If a behavioral phenomenon that is demonstrably and seriously harmful to society becomes a pattern, we (the societal we) pass a law against it, which is our way of saying: Don't do this thing or we will impose upon you any of number of unpleasant penalties, up to and including death, but usually more in the way of fines, excruciatingly boring classes, or jail and prison time. Some cultures indulge in more traditional, biblical-style retribution — stoning, lopping off of crucial parts, and decollations, often carried out by angry mobs, though we take a more clinical approach to our executions. I suspect the unfortunate miscreants in either situation end up equally dead, but I suppose the sterile conditions imposed on our death-chambers prevent infection and communication of pathogens. You wouldn't want the condemned fellow to get hepatitis or anything. That these "corrections" have little or no effect on the behavior is obvious in that it continues unabated, evidenced by our swollen and yet-growing prison systems. What we don't do is try to get at the root of the behavior and stop it before it starts, or if we do the powers that be ignore the findings and dismiss potential solutions as either soft-hearted liberal coddling or just too expensive. Lock 'em up, they say, and with their loss of citizenship and acquisition of a number, criminals cease to be people at all and have significance only as statistics. Take drugs. This is not a directive; although many of you may indeed benefit from a judicious application of mind-alterers, as neither doctor nor pusher, it is not my place to prescribe nor peddle them. I meant "take" in the sense of "consider." It is a fact that the overwhelming majority of people who try drugs — the recreational variety — do not become addicted. They do not lose their jobs and spouses and homes behind drugs, they do not eschew friends and family in favor of drugs, and they definitely do not spend entire nights in the bathroom with a police scanner and the door nailed shut tweezing bloody divots out of their faces. This is highly aberrant behavior and if you think we do it because it is somehow pleasurable, then you're crazier than we are.
There is Something Wrong with addicts, and whether you subscribe to the "disease" model or not you must admit this fact, because no sane person would willingly trade his possessions, position, self-respect, and dignity for a filthy nest behind the 7-11 and an aching, unquenchable need to render himself insensate. So we lock them (us) up, where we recuperate, bone up on new and exciting criminal technique, and emerge rested and ready for further punishment. You can see that, as a strategy for eradicating or even diminishing the problem, this model sucks. It is based on the principles of operant conditioning, wherein an undesirable behavior (operant) is dissuaded through the application of negative consequences, which works fine for housebreaking dogs but has little effect on a compulsion which is, in the addict's skewed chemistry, inextricably bound with that most paramount and primal human instinct: survival. To be fair, we (the American we) are moving, in our plodding, recalcitrant way, toward a more compassionate treatment model that doesn't demonize and criminalize addiction, but we're lagging way behind most European countries whose approach is both laissez-faire and involved; if you want to get high, go ahead, and if you want to get clean, we're here to help. It may seem counterintuitive that allowing users to indulge without fear of reprisal would actually reduce the rates of abuse and addiction, but it does. Check out the book Chasing The Scream by Johann Hari to have your eyes thrust open and your mind fully blown. However — there's always a however — the thing that mystifies me is that in all the history of addiction, and I imagine the problem was first recognized about two hours after the first proto-human left a batch of pulped fruit out in the sun too long, said "fuck it" and drank it anyway, then promptly challenged a sabertooth tiger to single combat, all those years of research, study, and legislation, after all the deaths and destruction and tragedy, this (he wrote, spreading his arms wide to indicate his immediate surroundings) is the best we've been able to come up with? A bunch of wet-brained, soft-headed, spun-out, shot-out, rusted-out junkies, tweakers, boozers, huffers, and pillheads sitting in a circle discussing their feelings, ridden herd over by another one armed with a community-college certificate reading from a third-generation copy of poorly written, insufficiently researched, dated and often spurious Internet twaddle?
Where, as Chris Rock famously asked, is the science? Better question, where's the surgery? Brain researchers can pinpoint the exact place where shopping lists are stored; why can't they isolate this insane urge to render myself stupid and felonious? It doesn't even have to be that precise. There's plenty of extraneous baggage up there I can do without and besides, once it's gone so will be the memory of having it. Just find the general ballpark it occupies, snip it out, and if I am post-surgically unable to operate a spatula or recite the Pledge of Allegiance so be it. That's a price I'm willing to pay. Some people like to throw Christianity at addiction, and while at a casual glance this might appear akin to lying on your couch and hoping your house will clean itself, it seems to work sometimes, which suggests a better comparison of fishing with dynamite. You may well get that trout you're after, but every frog, sculpin, duck, and crawdad in the vicinity is going belly up as well. If you immerse yourself deeply enough into Jesus & Co. that your addictive impulses are stifled, so will go your personality, free will, intelligence, all your friends, and anything interesting about you. That is not a price I am willing to pay. I feel comfortable joking with the Christians like this because they are well-known to tolerate and even appreciate humor at their expense. Now, the chronic and persistent use of substances despite escalating negative consequences — "addiction", if you will — is a reasonable response to unreasonable stress. It is neither a moral failing nor a genetic or physiological aberration. Most people are familiar with the famous study in which mice given the opportunity to ingest cocaine did so in favor of food, sex, and sleep, pumping away at the coke lever until they died. Proof, it was claimed, of the awesomely addictive power of drugs. Less well known is the research of one skeptic, Bruce K. Alexander, who suspected the stress of lab life had more to do with the rat's behavior than the drug. He set up a rat paradise with spacious living quarters, sumptuous bedding and furnishings, entertainments and distractions, delectable and plentiful comestibles, lots of willing and attractive rat studs and honeys, and free access to quality dope 24/7. The rats tried the stuff, yawned, and went back to living the life of Riley. What this suggests to me is that improving the lives of addicts would go much further than punishment in ameliorating the problem, be the stressor poverty, trauma, or mental illness. Often it is all three, and beginning with the presumption that the victims are human beings deserving of treatment and care instead of pariahs to be shunned and reviled would go a long way toward our, and their, redemption. I blame Capitalism, which is a whole 'nother basket of yarn I have neither the patience nor inclination to unravel except in a classical, Gordian-knot kind of way by saying: Bernie in '20!