoses in 2015, and by 2016, how more than 64,000 Americans died from, yet, more drug-related overdoses, it’s easy to see that the war on drugs has not yielded the type of results that we were hoping for. One reason for this could be that people are innately bad, and are so disinterested in actually getting better, that they rather live with their addiction than actively pursue a life of recovery.
The second reason could be, and like Nancy Reagan alluded to in her “just say no” to drugs speech, that the criminals that are selling drugs to our children are “ingenious,” and that, every time we close one door on them, they somehow manage to open a newer “door to death” for millions of children. A third reason to why we may still be losing this war could be that the very same doctors that are supposed to make people better by prescribing them with the exact amount of drugs that they need are actually making things worse by prescribing them with way too many drugs to begin with. The fourth possible reason is that some of our nation’s best efforts on stopping drug abuse, i.e., tougher drug regulations, higher sentencing for drug-related offenses, and “just say no” to drugs campaigns, has only helped to further fan the flames of drug abuse to dangerous proportions.
Whatever side you fall on, I think we can agree that the war on drugs is not as easy to solve as some people have made it out to be. Just saying no to drugs, for instance, does not answer the question of; what do you do with the children that are now orphaned because their parents overdosed on drugs? or what do you say to the grandparents who now have to put off retirement to take care of those children? and how do you address the issue of overcrowding that mortuaries are now having to deal with because of drug-related overdoses?
That said, I can see how someone who is concerned about this issue could adopt the idea that addicts are not victims. Namely, because victimhood tends to be an involuntary phenomenon and a human being – for the most part – is a voluntary creature. And according to this logic, a person that becomes addicted to drugs does so voluntarily. For instance, nobody twisted their arms or put a gun to their head and said that they have to become addicted to drugs or die. It was purely their decision to become addicted. To disagree with this fact, they’d say, would take away that person’s sense of personal responsibility for their own actions. I can see that.
However, I would like to add a little more to that logic by expanding it for one second; it seems to me that whenever we talk about personal responsibility we often package it with restricting aide or crucial resources to people who may need our help the most. For instance, I’ve actually heard some people say to victims of any issue, that their success will depend largely on how well they can pick themselves up by their own bootstraps. Although I can see how this tough love tactic could work on some people, in the majority of other people though, it may not only register as “you’re on your own,” but it may further add to their anxiety and feelings of alienation. And that’s the last thing we want our loved ones to feel when they need us the most; that they cannot come to us for help or for counseling.
Furthermore, and for those who are absolutely convinced on tough love, I think it may interest you to learn of a unique study done back in the late 1970s, by Dr. Bruce Alexander, a psychologist from Vancouver, Canada, whose area of expertise centers around studying the effects of drug addiction in animals and in humans; where he placed one rat in a cage and gave it the option to drink water laced with heroin or another water not laced with heroin. What came as no surprise to everyone involved in the study was that the rat not only preferred the water laced with the heroin but it kept going back to it until it killed itself.
But although the rats’ death was a tragedy, Dr. Bruce Alexander wasn’t entirely convinced that it was the heroin laced water that was the sole culprit of the rats’ death, so he ran a second experiment, this time, adding more rat friends in the cage with colored balls and tunnels for them to play around in. His assumption was; maybe if the rats had something else to do other than stay in a lonely cage by themselves and drink heroin laced water all day, that they might actually not turn to the heroin laced water and overdose like so many other rats were doing. Fortunately for Dr. Bruce Alexander and his team, not only was his assumption accurate but, impressively, none of his rats actually went near the heroin laced water—-all of them just happily played with each other and made love all day.
What does this tell us? Firstly, it tells us that, if given the chance to drink heroin laced water or make love, rats will always choose love. But more importantly, it tells us that isolation and the lack of support and love from others will force some animals to exhibit dangerous behaviors. Still, I suspect that some of you may cite the fact that this study only pertained to rats in fancy cages – and not humans – so of course, they’d do that. And the majority of you would be right, except for the fact that Dr. Bruce Alexander actually ran similar experiments with humans and got the same results.
You see, humans, much like rats, are social creatures and the moment we isolate humans from other humans we force them to not only feel alienated, but to turn to “bad” behaviors, like heroin, violence, or a life of criminality to make themselves feel better. To fight against this, it’s not enough to just throw the book at people and lock them up in cages, so that they, hopefully, learn their lessons. This method only wastes taxpayers’ money, overpopulate our prison systems, and create alternative ways for people to make and sell drugs. “In the case of addiction,” wrote Dr. Bruce Alexander. “We have to go beyond the old stigmatization….and also beyond the old medical model; we have to go to a much larger social analysis.” In other words, we need to think of pro-social solutions to social problems. Primarily, because addiction not only affects a particular person and their immediate family members, but it also affects their community, their country, and their nation.
