Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Stephen Mason Ph.D.
Stephen Mason Ph.D.

The Addictive Personality

If drugs are addictive, how come I'm not addicted?

A major misconception involving addiction is the idea that certain substances are, all by themselves, addicting. That a drug can captivate an unwary victim is an idea popularized in the 1936 film Reefer Madness. In that movie, it took just a few puffs of marijuana to turn a gentleman into a slobbering dope fiend; his health shattered; his life ruined. While such heavy-handed propaganda might be met with less credulity today, the fact remains that most Americans still believe the basic message - Just Say No or you'll wind up hooked. What makes this truly odd is that, according to numerous national surveys, most Americans have tried marijuana and didn't become dope fiends. Indeed, several years ago, a group of US congressmen attempted to come forward, admit their prior pot use and put an end to a draconian system that confiscates property and puts people in prison for years. But the electorate clearly wasn't ready for any such reappraisal of the drug laws and the movement quickly died.

But how is it, you ask, that all those congressmen that were candid about their drug use didn't get hooked Reefer Madness style? The reason is because addiction depends, first and foremost, upon having an addictive personality. Such people, estimated at perhaps 10%-15% of the population, simply don't know when to stop. Do you enjoy a glass or two of wine with dinner? If so, why not have ten or twenty? Did you ever buy a lottery ticket on your birthday? If so, why not sell your house and buy 100,000? How about going to church on Sunday? Does it make you feel good? If so, why not go every day twice a day? The point here is simple: Too much of a good thing can be bad. And yet people with addictive personalities will get hooked on alcohol and gambling and religion. Believe it or not, being addicted is nothing more than an out-of-control habit. The difference between that 10%-15% and everyone else is the difference between using and abusing.

During the Vietnam War, drug use was endemic among troops serving in Southeast Asia. And yet, returning veterans suffered addiction rates that were no higher than those found in the general population. It would be difficult to think of a more perfectly designed experiment to show, once and for all, that dependence is mostly a matter of personality. And yet, when it comes to winning hearts and minds, the War in Vietnam was as nothing when compared to the War on Drugs. Although this second battle has completely failed in reducing illegal drug use, it has succeeded brilliantly in convincing Americans that they need to be saved from themselves. It's a belief that was sold so well that hardly anyone noticed that Drug Czar Bill Bennett was an addictive personality hooked on both food and gambling.

Look At It This Way
The problem with the War on Drugs is that it creates far more harm than it eliminates. If drugs can't be kept out of prisons, how can you possibly keep them out of a mostly free society? The "War" won't go away because by now it's become a major industry. It creates jobs on one side of the law and provides the opportunity for huge financial rewards on the other. But, like Prohibition before, making a law that can't be enforced does little more than erode the public's respect for the law. When alcohol was illegal, the upper classes had theirs imported while the common folk drank it from bathtubs. No one so inclined went without. And nothing has changed. Bush turned (supposedly) from drugs and alcohol to religion, thus substituting one addiction for another. Clinton told us, with a straight face, that he never inhaled. So here's a simple question: Would either of these gentlemen be better off today if they had been sentenced to long prison terms? If so, why not provide them with a belated opportunity to serve time? If not, then why should the kid down the street be put away for doing the same thing?

Asking such simple questions should make it plain to anyone with any common sense that the truth regarding drugs and addiction is concealed behind so many layers of ignorance and emotion, deception and special interests that it will remain a major problem for a long time to come.

About the Author
Stephen Mason Ph.D.

Stephen B. Mason is a psychologist, a former university professor, syndicated newspaper columnist and radio talk-show host.