Saturday, November 17, 2007

Addictions often fester after cultures collapse

SFU prof equates 18th century Scots with modern day aboriginals.

When it comes to the problem of drug addiction, Bruce Alexander, professor emeritus of psychology at SFU, focuses on the bigger picture. In a 2001 paper for the B.C. Centre for Policy Alternatives, he rejected the binary option of addiction as either a "criminal" problem or a "medical" problem. He insisted it's neither. "In a free market society, the spread of addiction is primarily a political, social, and economic problem."

With his courteous, low-key style, Alexander is out to demolish what he sees as one of the biggest shibboleths of our time, the "demon drug" model of addiction.

Wherever cultures are crushed and traditions lost, addictions follow, he argued last month in a speech at the Wosk Centre for Public Dialogue. He cited aboriginal people of Canada's West Coast, and moved on to a less obvious example--his ancestors from the Scottish highlands. After the Battle of Culloden in 1746, "their culture was completely obliterated on purpose, by the British," for the same reason they were to obliterate aboriginal cultures in North America, and to the same effect.

England created a truly market society by the early 19th century. This was in part achieved, Alexander argues in his 2001 essay, "through a massive, forced eviction of the rural poor from their farms, commons, and villages and the absorption of some of them into urban slums and a brutal, export-oriented manufacturing system. Those who resisted these new realities too strenuously were further dislocated from their families and communities, by forced apprenticeship of their children, destruction of their unions and other associations of working people, elimination of local charity to the 'undeserving poor,' and by confinement in 'houses of correction.'" Unlike First Nations people, the Scots already had alcohol. But only after their cultural collapse did alcoholism become a problem among the Scots.

Alexander argues that global trade, war and chemical addiction have long gone hand in hand. (Google the British opium wars for more of the same.) Only now, with globalization colonizing the last remaining public spaces, and even consciousness itself, are we starting to understand the sophisticated manipulation behind the market's addictive offerings. Alexander sees drug addiction as a species; the genus is addiction in its many forms, from online gambling and porn to video games and retail therapy. Wherever social networks are fraying, or already threadbare, addictions acquire greater force.

"We need to belong; we get that socially," he said in his speech at the Wosk Centre. "If we don't have it in our society, we get it through addictions. So if you've got nothing, a void in your life, you can join the addict culture in the Downtown Eastside, you can just go... pull out a $20 bill and you're in." Without proper psychosocial integration, even the most harmful substitute lifestyles serve a function, he insists. "For example, devoted loyalty to a violent youth gang, offensive as it may be to society and to the gang member's own values, is far more endurable than no identity at all."

Of course, people aren't just pieces of flotsam knocked about by historical forces. We all have free will, and not all of us spiral downward when deprived of psychosocial integration, ending up on the streets. But Alexander argues effectively that the pharmacological aspect of addiction has been overly emphasized through questionable research and knee-jerk politicking, at the expense of the larger social context, in which troubled people seek to anaesthetize themselves to their surroundings.

It's a no-brainer that the War on Some Drugs had failed spectacularly across south of the border. (A 2004 U.S. Justice Department report found that people sentenced for drug crimes accounted for 21 per cent of state prisoners and 55 per cent of all federal prisoners. With a global prison population estimated at nine million, the U.S. holds about one-quarter of all prisoners on the planet. Forty-one per cent of them are black.) So what would a Conservative-led crackdown on safe injection sites and drug trafficking offer for us that's any different than the American experience? Nothing.

Alexander's answer to the drug problem is greater investment in social housing, reforming public services, and rebuilding welfare and unemployment insurance so people have economic, social and psychological stability. "Perhaps, most important, we need to restore the credibility of Canada as an honourable, sovereign nation, rather than a puppet of the United States."

One piece of folk wisdom holds that "drugs are for people who can't handle reality." Would it be so unthinkable to suggest, along with Alexander, that we then work on changing reality?

Geoff Olson © Vancouver Courier 2007

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