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What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

This Is the Wall Street Journal on Drugs

Something's happening at the Wall Street Journal ($ site). For the longest time the editorial page there showed zero tolerance for anyone who believes that government repression of unapproved-drug makers, vendors, and consumers should cease. An editorial once suggested that Milton Friedman must have been stoned when he wrote in favor of drug freedom.

But now there are signs of cracks in the wall. The latest came on May 25 in an editorial-page column by Theordore Dalrymple called "Poppycock." None of its content will be new to those familiar with Thomas Szasz's writings (see Ceremonial Chemistry and Our Right to Drugs, but you don't often see in a mainstream newspaper what Dalyrymple did: He debunked the myths surrounding heroin. Here's a taste:

In 1822, Thomas De Quincey published a short book, "The Confessions of an English Opium Eater." The nature of addiction to opiates has been misunderstood ever since.

De Quincey took opiates in the form of laudanum, which was tincture of opium in alcohol. He claimed that special philosophical insights and emotional states were available to opium-eaters, as they were then called, that were not available to abstainers; but he also claimed that the effort to stop taking opium involved a titanic struggle of almost superhuman misery. Thus, those who wanted to know the heights had also to plumb the depths.

This romantic nonsense has been accepted wholesale by doctors and litterateurs for nearly two centuries. It has given rise to an orthodoxy about opiate addiction, including heroin addiction, that the general public likewise takes for granted: To wit, a person takes a little of a drug, and is hooked; the drug renders him incapable of work, but since withdrawal from the drug is such a terrible experience, and since the drug is expensive, the addict is virtually forced into criminal activity to fund his habit. He cannot abandon the habit except under medical supervision, often by means of a substitute drug.

In each and every particular, this picture is not only mistaken, but obviously mistaken. It actually takes some considerable effort to addict oneself to opiates: The average heroin addict has been taking it for a year before he develops an addiction. Like many people who are able to take opiates intermittently, De Quincey took opium every week for several years before becoming habituated to it. William Burroughs, who lied about many things, admitted truthfully that you may take heroin many times, and for quite a long period, before becoming addicted.

Heroin doesn't hook people; rather, people hook heroin.
I would go on, but I don't want to abuse the fair-use doctrine. The significance of the placement of this article can't be overstated. Most people support the government's repression of drug makers, vendors, and consumers because they hold a disease model of addiction. It's as though a demon jumps out of an alley and seizes control of unsuspecting people, when in fact, as one drug user put it, "You have to really work at being an addict." I agree with Szasz: we should go back to thinking about habits, rather than addictions. We'll be less likely to go wrong.

Addendum: As a commenter so graciously pointed out, the full article is here.


KAREN said...


My name is Karen Shacham and I work with CNN Pipeline in Atlanta.

I thought you might be interested to know that there will be a drug control conference live on CNN Pipeline at 2:00pm ET!

National Drug Control Policy Director John Walters, Justice and Homeland Security department officials, and officials from the Mexican Embassy hold a news conference to announce the first-ever synthetic drug control strategy, focusing on curbing Mexican and international trafficking of methamphetamine and other chemicals.

CNN Pipeline is an online, commercial-free multiple live-news feed. It showcases four simultaneous news feeds from around the world and an on-demand function that allows you to select from a variety of news stories.

Please let your members know that they can go to http://www.cnn.com and click on the Pipeline link to watch it *live* and get a two week free trial.

Thanks and have a great day!

Anonymous said...

Don't you like that, Sheldon: now your blog gets spammed by CNN trying to sell us something ... and it seems like Karen didn't read much of your post (or understand its point).

Sheldon Richman said...

Hey, they read the site.

Anonymous said...

I'm not so sure if they read it or they found it by spidering or some other automated mechanism. BTW, Dalrymple's entire article is available here.

Sheldon Richman said...