Several movies have come out in the past few months that got me thinking about drugs – not about taking them – but about the cost of drug addiction, both financial or otherwise. And like most things in the modern world, drug abuse has gotten more complicated. My thoughts about drugs have led me to these conclusions: (i) our views about drugs often change as our culture changes; (ii) drug abuse of any kind affects much more than just the abuser, and (iii) as we are currently fighting it, we are losing the war on drugs.
A Good Drug or a Bad Drug?
Growing up, about the only drugs I remember hearing about were vaccines, penicillin, heroin, cocaine, LSD, and marijuana. Of course, society back then considered vaccines and penicillin to be useful drugs, and deemed heroin, cocaine, LSD, and marijuana to be dangerous drugs – so terrible they were made illegal. We placed alcohol, which is also a drug, in the middle, making it generally legal for adults, unless you do something else unlawful while under its influence. I came of age in the 70s, along with a new drug culture. Mind-altering drugs became mainstream, with music leading the way. Peter, Paul and Mary sang about Puff, the Magic Dragon (although they denied it was anything more than a children’s song), the Beatles sang about Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (LSD), and Jefferson Airplane sang about how one pill makes you larger, and another makes you small.
As our culture changes, so do our views about drugs. A century ago, cocaine was a legal drug and often prescribed by doctors in the form of laudanum. The soft drink Coca Cola originally had cocaine in it. And our views about marijuana have changed, as it is now legally used in at least 39 states for medical uses; nine of which have legalized it for even recreational use.
Now, the drugs of choice are antidepressants – which most people consider to be a beneficial drug. According to a recent report by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in eight Americans over the age of twelve take antidepressants. Women are twice as likely to take antidepressants as men, and overall, the taking of antidepressants by all Americans has risen by 65 percent from 1999 to 2014. The use of antidepressants increases the older we get. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, for every 100 women and men over age 75, 60 percent of women and 32 percent of men take antidepressants.
Please don’t misunderstand me; antidepressants help a lot of people, including several members of my own family. These drugs, when used correctly, can be lifesavers for those that need them.
The Victims of Drug Abuse
But the proper use of drugs is the key. When we think of drug abuse, we often only think about the abuser. If people want to ruin their lives, we might say to ourselves, then let them. It’s none of my business. But with all things surrounding drugs, it is never quite that simple. The film, Ben is Back,[i] is about a young man (Ben) who returns home from drug rehab and how his return affects the rest of the family, especially his mother. Ben, as an opiate abuser who can no longer be trusted, even in connection with simple, ordinary events, as illustrated by this scene:
With any abuser, drug or otherwise, a strange dynamic arises between the abuser and the abuser’s support system. The supporters, based on experience, often end up hiding drugs, money, or information from the abuser – actions strangely similar to what the abuser might do. The primary factor in the relationship between the abuser and the supporter is a loss of trust in the abuser, and any time there is a loss of that trust, it takes time and many positive experiences to regain it. The heart of Ben is Back is Ben’s mother trying to extricate Ben from his previous life, which turns out not to be easy. Ultimately, the film is a tribute to a mother’s unconditional love who will do anything to help her son. Although fictional, the story of Ben and his family is all too familiar in America today, as the annual number of deaths from opiate overdoses now exceeds the number of gun homicides. And mainstream drug addiction has spread from inner-cities to the suburbs, touching all races, ethnicities, and economic levels.
Fathers get their due in Beautiful Boy,[ii] the true story of a father coping with his son’s opiate addiction of many years. This scene from the film, reminds us that being a parent of a substance abuser is difficult, and one of the most significant difficulties is helping the abuser to see themselves as anything other than an abuser:
One of the saddest scenes in the movie is when Nic (the beautiful boy) describes how, after a while, an abuser no longer gets any high from the drug. Still, they keep taking it merely to stay alive. It is a real prison, just as real as if the abuser was behind real bars. But there is hope. I honor those parents who continue to have faith in their children regardless of the circumstances. Here is the ending scene from Beautiful Boy:
But the effects of drug abuse are not limited to families of the abusers. Illegal drugs affect all of society. According to the U.S. government, the economic costs of illicit drugs exceeds over $215 billion a year in America. Illicit drugs result in an overworked justice system, crowded prisons, a strained healthcare system, and a general loss of productivity, among other adverse effects. In 2007, an estimated 2.1 million American children (3%) lived with at least one parent who was dependent on or abused illicit drugs, and 1 in 10 children under 18 lived with a substance-addicted or substance-abusing parent. Moreover, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimated in 1999 that substance abuse was a factor in two-thirds of all foster care placements. In my own extended family, we have taken in two foster children, both the direct result of drug abuse by a parent. The FBI reports that 12.2 percent of more than 14 million arrests in 2008 were for drug violations, the most common arrest crime category. The proportion of total drug arrests has increased over the past 20 years, as in 1987, only 7.4 percent of all arrests were for drug violations. Approximately 4 percent of all homicides in 2008 were drug-related.
