There exists a widely held belief that there is something fundamentally wrong with a person suffering from any type of addiction. As if they were different from the rest of the normal population. It is primarily this type of thinking that leads our society to stigmatize, or worse, criminalize them. Almost everywhere in the world, the addict is shunned and ostracized. But what we don’t realize is that as a society we are just as much to blame for the addict turning towards substance use. As hard as that pill may be to swallow, it is the uncomplicated truth. I am not suggesting that the individual who is addicted is beyond blame, but that their suffering needs to be treated differently than the way they are now.
The United States government has been running a major campaign against substance (ab)use for 50 years now, dubbed as the “war on drugs program”. But the program has little to show in terms of its benefits. Many countries followed the lead of the United States and continued to practice the war on drugs program in their territories.
One of these countries was Portugal. It initially accepted the wisdom of the war on drugs program, thinking that it made sense to combat drug use but eventually had to drop this method as it was accentuating the problem rather than help.
In the late 20th century and early 21st century, Portugal had a chronic drug problem. And after years of using the war on drugs method and its ineffective results, they decided to change things. So, in the year 2000 astronomical changes were undertaken to deal with substance use and addicts. The government decided to flip the common measures undertaken and follow the lead of scientists and researchers on the matter, and in doing so, changed the understanding of the addict, their addiction, and its resolution.
The Portuguese Method
In the face of a major drug problem, Portugal legalized all forms of substances, from marijuana to cocaine, in 2000. And all the money, that until then was being used to fight drug use, was actively utilized to create jobs for the addicts, provide funds for their business ventures, create better rehabilitation facilities with better doctors, and actively seek to reduce the stigma associated with being an addict. The government went so far as to provide wages for the addict in any company that employed them so that they had something to do, some type of purpose and routine. The partial funding of salaries and wages gave incentive to the companies and ensured the individual was involved in work and interacted with the wider society.
Fifteen years after starting this effort, in 2015, it was reported that there is over a 50% reduction in overall addiction rates in Portugal and the amount of individuals that are fresh addicts is minimal. All in all, this form of the war on drugs, showed that it’s not necessary to treat the addict as a criminal. The system didn’t involve shunning them but rather, embracing them, and as counter-intuitive as it may seem, it worked.
Why did it work?
Because the thing with addiction is that addiction itself is largely a symptom of a deeper-rooted issue. The National Institute on Drug Abuse in the United States suggests that there are primarily 4 reasons why people begin taking drugs or alcohol – to feel better, to do better, to feel good, and peer pressure.
Apart from the reason of peer pressure, the other 3 reasons indicate that the individual is in some manner unsatisfied with their life and is trying to feel much better than their present circumstances allow for, and unfortunately, substances provide a way to see the world differently.
And in time, this running away from reality by using drugs continually develops into abuse and addiction. The addict knows that using the substance is harmful but the pains and stressors of everyday living are far too strong to bear and the high provided by substance provides a great escape. It’s the same reason why we want holidays, vacations, weekends, and parties – to let out hair down.
This was the beauty of the Portuguese method. They gave these struggling individuals alternate methods to cope, they gave them meaning for existing, took them out of their unhappy existence and most importantly made them feel as though they belonged and that they were important. They provided for the avenue to find that “better” by finding some meaning from their work and their existence.
This is a fundamental shift that needs to be made in our understanding of addiction and the addict. We must also realize that when it comes to addiction the individual is suffering through their addiction and not enjoying it. It doesn’t bring them any pleasure. And their addiction is made worse when they are shunned or ostracized because the source of their addiction remains the experience of these aspects. It’s a negative feedback loop, where non-acceptance leads to socially unacceptable behavior like drug use, which leads to feeling more unaccepted and so on and so forth.
We must all realize that the substances and the outcome of ‘feeling good’ are essentially symptoms of a larger, deeper problem that the individual is facing. One where they are dissatisfied, without purpose, not understood, unloved, lonely, or uncared for. So yes, addiction is bad, and addicts can sometimes be extremely manipulative and dangerous, but the society and environment surrounding the addict is as much to blame for them to turn to drugs and alcohol to find respite.
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