Having said that, there have been, at least, two scenarios in my life that I’ve been affected – or touched in some way, shape, or form – by someone else’s, singular, decision to become addicted to drugs. Also, and giving how widespread the drug epidemic has been in the last 40-plus years, I’m perfectly willing to also add that, perhaps, majority of you out there currently know someone who is either struggling with an addiction, is thinking about experimenting with addictive substances or are now 6-feet under because of a drug-related overdose. And although their decision might have been a singular one, it has, nonetheless, left the type of impression on your life that can – and will – never actually go away. And that’s a very tough thing to deal with; because it’s one thing to accept, while they’re still alive, that they’re addicted and that there’s nothing you can do about it, but it’s a completely different thing to actually try to now live with the fact that they’re no longer here with us.
Personally, it wasn’t that long ago that two people that I knew from High School died because of their addictions to drugs. The first one to go – and although it was tragic – came as no surprise to me, because almost everybody knew that his level of addiction was going to end up badly. So, and it pains me to say this, it didn’t really affect me as much as I thought it would. But, the second one; came as a complete shock to me. I had no idea that he was even taking drugs or was addicted to drugs; it just felt so random and strange when I heard that that was what took him away from us. And (as I’m currently trying to hold back tears and wipe the previous ones off my keyboard) what still trips me out, every time that I think about it; is that the last time that I saw him he was his usual self; laughing from ear-to-ear and cracking jokes about some of the other friends we knew from high school. If someone would have said to me, in that moment; that, Lewuga, this happy and charming friend in front of you is going to die the following year, I would have joked and laughed about it—-just like he was doing.
Looking back now, I wished that I’d had the foresight to see that, although he looked like his usual self, something was, in fact, different about him. Also, I wished that he, himself, should have, at least, had the courage and the strength to seek some kind of treatment, because if he’d had done so, his kind, loyal and fair-minded personality, could have been the sort of things that our society would have benefited a great deal from. But although that might have been the case, it would be inaccurate for me to think that his chances of actually overcoming his addictions would have been likely because, as of this moment, there are no programs out there, in the United States, that considers, not only the health and safety of an addict but also the impact that their recovery will have on the rest of our society. In short, there are no legally-mandated pro-social initiatives.
Presently, one of the few places in the world that have these pro-social solutions to combating drug abuses is Vancouver, Canada, and Switzerland. And by pro-social I mean; harm-reduction centers, where staff not only monitor and actually administer drugs to people, but they provide them with clean needles, counseling, and also with finding jobs and housing. And secondly; we don’t have the sort of clinics, like the ones in Vancouver, Canada, where those struggling with drug addiction can, for example, get prescription heroin, free, clean needles and expert care from doctors and nurses who truly care about their recovery.
This is not to say that we, Americans, are insensitive to people with addictions, it’s just that majority of us in this country still view addiction as a weakness of character. And the sad thing about this perspective is, that, while we’re still holding on to them, other countries and their citizens are getting better and better. In fact, in Switzerland, where back in the 1990s the country was nearly coming apart because of drug abuses, thefts, and high amounts of sexually transmitted diseases; drug-related crimes and cases of sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/Aids and Hepatitis, are almost nonexistent. The closest we’ve come to these types of successful, pro-social approaches in the U.S., are needle-exchange programs that are now starting to pop up in some states, like Vermont, Idaho, and now, Pennsylvania.
But, and although these places – and the rest of society – still have long ways to go; by, at least, providing addicts with safe needles to use their drugs with, some people are now realizing that not only are patients reporting lesser cases of sexually transmitted diseases, but majority of them are now able to focus their time and energy on pursuing other progressive alternatives, chiefly because they no longer have to constantly worry about where their next, clean needles will come from. And from what I’ve read so far, some experts are now convinced that by adopting a pro-social model for treating drug addicts, whole communities, once crippled by the drug epidemic, can recover and get back to doing the good things that they were doing for their citizens. If this trend continues, which I hope it does, we will see more Americans getting their lives back together in no time.
When we punish, criticize, and even isolate people from receiving help, we’re not only risking pushing them back toward their unhealthy behaviors, but what we’re also communicating to them – and to the larger society – is that we don’t care about their wellbeing, or whether or not they might be feeling stressed or alienated. And like the rat study, when someone feels alienated, or are detached from other people, they’re going to engage in risk, and sometimes, deadly behaviors. Luckily, what other countries have shown us and what experts are now saying, is that those old models of treating addictions are just not working.
Seeing how far we’ve come in the battle against drug abuse, it’s not enough any more to tell individuals to “just say no” to drugs like Nancy Reagan once suggested, or to tell drug dealers to “take a hike,” according to Clint Eastwood; we must all come together and form a human cage around those who may need us the most. Because, addiction, after all, is not a one-person enterprise; we all, like it or not, have a role to play in that person’s life, and their recovery. And we can either accelerate their progress by showing them love and compassion or we can deteriorate it by shaming them into isolation. With so many lives at stake, I hope we choose wisely.
Image by Sajjad Sabihi from Unsplash
Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no” to drugs speech
Clint Eastwood and Nancy Reagan; tell drug dealers to “Take a hike” commercial
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