Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Arthur Answers 2017, Part Two: Addiction and song

I don’t expect to publish an answer for this year’s Ask Arthur series every day, but sometimes, like today, they will be on consecutive days. Both of today’s questions come from people I know in real life, and the first is from my good friend Linda who asked:

So here's my question for you. This article (“The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and
It Is Not What You Think”), and its premise, does it have any validity?

Linda knows me very well, probably because of the many great discussions we had at work back in the day. She also knows that I have opinions about a great many things, including some I probably shouldn't have or express. Although, as she also knows, that fact has never stopped me.

So, I should state upfront that I’m absolutely NOT an expert on addiction or psychology or pharmacology or medicine or any other field related to this topic. Also, while I’ve known plenty of alcoholics in my life, I’ve never known someone who was addicted to hard drugs. But this topic touches on so many of the things I DO study, especially as it relates to politics and public policy, that I have an interest in it (as well as pretty much everything to do with science).

The basic premise of the article (and, I presume, the book, though I haven’t read it yet) is that what we call addiction is for most people a coping mechanism for people who are in some way cut off, isolated, and without control. On an intuitive level, this makes a lot of sense.

The author, Johann Hari, cites the example of the Vietnam war. Around 20% of US soldiers were addicted to heroin, yet when they returned home to their lives and safety in the USA, most stopped the drug completely. Why?

He also cites rat studies in which rates were given water laced with cocaine or heroin, and they would drink more and more of the water until they died. But researchers realised there was a problem with the study: The rats were all alone in a boring, sterile cage.

So, researchers built a “rat park”, filled with other rats, plenty of interesting things to see and do, plenty of food and opportunities to play and have sex and all the other things rats do, AND they were offered the drug laced water. But the rats didn’t want it. Why?

The theory is that the rats in the first cage, like those Vietnam soldiers, were reacting to the cage they found themselves in. If rats—or people—find themselves in a better cage, that is, a more interesting, fulfilling life, fewer will choose to abuse drugs.

One of the reasons this interests me is the politics of it. As Hari says in the video interview accompanying the piece, this flies in the face of the conventional wisdom of the Right—addiction is a moral failure—and of the Left—addicts are victims of chemicals over which they have no control. If Hari is correct, then the actual problem is that when people feel helpless, hopeless, and in danger, they’re far more likely to abuse drugs, and that means that if we improve the lives of the most vulnerable in society, drug abuse and all the social problems that go with it will decline.

This is just slightly beyond the growing consensus on the Left, among some Centrists, and even some sensible Conservatives, that drug abuse is NOT a law enforcement problem, it’s a healthcare problem. Hari’s views don’t contradict that growing consensus, they build on it by saying, yes, it’s a healthcare problem, but that’s mainly because it’s a social problem first.

As a student of public policy solutions, and how they can exist within political realities, I find Hari’s ideas refreshing and the policy implications exciting—especially if evidence continues to show that the new approaches really do work better than the old “lock ‘em up” mentality ever did.

The bottom line for me is that, as I said, these ideas make intuitive sense. But we know that the “war on drugs” has been a total failure and that we need radical new approaches, so we must be open to ideas that are challenging and maybe even a bit scary. If this proves to work, then we will help so many people who aren’t being helped now, reduce the harm of drug use, save lots of money now spent on law enforcement, courts, and prisons, and have a happier and healthier population. It seems to me that this is well worth exploring further.

The next question is completely different, but it also comes from someone I’ve known a very long time—my entire life, in fact. This question is from my sister who asked:

Do people go Christmas caroling over there?

The short answer is, I have no idea. The longer answer is that I’ve seen people dressed in Dickensian clothes doing carolling as part of a shopping promotion for a business association or whatever, but I don’t know if ordinary people ever do it. I’ve certainly never seen it anywhere, but it could be something that’s done in some places—I honestly have no idea. I should note that I never saw people carolling in all the years I lived in Chicago, either. On the other hand, it IS summer here, and some days it’s just too hot to even think about carolling, so that may be a factor.

One thing that does happen is that, as I mentioned in passing in yesterday’s post, many local councils will have some sort of “carolling in the parks” family event, which is often a sort of sing-a-long. I’m not sure if that counts, exactly, but it does show that singing Christmas carols happens in New Zealand, just maybe not in the traditional carolling sense.

Thanks to Linda and to my sister for their questions!

It’s still not too late to ask a question: Simply leave a comment on this post (anonymous comments are allowed). Or, you can also email me your question (and you can even tell me to keep your name secret, although, why not pick a nom du question?). You can also ask questions on the AmeriNZ Facebook page, though some people may want to keep in mind that all Facebook Pages are public, just like this blog. If you’re on Facebook, you can send me a private message through the AmeriNZ Page.

All posts in this series are tagged “AAA-17”. All previous posts from every “Ask Arthur” series are tagged, appropriately enough, ”Ask Arthur”.

Let the 2017 asking begin The first post in this series
Arthur Answers 2017, Part One: NZ Example

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