Addiction Beat

Why we have it all wrong

Dealing with Toronto’s Mayor

Rob Ford saga is a window into addiction myths and delusions

Living as I do in the city of Toronto, I get an up-close look at the trials and tribulations of our Mayor, Rob Ford. The jig is up: he now admits to having smoked crack, though only during a “drunken stupor.”

Being as I am an addiction expert known to have struggled with alcoholism and crack addiction, I’ve been popular with the media: I’ve done quite a few interviews over the last few days—radio and TV.

For me, the biggest lesson has involved a (re)immersion into the many myths and delusions governing our North American addiction culture. Let’s deal with two:

1. Everywhere you read that the mayor “needs” rehab, and apparently he’s doomed without it—so his insistence that he need not leave work for a stint in rehab is a sign of denial on his part.

2. People question whether it is even possible for someone to smoke crack once or twice without becoming an addict—so the mayor must be lying when he says he’s not addicted to crack.

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I hate to do this, because I really don’t like this mayor, but it is my duty to point out that Rob Ford may be right on both counts. Of course he may be wrong, but the issue is that people are jumping to conclusions.

1. Media figures are often surprised when I tell them something that is common knowledge in the addiction field: most people who quit their addictions do so without treatment or 12 Step involvement of any kind. So, who am I to say that the mayor needs rehab? Don’t get me wrong: I would not discourage him from making use of available options. Furthermore, in his shoes I would want some time off—and maybe that would do him good. Apparently, he is now getting some professional help—and I’m glad that he is. It still remains, however, that engagement with the system will—at best —increase someone’s odds of recovering ever so slightly. So, first, many people in worse shape than Toronto’s mayor have licked their addictions without rehab of any kind; and, second, all rehab can do is give a nudge to a process that is largely independent of treatment efforts. You wouldn’t know it, though, if all you had to go on were mainstream media accounts. Have the recovery spin-doctors successfully conned the North American public into thinking that “rehab” is not only necessary, but an automatic ticket to freedom from addiction? So it would seem, no matter how humbling the success rates really are. Oh well …

 2. And some people really think that there can be no such thing as a onetime, or occasional, crack user. Too bad if it’s well known that many people who try crack don’t even like it (and hence are unlikely to try it again); and too bad if studies of “hard to reach” populations have shown conclusively that many crack users are occasional users, rather than full blown addicts.

Still, it’s hard for reason and science to overpower the noise: “all drunks need treatment,” and “crack is such an overwhelming demon drug that occasional use is impossible.”

Reality Check (1): Most substance addicts manage to change their behavior without rehab of any kind—and too bad for the pecuniary interests of the treatment system.

Reality Check (2): No matter how addictive crack can be, it is nothing like the demonized substance the media has portrayed it to be—none of the popular drugs of potential abuse really are, because we live in the real world and not in a B Grade film.

So, in radio and TV appearances, I’ve done my best to dispel these myths. On both counts, the mayor might be right, and the media (fueled by the recovery police) have been wrong to jump to conclusions.

And here’s the saddest cut of all: the scenario has caused me to do something I never thought I’d do: stick up for Rob Ford.

 

Peter Ferentzy, Ph.D., is a research scientist with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.

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