In The Mule,[iii] a movie based on actual events, Clint Eastwood plays fictional character Earl Stone, a character based on the 90-year old real life WWII veteran, Leo Sharp. Stone, like the real-life Sharp, is a horticulturalist who ens up smuggling drugs for a drug cartel out of financial desperation. Here is the trailer for the film:
Although Stone uses the cash he receives from running heroin and cocaine to right past wrongs in sort of a Robinhood fashion, he realizes that money alone cannot correct his past neglect of his family.
Is There a Better Way?
America has been fighting drugs for over a century now. In the beginning, we focused on suppliers. The country passed its first drug law in 1914, which restricted the manufacture and sale of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and morphine.
In 1971, President Nixon declared war on drugs, calling it “America’s public enemy number one.” He created the Drug Enforcement Agency in 1973. That agency began Operation Intercept designed to pressure Mexico into regulating its marijuana production. The U.S. government spent hundreds of millions of dollars closing up the border. We were successful in curtailing some of the supply of Mexican marijuana in America, at least for a time, but Columbia quickly stepped in to fill the void. Every effort since then to stop the supply of drugs into America has mostly resulted in the reorganization of drug trafficking, but with no overall reduction in the amount entering the country.
Johan Hari, in an article in the Huffington Post in February of 2015,[iv] suggests another way. Hari describes early experiments with rats where experimenters put a rat in a cage, alone, with two water bottles. One was just water. The other was water laced with heroin or cocaine. The rat became obsessed with the drugged water and kept coming back for more until it killed itself. But in the 70s, psychologist Bruce Alexander changed the experiment. Instead of putting a rat alone in a cage with nothing to do but sip water or cocaine, he put rats in what he called Rat Park – a home full of good rat food, balls to play with, and more importantly, other rats. All the rats in Rat Park tried both bottles, but when the rats were living the good life full of good food, family and friends, they shunned the drugged water. None of them died, and they consumed less than a quarter of the drugs an isolated rat used.
Subsequent experiments then took drug-addicted rats and moved them into Rat Park. Amazingly, the addicted rats initially had a few twitches of withdrawal, but soon stopped their heavy drug use and went back to having a normal life.
Hari quotes Professor Peter Cohen who states, “human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It’s how we get our satisfaction. If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find — the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe. He says we should stop talking about ‘addiction’ altogether, and instead call it ‘bonding.’ A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn’t bond as fully with anything else.
So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.”
In 2001, Portugal took a different approach to the war on drugs and began treating addiction as a disease. It decriminalized the use of all drugs. At the time, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe, with one percent of the population addicted to heroin. They took the money they had been using to arrest and jail drug addicts and spend it instead on reconnecting them — to their own feelings, their families, and society in general. The country helped them secure housing, and subsidized jobs so the addict would have a reason to get out of bed each day.
Since Portugal’s decriminalization, addiction has fallen about 75 percent, and the number of deaths from drug overdoses dropped by almost 85 percent. In contrast, in 2016, about 64,000 Americans died from drug overdoses, more than the number of U.S. soldiers killed in the Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq wars combined. Portugal’s is not a perfect system, but it seems to be working better than ours.
Like rats, humans need connections.
I am a loner by nature, but even us loners need to bond with at least a few
family and friends and to have a purpose in life. Like the characters in Ben is Back
and Beautiful Boy, strong connections
can be the most significant factor in helping the addict. In my
experience, loving a “sinner” – addict or otherwise – always works better than
shaming and isolating.
[i] Ben is Back
- Production Companies: Black Bear Pictures, 30West, and Color Force
- Director: Peter Hedges
- Screenwriter: Peter Hedges
- Starring: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, and Courtney B. Vance
- Release date: December 9, 2018
[ii] Beautiful Boy
- Production Companies: Amazon Studios, Big Indie Pictures, and Plan B Entertainment
- Director: Felix van Groeningen
- Screenwriters: Luke Davies and Felix van Groeningen
- Starring: Steve Carell, Maura Tierney, and Timothée Chalamet
- Release date: October 14, 2018
[iii] The Mule
- Production Companies: Warner Bros., Imperative Entertainment, and Bron Creative
- Director: Clint Eastwood
- Screenwriter: Sa, Dolnick
- Starring: Bradley Cooper, Clint Eastwood, and Manny Montana
- Release date: December 16, 2018
[iv] Hari, “The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think,” The Huffington Post (February 13, 2015).