– feeds your head

Addiction and the question of use or abuse

pill in hand

pill in hand

When we speak of addiction we usually mean something destructive. We understand the malignant aspects as an integral part of the phenomena. To be addicted to something is per definition bad and something that should be avoided.

If you look up addiction in a dictionary you get the following definitions:
– Compulsive physiological and psychological need for a habit-forming substance
– The condition of being habitually or compulsively occupied with or involved in something

The latter is exemplified with fast cars, the former with heroin. And I suppose it’s a pretty accurate way to describe the variations of the phenomena called addiction. Compulsive being the operative word in both cases. But how do you end up there? In the compulsive state? In the case of heroin the addictive qualities of the substance itself is usually put forth as the main cause of the compulsion. Heroin causes addiction, that’s what we’re told. If you want to be a bit more precise the addictive aspect lies in the fact that regular heroin use increases your tolerance level, you have to constantly up the dose to achieve the same effect, and it also causes a physical dependence, your body craves it. When it comes to substances those two aspects are what determine if the substance is addictive; increased tolerance and physical dependence. So how does that relate to the fast cars? Well, I suppose one could argue that you need to “up the dose” here too, it takes more to get the same fix, but the whole physical dependence is obviously not applicable. In the case of the cars it’s all on a psychological level.

Yes, there are of course different types of addictions, some of which have to do with things you put in your body and some that only have to do with experience. The common denominator being the whole compulsive aspect. Compulsive indicates that there’s a lack of free will involved. If we go to the dictionary this is what we find:
– The state of being compelled
– An irresistible impulse to act, regardless of the rationality of the motivation
So it has to do with rationality, or rather the lack thereof. Again a rather fitting definition, because most heroin addicts probably know that their addiction isn’t rational. Especially since there is a definite criminal aspect tied to the use of this particular substance. But what about the cars? Or indeed any non substance related addiction? Or addiction to substances that aren’t actually illegal? The experience and the physical aspects are certainly part of it as well as that lack of rationality, but to me the most interesting part of this is where to draw the line. When does a passion become an addiction? When does use become addiction?

The most common answer to this question is that it’s a social thing; when it becomes a problem in your everyday life you’ve got an addiction. If I go to myself I know that I have at least one addiction, caffeine. If I don’t get enough of it I get physical withdrawal symptoms. But not only is caffeine is legal, it’s also very easy to come by, so my addiction very rarely causes any major problems in my everyday life. But I am, without a single doubt, physically addicted, and seeing as I organize my life in such a manner that I always make sure I have access to the substance when needed, it’s pretty safe to say that the social aspect requirement is fulfilled too, it does affect my daily life, albeit with very little hassle involved. And sure, it would be nice to not have this addiction, to not have to worry about making sure I get my fix, but it’s all very manageable. It’s not something that troubles me or the people close to me to any notable extent. If I was addicted to heroin the story would of course be very different. With heroin the repercussive effects would indeed cause significant problems for me and, most likely, for my immediate surroundings. One could of course argue that the high you get from caffeine is not comparable to that of heroin, a caffeine high doesn’t interfere with your ability to function in society, whereas a heroin high would probably make several societal obligations if not impossible, then at least problematic, but is that really the main difference? The quality of the turn? Is that the reason the two substances have different legal status in society? Could you go as far as to say that there some addictions which are actually socially sanctioned? Yes, you probably could. Especially if we look at the non substance related addictions.

Materialism and consumerism are two of the pillars on which our western society rests. Our economy is based on the idea of supply and demand, and if we as citizens don’t demand, the whole thing crumbles. So we are taught to demand, to crave new things, to consume. One could even say that society as a whole is addicted to consumerism. Our possessions, our patterns of consumption, are what define us. Are you an iPhone user or not? Do you wear Adidas or Nike? Mac or PC? How big is your flat screen? Lifestyle has become a commodity, something we are sold. And the constant need for upgrading, to be part of the in-crowd, isn’t that just as much of an addiction? A “compulsive occupation” with consumerism? “An irresistible impulse to act, regardless of the rationality of the motivation.” Yes, it does indeed seem like there are some addictions that are very much sanctioned by society. Taken to the extreme one might even argue that it’s not addiction itself that’s the issue, it’s just a matter of conforming, to pick the right addiction. And heroin just isn’t the right one.

