Simply ‘Cracking Down’ On Drugs Won’t Solve Australia’s Ice Problem; We Need To Work Harder To Find A Real Solution

Trying to eradicate drugs is a failed fantasy. Trying to punish addicts makes them worse. And trying to force them into a misconceived model of treatment does nothing.

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When I saw the mixture of pain and panic on Jacqui Lambie’s face as she described her son’s ice addiction on the floor of the Senate on Monday, I felt an old and familiar flashback. One of my earliest memories – as I’ve explained before – is of trying to wake up one of my relatives, and not being able to. I didn’t understand what was happening then: I was too young. But as I got older, I realised we had drug addiction in my family – and it later spread to other members.

I had been staring addiction in the face for a lot of my life, and yet four years ago, at an especially low point with somebody I love I found myself sitting with that expression I see on Senator Lambie’s face: utter bewilderment. I kept asking: What causes addiction? What policies actually bring addicts back to us, from the madness of compulsive use? I felt like I was stuck on a misery-go-round of solutions that took us nowhere — from brutal prohibition, to rehab, and back again. For the people I love, I needed real solutions, not old dogmas. So I ended up going on a 30,000-mile journey across 12 countries to write a book — Chasing The Scream — looking for real answers.

The most obvious solution is to make the drug disappear – to crack down, and make it vanish from the face of the earth. This is the plan offered by Tony Abbott. But there are two flaws with this whole way of thinking. Firstly: it turns out we can’t even keep drugs out of our prisons, where we have a walled, guarded perimeter. It’s simply not possible to keep them out of Australia: no country has ever achieved it, even nations with much less porous borders. The money spent on trying to prevent supply is, all the evidence shows, money burned.

The second reason why a crackdown doesn’t work is stranger, and it took a long time for me to accept it. I had to keep going back to the best evidence again and again.

The truth is that the vast majority of people who use hard drugs don’t become addicted. For example, as Professor Carl Hart at Columbian University has shown, some 85 percent of people who use methamphetamine (ice) don’t become addicts, like Jacqui Lambie’s son. So it is not the case that the drug alone – even methamphetamine – simply hijacks a person, and takes them over. In the US, housewives in the 1950s and 1960s were often legally sold methamphetamine and speed to help them lose weight – and very few start acting psychotic, or develop out-of-control addictions.

When I learned this, I was simply puzzled. It didn’t seem to make sense. So I began to ask, what is happening with the 10 to 15 percent who do become addicts? What’s different about them?

I only really began to understand it – and the best answer to this crisis – in two very different places. In Vancouver, I got to know an extraordinary Professor of Psychology called Bruce Alexander. He conducted an experiment that has transformed our understanding about what addiction really is.

Our ideas about addiction, he explained to me, come in part from a series of experiments that were done back in the early twentieth century. You can try them yourself. Take a rat, and put it in a cage. Give it two water bottles. One should just be water. The other should be water laced with heroin or cocaine. If you do this, the rat will almost always prefer the drugged water, and almost always kill itself.

It fits with our common sense. It’s the process I thought I’d watched with my relatives.

But then, in the 1970s, Professor Alexander looked at these experiments, and noticed something. We put these rats in an empty cage, with nothing meaningful in their lives, so all they can do is use drugs. What if we did this differently?

So he built a cage he called Rat Park, where the rats had cheese and coloured balls and lots of friends. They also had both the water bottles: normal water, and drugged water.

But here’s the kicker. In Rat Park, they don’t like the drugged water. They hardly ever use it. They never overdose.

As I learned, there’s a huge number of human equivalents to this experiment. For example: around 20 percent of US soldiers during the Vietnam War were using heroin heavily. If you look at reports from the time, there was a real panic — they thought there was going to be an army of demobilised junkies fanning out across America when the war ended. But the Archives of General Psychiatry conducted a detailed study of the returning vets, and it found that 95 percent of them just stopped when they came home. They didn’t go into withdrawal; they didn’t go to rehab. It turns out that in a radically different and better environment, they didn’t want to be out of it all the time. When they were back with their sources of meaning — their families, work they enjoyed, their community — they wanted to be psychologically present again.

So what Rat Park, and a whole raft of new evidence, tells us is: addiction isn’t about the drug. It’s about the pain inside the addict, which is there long before they find their drug. This pain goes beyond poverty: my family weren’t poor in cash, only in meaning and purpose. My relatives were cut off from connections, and a satisfying life. They were trying to anaesthetise themselves against that agony.

That’s why policies that try to impose more pain on addicts — like putting them in prison, or denying them welfare — don’t just fail; they make their addictions worse. Emotional pain is the biggest cause of addiction. Increasing emotional pain increases addiction.

This also helps us to understand why residential rehab — especially the forced kind mooted in understandable desperation by Senator Lambie — sadly doesn’t work. A major study found that people sent to rehab in Australia have the same rate of drug use in the medium-to-long term as people who are given no treatment at all. Rat Park helps us to understand why. If you took the rat out of the isolated cage and treated it well for a few weeks, and then simply dropped it back into its old cage, what would happen? Rehab (especially coerced rehab) doesn’t change the cage – so it doesn’t solve the problem.

There is a different way to handle this crisis, and I have seen it in practice. In the year 2000, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in the world: 1% of the population was addicted to heroin. Every year, they cracked down more, and every year, the problem got worse. One day, the panicked government set up a scientific panel, and told that final to find a real solution based on the science.

The panel came back and suggested the government decriminalise all drugs, from cannabis to crack; but – and this is crucial – to spend all the money we use to waste on punishment on reconnecting addicts with their society. So they spent it partly on compassionate therapy in the community for addicts, and primarily on a huge job-creation program for addicts. Every addict was given a good, subsidised job in the real world. Every one of them had a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Every one of them had connections to the wider society. Every one of them was listened to, and told they were loved, valued and needed. The cage had been changed.

The results are now undeniable. Fifteen years after this began, injecting drug use is — according to the most detailed scientific study — down by 50 percent in Portugal. Overdose deaths have been massively reduced. And virtually nobody wants to go back.

I have looked all over the world, and there’s no magic bullet for responding to addiction – but there’s plenty of proof about what brings catastrophe, and what brings radical improvements. Trying to eradicate drugs is a failed fantasy. Trying to punish addicts makes them worse. Trying to force them into a misconceived model of treatment does nothing. The only thing that works – and it works wherever it has been tried – is to love addicts deeply, and unconditionally, and to slowly, patiently rebuild their connections with the wider society, step by step, one day at a time, on our streets. Every policy that does that saves addicts’ lives – and every policy that moves in the opposite direction, no matter how well-intentioned, kills more of them.

I have felt the pain that Senator Lambie – and so many other Australians – are feeling today. But it is precisely in this moment, of maximum pain, that you need your best judgment, however hard it is to find it right now.

Senator Lambie, your son needs you to look at the rock-solid evidence from across the world – and follow the places that have succeeded, not the ones that have failed. As you know better than anyone – his life might depend upon it.

Johann Hari’s Australian Speaking Tour

Brisbane: Thursday September 3-Saturday September 5, at Brisbane Writers Festival — tickets here

Sydney: Saturday September 5, 4.30pm at Festival of Dangerous Ideas, Sydney Opera House — tickets here

Melbourne: Wednesday September 9 at South Wharf, followed by an expert panel discussion presented by Alter Projects — tickets here

Johann Hari is a British writer and journalist who wrote columns for The Independent and The Huffington Post. This article draws on material from his New York Times bestseller Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.