Addiction

Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol or morphine or idealism - Carl Jung

Addiction

image by: Addiction Actually
     

What if addiction is less about drugs and genetic propensities and more about circumstances? It's a question the powers-that-be might not be comfortable hearing, but for decades Bruce Alexander has worked to make addiction as we know it a thing of the past.

To many, the case on addiction was closed. Certain substances, it was said, are inherently addictive. Expose an individual to enough of such a substance—particularly when she has a pertinent genetic predisposition—and addiction automatically results.

Like everyone who studies psychology, Dr. Bruce K. Alexander was well familiar with the "Skinner box" experiments on rats (among other animals) that were central to this conceptualization. But in the 1970s Alexander and some of his colleagues at Simon Fraser University began to question this paradigm, wondering whether the results of such research might be badly over-generalized. They couldn't help noticing, for example, that the lab rats lived solitary lives in cages—completely unnatural conditions for such social creatures. What might happen, they wondered, if the living conditions were less conducive to the kind of misery that might lead one to seek an escape such as opiates (e.g., morphine) can provide?

And so they created "Rat Park", where up to 20 rats lived communally and enjoyed plenty of space, food, and recreation (wheels, balls, etc.).  Part and parcel of the experiment was to include the central "Skinner box" element handed down through generations of related experiments: the choice between plain water and morphine-laced water.

The results flew in the face of previous findings. Even rats who had been instilled with a physical dependence on morphine by being forced to consume it every day for nearly two months tended to choose plain water once they were in Rat Park. Addiction, it seemed, was contingent upon one's living circumstances.

"Nothing that we tried instilled a strong appetite for morphine," Alexander reported to the Canadian Parliament, "or produced anything that looked like addiction in rats that were housed in a reasonably normal environment."

Alexander addressed Parliament because the so-called "War on Drugs" fought in North America since President Richard Nixon's 1971 declaration operates on the premise the drugs, their suppliers, and even their users are the battleground, rather than the living conditions—specifically, the poverty of the have-nots—that might drive individuals to retreat from the world and into a haze of drug addiction.

A reason why governments might embrace the traditional view of addiction over Alexander's view is that it is more convenient to lay blame for addiction on the doorstep of drugs or genes than to face a reality in which the structure of society—largely the responsibility of government policies and practices—might be centrally to blame.

"I think that governments understand addiction entirely on ideological grounds," Alexander says. "The current governments of Canada and the U.S. subscribe to neo-liberal capitalist ideology. They cannot possibly face the fact that the fragmented society produced by their economic system is so bleak that millions of people prefer losing themselves in addiction to carrying out the lives of producers and consumer that the society envisions for them. […] Because the truth of addictions is so painful, governments medicalize addiction in a way that makes them seem understandable, and promises a medical remedy eventually, without endangering the status quo. This is not just a misunderstanding of recent American governments, but a way of thinking that began in the 19th century and has survived will into the 21st."

But Alexander has made its his life's work to get government to stop passing the buck, as well as to educate society at large about what makes individuals most susceptible to addictions of all sorts—"not just to drugs," he says, "but also to money, consumer goods and hoarding, power, sex, Internet games, social media, gambling, etc."—and how we might best avoid falling into such a destructive cycle.

"Over the decades, I gradually came to see that addiction is not just an affliction that strikes some unfortunate individuals," he relates. "Rather, it is a window through which we can see many modern social problems in a clearer light, including the really big problems like the ecological crisis that faces the planet and the endless corporate exploitation and extractivism."

Not surprisingly, government has not been especially receptive to Alexander's message.

"Although I have had many wonderful research colleagues, I have been almost completely cut out of research funding in Canada for most of my career, except for the support I received from my own Department of Psychology at Simon Fraser University," he says.

His experience south of the border has been just as bad. There was the time, for example, when the U.S. government suppressed what was reportedly the largest study ever conducted on the subject of cocaine usage.

