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Addiction: Where Science Meets Fiction

by Thaddeus Camlin, Psy.D.

fictional image representing the false science of NIDAIf you wanted an objective appraisal of a home you probably wouldn’t ask the sellers to choose the appraiser. With drug research this is exactly what happens. Congress advocates for the war on drugs, Congress funds the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), and with their billion dollar annual budget NIDA is responsible for 90% of the “scientific” research on drugs. Eric Sterling, a lawyer who spent a decade writing U.S. drug laws, is on record (pg. 179 of this book) saying that if any government-funded scientist produced research findings that contradicted the brain disease model of addiction, then the head of NIDA would be called in front of a congressional committee to receive a clear mandate to shut down the research. She might even be fired. NIDA’s researchers know the deal – produce data that feed the fiction or work somewhere else. Now that’s the spirit of science!

Given the war agenda from Congress, it is not surprising that NIDA missed (or ignored) the obvious truth that locking people in cages and permanently branding them as criminals doesn’t help addiction. Now, there has been movement to provide treatment rather than incarceration. However, the so-called treatment offered in place of jail is often hardly better than prison – curfews, shaming, intrusive and constant analysis of bodily fluids, forced derogatory labels, forced abstinence, getting tossed back in prison for even the slightest alteration in consciousness, and a general process of dignity-stripping dehumanization.

Another glaring truth missed by NIDA is the continuous scientific finding that at least half of the people who experience substance-related problems end up moderating. NIDA’s website states that the “ultimate goal” for substance use treatment is “sustained abstinence.” This goal doesn’t even align with the official diagnostic criteria, which say absolutely nothing about abstinence. Maybe NIDA’s goal is for me to abstain, but I kind of favor setting my own goals for my own life, thanks anyway NIDA. Maybe NIDA would be better off refining their own goals – like not being delusional and funding more research outside the realm of the brain disease model – rather than telling us what our goals should be.  Don’t get me wrong, researching the brain is important, but more resources need to be allocated to researching the other components of problematic substance use (e.g. social, cultural, familial, developmental, trauma, etc), along with diverse methods of treatment that go beyond abstinence-only.

The NIDA website is littered with outrageously broad claims and questionable conclusions that would fit more naturally in (ahem) a blog rather than a website for a supposedly cutting-edge, leading source of scientific research. The info on NIDA’s website ranges from decent to utter rubbish. One of the most ridiculously erroneous conclusions on NIDA’s webpage states that, “addiction affects multiple brain circuits… that is why it’s a disease.” Tell me NIDA, what sort of experience exists that does not affect multiple brain circuits? Every sensory experience affects multiple brain circuits. How dumb does NIDA think we are? The website also includes rigid mandates that completely ignore the largest and most comprehensive data available about addiction (NESARC). NIDA’s webpage says, “addiction treatment must help the individual stop using drugs [and] maintain a drug-free lifestyle.”

When will we move beyond the Nancy Reagan bogus of ‘just say no?’ The reality, NIDA, is that effective treatment does not mandate abstinence, at least half of people who overcome substance related problems end up moderating, and the vast majority of people find success through self-guided change rather than traditional treatment. The information we are fed on addiction is not science, it is a fictional narrative that cherry-picks convenient research findings to support the story Congress wants to tell – drugs are bad and will ruin society so we must continue to ignore facts and brutalize citizens in an impossible war. After all, we have a booming private prison industry that must be fed!

The century-old national push to eradicate all drug use, futile as it may be, rages on. Despite all the lies and propaganda (think fried egg and your brain) aimed to curb drug use and make them seem uncool, drugs are as popular and cool as ever. Popular music today is littered with references to bars (xanax) and weed, and we all know drug references in music are nothing new. From the coordinated effort to destroy Billie Holiday, to Ed Sullivan classically failing to make Jim Morrison change the ‘girl we couldn’t get much higher’ lyric, to the endless silence gaps and reversed words in rap lyrics, censorship only seems to help sex, drugs, and rebellious music occupy a permanent status of cool.

We don’t make any progress with drugs because the propaganda is built on hollow lies and contains a fundamentally problematic dilemma: We are told we have to want abstinence but we have to do it for ourselves, not because others tell us to do so. People are required and commanded to abstain from all substances by judges, counselors, family members, etc. However, abstinence is only appreciated and given acknowledgement if done so voluntarily. How peculiar! Does anyone actually think such contradictory, hypocritical, and transparently shallow tactics are actually going to work? Well, it would appear NIDA thinks we’ll buy a fake story. Judging from the manner in which they’ve strung together – like any good fiction writer – borrowed bits of reality with wonderful flurries of creative fiction and created a wildly incomplete addiction narrative, NIDA very much believes we’re all in the market for a romance novel story of addiction.