But even if we do live in a society that sanctions addiction, I still think there is actually a lot of truth to that initial thought, that addiction has an inherently destructive aspect, because it does indeed have to do with a lack of free will, a lack of choice, of rationality of you will. I don’t always drink coffee because I want to, sometimes it’s just to avoid getting a headache later. A simple matter of cause and effect, but where the element of choice is taken away. Physical addiction to put it simply. It started as use and resulted in addiction. It happens. And I’m sure I could get clean if I wanted to, but like I said, it’s not a big enough issue in my life for me to consider kicking the habit. But again, if the habit had been illegal it would probably have been a different story. Classifying my use as addiction would probably also have been a lot faster if it was actually an illegal substance.

Talking about ‘use’ in relation to illegal substances is something we avoid in our society, we almost always refer to it as ‘abuse’ and in the context of illegal drugs abuse is pretty much synonym with addiction. In fact one could argue that the concept of a ‘heroin user’ is an impossibility, the abuse aspect is so intimately tied to the status of the substance as illegal, that the neutral term ‘user’ is simply not part of the notion. So again, where do you draw the line between use and addiction? Especially if we take away the physical dependency aspects? If we maintain that the social consequences are what determine whether you have a problem or not, doesn’t that mean that the legal status of the substances are actually just as much a part of the problem as the (ab)use itself? When it comes to alcohol one can talk about a scale going from use to abuse and most people manage to stay within the use specter of that scale, and those who don’t can seek help to come to terms with their addiction without having to face too severe consequences. Being addicted to alcohol is of course by no means a walk in the park, no pun intended, but you don’t have to out yourself as a criminal if you want help. If you’re addicted to an illegal substance you do. So can addiction itself be illegal?

When you discuss addiction there are many theories in regards to the causes, but the overt and pretty much common position is that addiction is indeed something negative that should be avoided and failing that, treated. The methods vary as much as the explanation models, but one thing that many of the theories have in common is the assumption that addiction is a chronic state, i.e. whatever treatment is used should be seen as a lifelong measure. In other words, a sober alcohol addict should stay away from alcohol for the rest of their life. Be as it may with this, the interesting thing here is the variance, why not everyone who drinks alcohol becomes an addict, a fact that’s pretty hard to ignore. Same with gambling, or indeed, fast cars. This has obviously lead to theories about an addictive personality type; some individuals are just more prone to addiction. And again there’s a vast number of theories about the causes for this, but the interesting thing is that this insight, that not everyone is as likely to become an addict, is mainly put in connection to legally sanctioned addictions. In fact it’s very often used as an argument for maintaining the status of various addictive activities or substances as legal. Not everyone who drinks alcohol or gambles becomes addicted. And regardless of what you think of alcohol or gambling, it’s never the less true. Thus it’s pretty safe to assume that addiction is not caused solely by the substance or activity itself, but that there is some other element to it. A logical conclusion. But this logic is promptly thrown out the window when the addictive potential is used as an argument for maintaining the illegal status of certain substances. As soon as the discussion turns to illegal substances the whole individuality aspects are off-limits. Here the addictive potentials are not related to anything, there’s not place for the argument that not everyone gets addicted, and the discussion ends at the simple statement that “drugs are bad and if you take them you become an addict”. In this type of reasoning there is no room for differentiating between use and abuse; it’s all abuse and it all leads directly to addiction, regardless of who you are. In fact, the addictive potential is often used as one of the main arguments for classifying substances as illegal. But strangely enough this mostly seems to apply to substances that are already illegal. For instance when the addictive potential of marijuana is stated as a reason for maintaining its status as illegal. Or indeed heroin. Granted, heroin is a lot more addictive than marijuana, but according to some research it’s actually less addictive than refined sugar, and in the case of marijuana there’s very little scientific evidence of it causing any physical addiction at all. So the million dollar question is: Could it actually be argued that the majority of the problems associated with illegal drugs are in fact to a rather great extent caused by their status as illegal in the fist place? Yes, I believe it can. If marijuana wasn’t illegal mere possession wouldn’t land you in jail, stealing to finance your heroine habit still would, but then it would be the theft and not the additional offense of possession that would land you there. The same way you’ll get yourself into debt if you consume too much. The big difference being that the whole consumption endeavor is actually sanctioned by society, only exaggeration is seen as problematic. Only if you let your addiction get out of hand does it actually become an issue. Just as with alcohol. No one will be frowned upon for having a glass of wine with dinner, or even ending up in a drunken stupor on the weekend, but replace those bottles of wine or beer with a bag of weed or a line of coke and you’re a criminal. You can drink, gamble and consume as much as you want and the only real consequences you’ll have to face in the eyes of society if you end up getting addicted are shame and debt. And as bad as shame and debt are, a criminal record is worse, it’s usually a lot harder to get away from and carries a lot greater social stigma. And just to be clear, I’m not saying that illegal drugs are unproblematic or harmless, what I’m saying is that their status as illegal is as much a part of the danger specter, both when it comes to the consequences for the individual user and for society, as the addiction itself. The same way there was an extra layer of danger associated with alcohol during the prohibition years in the States, or the way a gambling addiction has more serious consequences in countries where gambling is illegal.