The report in question was commissioned compiled by the World Health Organization (WHO), drawing upon research groups from nearly two dozen countries (including one headed by Alexander in Vancouver, British Columbia). As The Guardian reported in 2009, the WHO found that "programmes [such as the "War on Drugs] rely on sensationalised, exaggerated statements about cocaine which misinform about patterns of use, stigmatise users, and destroy the educator's credibility. […] An enormous variety was found in the types of people who use cocaine, the amount of drug used, the frequency of use, the duration and intensity of use, the reasons for using and any associated problems. […] Occasional cocaine use does not typically lead to severe or even minor physical or social problems."

The Guardian says the report was suppressed "because the US representative to the WHO threatened to withdraw US funding for all its research projects and interventions unless the organisation 'dissociated itself from the study' and cancelled publication."

But none of the resistance to Alexander's challenge to what he calls "the Official View of Addiction" has slowed him down. Among the organizations that Alexander calls on the carpet for perpetuating addiction mythology are the National Institute of Drug Abuse, the American Society of Addictive Medicine, and the American Board of Addictive Medicine.

"I am critical of [those organizations] because I think they take the medical view of addiction that was propagated by the temperance mentality of the 19th century and dress it up in the language of neuroscience," he says. "They then use this tarted-up temperance doctrine to support a rigid medicalization of addiction and some aspects of the 'War on Drugs.'"

He cites the American Society of Addictive Medicine's definition of addiction, which calls it "a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuit," to highlight his point.

"An implication of this definition of addiction is that treatment should focus on the addicted person, rather than on the community or the fragmented society that has impoverished community life in the first place," he says.

Alexander does not diminish the dangers of addiction. Quite the contrary, to the point that his Website is titled "The Globalisation of Addiction." But his point is that "the medicalization of addiction" is grabbing the problem by the wrong handle. "Global society is drowning in addiction to drug use and a thousand other habits," he says.

But he avers that the central problem is that

people around the world, rich and poor alike, are being torn from the close ties to family, culture, and traditional spirituality that constituted the normal fabric of life in pre-modern times. This kind of global society subjects people to unrelenting pressures towards individualism and competition, dislocating them from social life. People adapt to this dislocation by concocting the best substitutes that they can for a sustaining social, cultural and spiritual wholeness, and addiction provides this substitute for more and more of us. History shows that addiction can be rare in a society for many centuries, but can become nearly universal when circumstances change—for example, when a cohesive tribal culture is crushed or an advanced civilisation collapses. Of course, this historical perspective does not deny that differences in vulnerability are built into each individual's genes, individual experience, and personal character, but it removes individual differences from the foreground of attention, because societal determinants are so much more powerful. Addiction is much more a social problem than an individual disorder.

Although retired from active teaching and research, Alexander regularly gives classes at treatment centers and universities around Vancouver on what he calls "the dislocation theory of addiction," a historical view of addiction that holds implications for recovery and for social action. It's a view that garners him invitations to speak throughout Canada and Europe.

Additionally, in the last half-decade Alexander has also authored two books detailing his views, The Globalization of Addiction: A study in poverty of the spirit (2010) and A History of Psychology in Western Civilization (2014). 

All told, Alexander has put in a lot of work to change that addiction thinking. Of course, that Official View of Addition is well entrenched. But he is so confident that it's going the way of the dinosaurs that these days he's more likely to ignore it—and simply posit his alternative thinking, obviously—than to expend his breath opposing it.

"I think [the Official View of Addition] is a blind alley in the evolving understanding of addiction that will collapse under its own weight soon enough," he says. "I salute people like Carl Hart, Stanton Peele, Harry Levine and Craig Reinarman who are trying to pound the final nails into its coffin, but I think its demise is a cultural process that cannot be rushed. It is really a cultural idea that grew up in the 19th century and will have to subside slowly."

Source: Greggory Moore, Changing the Conventional Wisdom about Addiction, HWN, April 6, 2015.

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Last Updated : Wednesday, October 16, 2019