The War on Drugs Failed by Not Addressing Root Causes of Addiction
Renowned Canadian physician and author Gabor Mate says cities like Vancouver’s safe injection sites have proved to be widely successful alternatives to criminalizing addiction
JAISAL NOOR: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore, as we continue our special series on the war on drugs, and what real alternatives look like.
For this segment, I’m joined by Dr. Gabor Maté. He’s a Canadian physician, award-winning author, and renowned speaker.
Thank you so much for joining us.
DR. GABOR MATÉ: Pleasure to be here. Thank you.
JAISAL NOOR: This year in Baltimore is on pace for a record number of homicides; violent crime is up double digits; the mayor says murders are out of control.
Baltimore is a city marked by inequality, and for decades has been a ground zero for the drug war.
But some argue the reason for the increasing levels of violence is the rolling back of the drug war, which basically has meant dramatic decreases in the number of low level drug arrests. And some argue police need this tool to get information to solve murders, to solve homicides. What is your response to this?
DR. GABOR MATÉ: I have no specific insight into what’s happening in Baltimore. Living far away from there, I’m not being familiar with the local situation.
What I can tell you in general is that the violence that arises from the drug trade is a direct result of the laws that make the possession of such drugs a criminal offence.
So, that in a country like Portugal, for example, that has decriminalized personal possession of drugs for individual use, there’s much less illicit drug trade.
And it’s the illegality of the drugs that drive the climb in the violence around it. So it’s not lack of enforcement; it’s too much enforcement of completely irrational and anti-human legal standards that creates the violence.
JAISAL NOOR: I was speaking with an ER doctor earlier today, and he said, by some estimates, there are 20,000 addicts in Baltimore City alone, a city of about 600,000 people.
DR. GABOR MATÉ: Yes. And by that you mean it’s 20,000 substance addicts. Addiction, of course, goes much beyond the use of substances. But yes, I wouldn’t be surprised by that number.
And the real question is not how do we try and suppress the use of drugs, because you’ll never do that, but how do you prevent it? And that has to do with the conditions that drive drug use in the first place.
JAISAL NOOR: And, talk about what else you feel is missing from the conventional discussions around violent crime, homicides and the drug war across the nation.
DR. GABOR MATÉ: Well, the fundamental assumption that informs the legal approach to drugs, is that drug use — and particularly addiction — is a choice that people make.
So, your current Attorney General, Mr. Jeff Sessions, recently made a statement about how we had to go back to the 1980s, and to Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” approach. And he thinks that that’s the way to prevent drug use. If people are told just how bad drugs are, they’ll stop using it.
Well, how successful that approach is, we can see in the fact that opioid use – heroin use has gone up five-fold in the U.S. in the last ten years. And we’re having an epidemic of overdoses, where every day something like 120 to 140 people in the U.S. die of overdoses, which means that every month you have the equivalent of a 9/11 happening in your country, due to just overdoses.
So, that’s how successful the “Just Say No” approach is; and this despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of people are in jail, many, many more than there were in the 1980s.
So, if tough enforcement, based on the idea that people are making a choice, were to work, we should’ve seen beautiful results by now. Instead, we’re seeing it as a public health tragedy and disaster.
So, the public conversation around drugs simply does not take into account the realities of why people use and get addicted in the first place.
JAISAL NOOR: There’s been proposals in Maryland around safe injection sites, decriminalizing small amounts of cocaine and heroin. Those have thus far been defeated in the capital.
Talk about what the track record has been in places like Vancouver and elsewhere. You talked about Portugal. But what are some other examples of those proposals being implemented, and what have the impacts been?
DR. GABOR MATÉ: Well, first of all we have to realize that people are not addicted because they want to be addicted, or because they chose to be. They’re addicted because they were traumatized, and addiction is in every case an attempt to sooth the emotional pain and terrible self-loathing that follows from trauma.
And so, that these people are actually traumatized victims of childhood adversity in every single case; which is very much informed and exaggerated by social conditions of inequality and oppression, and economic uncertainty and despair.
So, then how do you deal with such people? It means you have to deal with them with utter compassion, really supporting them where they’re at.
So, in places where it’s been recognized that people can’t just be brow-beaten out of drug use, but they need actually ways of dealing with their drug use that are less dangerous and less self-harming, they’ve established programs.
We have such programs here in Vancouver. One of them is a supervised injection site, where people bring in their drugs, and they are given sterile water and clean needles, and a tourniquet, and they inject in a way that’s much less likely to cause infection, and no likelihood of spreading HIV and hepatitis C and other infectious diseases.
And if they should overdose, they’re actually resuscitated; so we’ve saved many, many lives here.
And studies here; studies in Switzerland; studies in Germany; studies in the U.K., with similar programs, have shown, of course, diminished burden of disease; better social relationships; less crime; and all around positive results, with nothing negative whatsoever; including, not an increase in drug use.
Now, also in Vancouver, we have a clinic, which actually prescribes heroin to a small number of people for whom other substitute opiates, like methadone and Suboxone, do not work; and there are such people.
What are you going to do with them? Have them inject in back alleys with who knows what? Fentanyl-tainted, adulterated samples that may kill them? Or should we give them the pure heroin – as it is being done internationally in Europe – in a supervised way in doses that are safe?
And in fact, again, the studies show that these people have less disease, better social lives, better family lives, better employment histories, and reduced crime.
So, those are the outcomes of these efforts, and those are the results of the studies. They’re not controversial. Nobody’s ever questioned them in any credible way. And there’s never been any downside demonstrated.
So, the only question is, why are jurisdictions so slow to look at the evidence?
JAISAL NOOR: All right. Thank you so much for joining us.
DR. GABOR MATÉ: My pleasure. Thank you.
JAISAL NOOR: Thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.