On July 23 of this year, I published an article in the Huffington Post titled Who Hates the Addict? I discuss how being out of control is, in many ways, anathema to a civilization that expects people to be “free,” to control themselves, and to participate in a political economy founded upon a range of expectations. 

The cultural specificity of our attitudes towards self-control becomes keenly apparent when, for example, western addiction experts hit upon a linguistic and conceptual snag in their dealings with other societies. Questions pertaining to controlling one’s drinking may seem sensible to us, but they make far less sense in cultures wherein “control” is perceived more in terms of peer and familial influence. “So and so” does not control his or her drinking, because one’s drinking is “controlled” by family members, friends and other acquaintances. The very notion of self-control, so obviously central to western conceptions of behavioral disorders and their ensuing disease labels, does not always translate to other cultures.

That a certain conception of self-control is by no means natural, that such a conception is a product of developments that began in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century—industrialization, capitalist individualism, middle class mores—might in part explain our tenacious adherence to it. I do not mean to suggest that everything we do about drugs (and to addicts and to drug users) can be explained by reference to this conception, but I do suggest that it explains a great deal. 

Consider the violence with which the US will attack drugs, and in many cases a relatively innocuous substance such as marijuana. Thousands killed in Mexico alone, and over what? The possibility of people being, essentially, not in full control of themselves. Whether a certain drug has this effect is a separate matter. The perception that it can has led to mass incarceration in the United States— and on a scale that no other nation on earth currently comes close to imitating.

Of course, other nations do participate in this madness—many of whom might not share our Western obsession with self control. Still, the global push to ban narcotics was initiated by the US, and drug prohibition is, to this day, promoted globally by the Americans. So developments like the following should be seen, if nothing else, as triggered by western sensibilities:

“Slave labour. Torture. Forced participation in medical research. It reads like an account of some bleak, distant chapter of human history—but it's the contemporary reality for around 300,000 people detained in more than 1,000 compulsory, government-operated drug treatment centres in East and Southeast Asia… The line between support and punishment for drug users has been blurred in many countries, but the situation in East and Southeast Asia is particularly dire. Drug users suffer human rights abuses not even inmates convicted of serious crimes have to face.” (Russell Brown, New Zealand Drug Foundation, Matters of Substance, 24(3) August 2013). 

What are we to make of these and other such developments? We are dealing with parts of the world that, prior to western imperialism, may have had many difficulties, but rarely was “drug use” a major issue. 

Are we tiring of this madness? So it would seem. A recent article in the National Post (Tom Blackwell, October 16, 2013) suggests that pot vending machines are on the horizon in Canada—thanks to a US firm. Consider the contrast: a single issue is marked murderous war and, simultaneously, by a (stunningly) normal and mundane business strategy.

From the days of Temperance and (finally) alcohol prohibition to the recurring wars on drugs that assorted North American governments have fought, our relation to drug use has been more than a little paradoxical. We party hardy, hate ourselves for doing so, and then lay our problems on developing countries all over the world. 

This war on drugs really is an abomination—and the sooner we declare an armistice the better.

Addiction Beat

Why we have it all wrong
Peter Ferentzy, Ph.D.

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

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