Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Fallacy of the War on Drugs - Getting to the Root of the Problem


There is no question but that the drug abuse epidemic that has swept across our nation is a catastrophe.  It is a catastrophe for those who are addicted and are subject to its cravings.  It is a catastrophe for their loved ones, who suffer in innumerable ways.  It is a catastrophe for our economy because of the lost productive value of those who are addicted and the cost of dealing with the drug problem.  Estimates of the total overall costs of substance abuse in the United States, including productivity and health- and crime-related costs, exceed $600 billion annually.  

Recognizing the importance of getting people off drugs, the government has engaged in a policy aptly named, “The War on Drugs.”  Its concept is one of prohibition ... whether by criminalizing the use and sale of drugs and thus deterring such activity, or Nancy Reagan’s campaign of, “Just say no.”  

What simple-minded approaches to a deep-seated problem!  First of all, we know from our experience with alcohol prohibition that it not only doesn’t achieve the goal of reducing consumption, it has an actual negative impact by creating a whole illegal subculture around the manufacture and distribution of the substance.  And that has been our experience with the war on drugs as well.

Then they decided that the deterrent aspect needed to be strengthened by making prison sentences mandatory, even for relatively minor possession charges.  Well, our prisons have filled to overflowing, and yet it has made absolutely no impact on the demand for drugs.  

The criminalization approach to drug control and Nancy Reagan’s appeal to people to just say no have failed for the same reason.  As Time said in a report, “Americans tend to think of drug addiction as a failure of character.”  Such approaches assume that one has the ability to make a rational choice whether to do something or not.  Yet that is clearly not the case when it comes to drug abuse.

Others who recognize that it is not a failure of character, view drug addiction as primarily a biological problem relating to the chemical process of addiction.  But that is also looking at the wrong place.  That certainly describes why addiction is so hard to break out of, and why treatment rather than incarceration is often more appropriate, but it does not begin to help understand why people choose drugs to alter their mental state, which is where addiction and abuse begins.

Drug abuse is at root a societal problem.  People want to alter their mental state because they feel painfully insecure and thus unhappy.  It is an indictment of the failure of our society to raise children who feel secure, psychologically, and grow up be secure adults.  There is an abundance of academic research stretching back decades that finds that, to quote from an NIH report, “factors such as peer pressure, physical and sexual abuse, stress, and quality of parenting can greatly influence the occurrence of drug abuse and the escalation to addiction in a person’s life.”  These are all factors that induce feelings of insecurity in children.  The same can be said for almost every type of addictive behavior.

No one chooses to become a drug addict, or an alcoholic for that matter.  The problem is not that addicts have less moral fiber or character flaws.  The problem is that people who choose drugs or alcohol to alter/escape their mental state are typically people who are in agony.  They are suffering from feelings of insecurity and low self-esteem that are so intense, even if they are outwardly successful, that they feel that their only escape is through drugs or alcohol.  Yes, there are those who fall into drug addiction accidentally because of peer pressure, but the vast majority are trying to escape a world in which they can find no peace and security.

Indeed, one can argue that almost all of our social problems flow from a failure to raise secure children who go on to become secure adults.  Assuming that our government or a local community understood this and wanted to address the root cause, how would it go about it?  How could it change the pattern of insecure parents raising insecure children, with the situation repeating itself without end?

In my book, Raising a Happy Child, I note that it is a myth that childhood is a happy, carefree time. Typically it is neither carefree nor happy; it is instead fraught with insecurity. Raising a Happy Child seeks to change this fact of human development.

Why do children suffer this fate? What becomes of our lives is overwhelmingly a function of learned experience ... from our family, our peers, and the larger culture ... but first and foremost from our parents. The vast majority of parents are good people and would not do anything intentionally to harm their child.  But parents are people who are a function of their own upbringing and learned experience. They have their own fears, frustrations, angers, and desires.  And they see things through the lens of that experience and those emotions, which in turn impacts how they interact with their children. 

The result is children who do not feel loved unconditionally, are as a consequence insecure, and grow up to become insecure adults who do not love themselves unconditionally.  This is the primal basis of our fears and neuroses.

But this does not mean that parents should simply lavish praise on their children, give them what they want, or be uncritical of their children.  Direction and criticism are important parental functions; the question is how they are given, in what context. Raising a Happy Child seeks to provide parents with the means to step outside themselves, to be able to experience their child, themselves, and the world around them mostly free of their learned experience and emotions, thus enabling them to provide their children at all times with the nurturing and unconditional love they need to be happy and secure. 

The book then guides parents through the critical development stages of a child's life, providing advice on how to address the significant issues that arise at each stage within the context of unconditional love.  Raising a Happy Child  seeks nothing less than to fundamentally alter the quality of the relationship between parents and children, and thus change the way children relate to themselves and the world around them.  For more on the book and sample text, click the book's cover in the sidebar.  

What government, civic leaders, religious leaders ... anyone who is in a position of influence should do is read this book and encourage all parents to read the book and follow its advice.  Beyond that, government must take action to reduce social problems that exacerbate these issues, especially the failure of our schools.

Raising a Happy Child assumes that there is nothing fundamental that we can change about the competitive, consumption-driven society we live in.  I think that is beyond hope.  But governments and parents can take steps to improve the quality of life (and I don’t mean the number of possessions one has) that the average person experiences, insuring that everyone feels part of the larger community, equal in opportunity, and that everyone is nourished by their immediate family.