This weekend is the 'mentored K' meeting of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which I am attending. It's a sobering place from which to read about the overdose and death of Amy Winehouse.
If there's one thing Amy Winehouse's spiral and death makes clear, it's that drug addiction can have a very firm grip. Over the last 4 years, Winehouse systematically sacrificed tens of millions of dollars for herself and her family and entourage, the fame and adulation she craved from an early age, her dignity, and, on Saturday, her life.
Many people have tried to convince us that drugs are not nearly as addictive as the scary ads on television imply. These people range from Nobel-prize winning economist and psychologist Gary Becker to commenters on my blog. They have a point. Some people can give up smoking cold turkey and never miss it. Some people can snort cocaine at a few parties and be perfectly fine. But a lot of people get sucked in and quickly gain a completely preventable incurable life-altering disease. And as of now there's no way to know which kind of person you are until it's too late. So I think taking certain drugs is kind of like playing Russian Roulette.
We still don't know what demons Amy Winehouse was battling between 2007 and yesterday. She was probably one of those unlucky people who are predisposed to addiction. A lot of people think that the same brain wiring patterns that lead people to crave more and more adulation until they are famous also lead them to be susceptible to drugs. But I would wager that if it were harder for her to get drugs, she would have sought out a more effective way to deal with those problems. And if we had better treatments for addiction, it might have been easier for her agents and her family and her friends to get her started on those.
NIDA spends over a billion dollars a year doing research into the prevention and treatment of drug abuse. The Agency estimates that its discoveries save Americans much more than this every year in measurable monetary costs of addiction. Where specifically does this money go? One example. NIDA is currently supporting clinical studies of vaccines for nicotine, heroin, cocaine, and meth. Imagine if addiction was as easily treatable as smallpox.
Clearly, not all drugs are the same. And clearly, the government shouldn't outlaw all risky behavior. But drugs destroy lives ruthlessly, and without regard to what you were doing before. Most of those people disappear from view, so it's easy to ignore the horrible effects drugs can have. The only ones who seem to notice are the clinicians and care providers, like the people I've met at this meeting. Amy Winehouse's death is a reminder of all the other people, whose drug spirals are not as famous, but are still just as tragic.