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As overdose deaths soar to record numbers—with over 100,000 in each of the past two years—American attitudes about addiction spiral deeper into delusion. Lawmakers on both the left and the right, the mainstream media, and the majority of the population now embrace decriminalization. And yet, as Jim Hinch is the latest to show, the case for normalizing drugs is bogus. “Harm reduction” and decriminalization do not reduce overdoses but increase them. Treatment isn’t the alternative to law enforcement; successful treatment typically requires law enforcement. Nor will stopping the prosecution of drug possession solve our prison problem; less than four percent of prisoners are incarcerated for possession.
The ignorance and denial of media and policy elites who often urge us to “follow the science” suggests a deep resistance to grappling with some simple truths: Greater availability of drugs like heroin and cocaine leads to higher levels of addiction. Addiction is a fatal disease that we can’t simply treat like diabetes. Addicts like myself typically require severe consequences, and often the intervention of the courts, before recovery can begin.
These facts are hardly new. What’s new is the effort to obscure them. In a typical move, a recent “scientific” study generates more hopeful recovery statistics simply by redefining “recovery” to mean whatever an addict thinks it is, including binge drinking and heroin use.
What is it about the reality of addiction that is so threatening?
Addiction is a disease of desire. Our society enthrones our desire as our “truth,” our authentic self. Consumer desire is the engine of our economy. In the past, the left opposed consumerism. But progressivism has evolved to become indistinguishable from traditional libertarianism in its defense of the sacredness of consumer choice. The idea that others might negatively judge what I want—whether my sexual preferences, my reading choices, or my use of chemicals—elicits horrified charges of elitism and prejudice from across the political spectrum.
Today Elon Musk and AOC join hands in defense of drug decriminalization. They are equally committed to the fundamental claim of liberalism: No one can tell me what to want. I decide what I want. What I want is who I am.
Nothing threatens this false vision of reality so much as addiction. The instant I got high on heroin, all I wanted was to get clean. I made lists, plans, left handwritten notes all over my apartment. “Don’t do Dope!” “My life matters!” “Get help!” And the instant the dope began to wear off, all I wanted was to get more. There’s nothing unique or special about my experience. Every addict confronts this betrayal by desire.
Addicts are enslaved by what we want. We don’t want what we want. Language must perform contortions to convey the paradox of addiction. The Apostle Paul captured this when he wrote in Romans, “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate.” Our public culture has left us no way of understanding how my desire might not be my own.
To recover, I first had to separate myself from my desire. I needed to understand that I want drugs, but that wanting is not me. My desire is alien to my deepest self. I then needed to learn better forms of desire; others helped me to want differently.
It wasn’t simply that the particular things I most wanted—drugs—were the problem. Like many addicts, after accepting that I couldn’t use drugs, all of my other desires became insatiable. My desire for consumer goods, for money, for sex, for food grew unmanageable. I discovered that desire itself was the problem. To survive, I had to control my desires, submit them to higher principles. I had to prise open a space between my life and my wanting. The prising open of this space constitutes the irreducible spiritual core of recovery from addiction. For me, and for every other recovering addict I know, nothing in my own body or mind could possibly enable me to take this step. It took a power greater than me: the law, arrest for felony possession. As I lay in my jail cell on New Year’s Eve, 2001, a sense of relief stirred beneath the suffering of withdrawal. I could no longer do what I wanted. It was my first taste of the freedom of recovery.
The shock of discovering that desire can betray us is unique to secular culture. Every religious tradition, from Buddhism to Christianity, understands that desire tends to open bottomless pits within us. Far from furnishing a stable identity, desire is an all-consuming vortex. Addiction forces us to this understanding.
Over the twenty years of my recovery, I have seen our culture grow progressively more hostile to accepting the truth about addiction. The overwhelmingly hostile reaction to my recent Washington Post article describing my path to recovery brought this home to me. Our culture has become dominated by three moral principles about desire. 1) I know what I want. 2) You can’t tell me what to want. 3) You can help me by recognizing and respecting what I want.
In recent years we’ve witnessed the effort to apply these principles to the problem of addiction. The real problem, we’re told, is not so much what addicts want, as the tendency of other people to stigmatize them for wanting drugs. In Ohio, where I live, for example, the old public messaging about avoiding addictive drugs has been replaced by a “beat the stigma” campaign. I don’t know any recovering addict who would say that other people looking down on his choices was prominent among his problems when using. But it is easier for our culture to accept that other people’s attitudes toward my desire are problematic than it is to accept that my desire itself is sick. This approach slots into the broader suite of drug policies urged by elites—decriminalizing drug possession and making spaces and implements available to addicts so they can use drugs more successfully.
Such an attitude to addiction is literally fatal. This pathology comes out most clearly when we contrast the decriminalization efforts of countries like Portugal with the policies recently implemented in Oregon. Portugal’s decriminalization succeeded in reducing incarceration, overdose, and addiction only because the Portuguese state created a vast machinery of surveillance and enforcement to apply the intense social pressure necessary to break addicts out of their slavery. Yet the Oregon lawmakers simply removed the legal consequences of using drugs. “Who are we,” one imagines them thinking, “to tell someone else that what they want is wrong?” Instead of getting arrested, people in Oregon found in possession of fentanyl are given a ticket and a hotline number with treatment options. The expectation was that addicts who needed treatment would seek it, and the evils of law enforcement would be ended by treating addiction like a regular disease.
Yet less than 1 percent of those given the hotline number sought treatment. And in the first year of the law’s operation, overdose deaths increased 41 percent in Oregon, compared with a 16 percent increase in the U.S. as a whole. This outcome didn’t surprise people who know about addiction. As one expert commented, “Without some external pressure, most people will not attempt to reduce their drug use via treatment or other means.”
The willful ignorance displayed by the Oregon lawmakers is ubiquitous in the decriminalization movement. Our culture’s idolization of desire has made it difficult or impossible to accept the truth about addiction. So long as this denial persists, the epidemic will worsen. The drug problem is a health crisis, but it is even more a spiritual crisis. To confront it, we need to recover an ancient truth about desire: I am not what I want. Our culture excels at giving us freedom for desire. But often what we need most is freedom from desire. The want not to want what we want—this is the one form of longing liberalism cannot recognize. Millions of addicts and their families pay the price.
Michael W. Clune is the author of White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin.
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