Are we Addicted to the War on Drugs?

It all started back in 1971, when President Nixon declared the “War on Drugs”. Today, there are many who believe that this so-called “war” actually promotes drug addiction and drug abuse. Are we fighting a war on vulnerable members of society? The Week looks into this question and concludes that the War on Drugs does more harm than good.

Addiction rates remain unchanged

Despite trillions of dollars being ploughed into drug law enforcement, addiction rates have remained unchanged and have even increased in certain sectors of the population. Meanwhile, prisons fill up with non-violent offenders that have “struck out” because their addiction prevented them from quitting after initial arrests. Why is this happening? The Week suggests that a lack of understanding as to what addiction really entails is to blame.

Learning through reward

We already know that dopamine, a chemical secreted by our own bodies, plays an important role in addiction. The purpose of the midbrain’s dopaminergic system is the enhancement of learning when rewards are present. When we use drugs, alcohol or even sugar, our brains tell us that something extremely important has just happened to us, and that whatever it is, the actions that led to the reward should be repeated.

We associated certain places, certain people and, of course, the drug itself with an extremely rewarding, even euphoric experience, and we seek out that situation again and again. It’s not really a matter of being rebellious or contrary. Our brains are wired to tell us we’re doing the “right thing”. We literally learn to become addicts, because our brains want repeats of the reward experience.

To get this, our prefrontal cortex springs into action, devising a plan that leads us to the reward. It leads us into the environments that we know will prove fruitful for the realization of the plan, and it leads us to the people we associate with the dopamine kick that helped us to learn to seek out reward. The entire process forms part of the addiction.

Scared of relapse? Unfriend your Facebook friends!

After detox, relapse rates are high. Despite the incredible effort and inconvenience we went to in order to kick a habit, we are constantly confronted with elements that once formed part of our addictions, be it people or places. The Week notes that avoiding people we associate with a drug habit becomes extremely difficult in a world of electronic communication. Just seeing them or hearing from them triggers the thinking process associated with our previous addiction.

We might say that this is a fantasy on the part of those who seek to “excuse” addiction, but laboratory animals showed similar patterns when confronted with elements they have come to associate with a drug reward, even after they have been “clean” for a significant time. The learned response is triggered, and the reward is sought.

The amygdala causes sensations of craving

Another portion of our brain that is not controlled by our conscious cognition, the amygdala, also joins in making recovery a difficult process. It’s an area of the brain that deals with emotion and arousal. During drug use, the amygdala reinforces the emotional state we are in, but it doesn’t stop there. When we quit, the amygdala becomes increasingly active, causing sensations of desperate longing and distress as it calls for the reward it is no longer getting. The desire to get high is transformed from a want to a compulsion – the desperation that causes addicts to be willing to do anything whatsoever in order to get drugs to escape the sensations of misery they are experiencing during abstinence.

The law doesn’t take neuroscience into account

Anti-drug laws don’t take the physiology of addiction into account. Although everyone is aware of addiction as a dangerous health condition, the law merely responds with “Thou shalt not”, which is easier said than done when your brain has been hijacked by an addiction. You might think “Never again”, but that’s just your conscious mind at work, and its resolution will be constantly combatted by the areas of the brain it can’t control.

By making drug use an illegal, stigmatized situation, the law reinforces the environment the brain learns to seek out. It promotes feelings of terrible guilt and promotes secrecy. This in turn results in incredible stress and feelings of social isolation. Only fellow-drug users and dealers can understand how we feel as addicts and what we do to feed our addiction. We enter a twilight world that is characterized by criminality and violence, and we become part of it.

Why treatment centers and decriminalization reduce addiction

In countries like Portugal and the Netherlands where drug use is decriminalized and where treatment centers allow safe access to drugs, addiction rates are falling. In addition, secondary tragedies related to drug addiction: overdoses, HIV transmission and jail time for addicts, have been reduced substantially. It’s easier for people to see themselves as worthwhile members of society with a problem when they are accepted in a legally sanctioned environment. The Week theorizes that this may be because the learning context of addiction is altered, and calls for government to relinquish its addiction to the War on Drugs.

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