Yes, addiction is indeed problematic, but there is a definite scale aspect and some addictions are not only condoned but also encouraged by our society. This somewhat schizophrenic relation results is there being a very strong element of social construction in addiction as a phenomena, because if we are to use the contextual definition of something being an addiction when it becomes problematic in your everyday life, where do we then draw the line? Especially when some of the problems caused by addiction are so intimately tied to aspects that lie completely outside the individual, which is precisely the case with all substances classified as illegal. Their mere status as illegal result in an increase, and potentially even the actual creation, of the problems. Being addicted to caffeine is not really that much of an issue for me and if I lived in the Netherlands I could easily add marijuana to the list without having to suffer any dire consequences, but in most other western countries it would give me if not a jail sentence, at least a criminal record. But if my addiction was to alcohol I would instead be offered treatment in those very same countries.

No, I’m not actually saying that we should immediately legalize all drugs, what I’m saying is that a lot of the problems related to illegal drug addiction are in fact caused by their very status as illegal and that this aspect is overlooked both when debating legalization and addiction and that this is an example of extremely flawed logic. Because in spite of popular opinion the main reason marijuana users are criminals in most countries is because they posses and use marijuana. And that’s pretty much it. There’s no need to become a burglar to get weed, it’s not expensive enough, and violent behavior isn’t part of the effects of the drug itself, so the possession and consumption of drug itself is pretty much the only crime involved. In a society that allows alcohol, a substance known to be both be addictive and to have a strong association with violent crime, it doesn’t actually make sense to maintain that the alleged dangers, to the individual and society as a whole, would be reason enough to maintain the current legislation surrounding various intoxicating substances.

Addiction is problematic enough as it is and there’s really no need to inflict criminality on the individuals who are suffering from this. Especially since other addictions are actually encouraged by our society, like consumerism. And it would also be a huge step forward if we could separate the use from the abuse when it comes to drugs. Because then, and only then, can we begin to asses whether we are actually dealing with a compulsion, “an irresistible impulse to act, regardless of the rationality of the motivation” or if we’re simply looking at someone who likes to get high from time to time. And who knows, maybe this increased ability to perceive nuance would actually help us determine whether the global financial market might not be in dire need of a trip to rehab…


2 responses to “Addiction and the question of use or abuse

  1. Patrik October 21, 2011 at 11:28

    Very sharp analysis. You are pointing out some really tricky issues here, certainly the sources of serious conflicts in the human psyche, individually as well as socially…

  2. Jens December 30, 2011 at 05:07

    oh how i agree with this

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