a bird and a bottle

Understanding Addiction

HBO recently aired its Addiction documentary. I haven’t seen it yet (no HBO), but I’m planning to watch it all online here as soon as I come up for air. The documentary, a long overdue project, aims to help explain addiction to drugs and alcohol, a widespread problem in American society that is little understood.

In connection with the film, John Hoffman, one of the film’s creators, posted a column at HuffPo. He writes:

realize now that for me and many others, understanding addiction is a profound challenge. My producing partner, Susan Froemke, and I engaged in hundreds of hours of conversation with research scientists, physicians, psychiatrists, government leaders, treatment providers, treatment advocates, people in recovery, people actively using, families of active users, as well as families of those in recovery, twelve-step advocates, and experts studying how addiction affects the workplace. And yet, with every available resource at our disposal we still found it terribly difficult to attain a comprehensive, working understanding of the topic.


Addiction, as it turns out, is a problem that is messy–riddled with misconceptions, profoundly lacking in nationally recognized treatment standards, and highly stigmatized.

The question/problem of addiction ties together the two main threads of this blog: the drug war/criminal justice and the prosecution of pregnant women who give birth despite a drug problem. In both situations, I think, addiction is severely misunderstood. In the case of the criminal justice system, drug addiction is not a crime (per the Supreme Court case Robinson v. California from 1972), but possession is a crime — often a felony. So people are still being punished (severely) for their drug addictions. In the realm of prosecuting pregnant women, addiction is misunderstood several fold. First, prosecutors and judges blame women for not being able to kick their addictions without the help of treatment or even after a single treatment enrollment. What they fail to understand — and what this HBO documentary addresses — is that addiction is a lifelong illness and that recovery must include some understanding of the likelihood of temporary relapse. When it comes to prosecuting pregnant women, prosecutors and judges also misunderstand the dangers posed to fetuses. Ever since the 1980s, there has been a persistent fear of “crack babies.” What people don’t realize is that “crack babies” don’t exist; the symptoms often associated iwth crack are caused by poverty and all that that includes (lack of prenatal care, lack of proper nutrition, higher frequencies of domestic violence).

The filmmakers seem to believe that things are improving:

The biggest change in addiction is the growing acceptance by the medical community and the general population that addiction is a chronic relapsing brain disease. A vivid contributor to this change in attitude is the fact that science now gives us the ability to see inside the brains of addicted people. We can see that the addicted brain is different; that it’s damaged. With brain research has arrived great advances in the medical treatment of addiction and the promise of even more effective treatments to come. The advances in medications for alcoholism are so great that leading experts in this field will tell you that there is now reason for every alcoholic to use these medications (naltrexone and acamprosate) to help control their cravings.

Another shift is the increasing understanding that addiction is often coupled with other mental disorders and that these problems and the addiction must be treated simultaneously or the chances of a sustained recovery are slim. Approximately forty percent of addicts suffer from co-occurring mental disorders.

But these improvements are all outside the world of arrests, courts, and prisons.

Fundamentally, the criminal justice system in the U.S. does not understand addiction. And doesn’t try to.


5 Comments so far
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You should probably read this review of the film at D’Alliance. They are rightfully skeptical of the documentary based on the fact that it is sponsored by NIDA, a very pro-drug-war organization.

Comment by Tanya

Thanks for the heads-up. As I noted, I haven’t seen the documentary yet, so I can’t comment on its content. But I am glad to see the DPA approaching it critically and I’ll be sure to read their review ASAP (and update my post to reflect the review).

Thanks again.

Comment by bean

[…] addicts are up to as long as they have minimal chances to fuck with others, but the arguments of addict apologists are really beyond the pale. Addiction, as it turns out, is a problem that is messy–riddled with […]

Pingback by Is poverty responsible for global warming too? « Reality-Related Program Activities

[…] headline in today’s NY Times article: Revolving Door for Addicts Adds to Medicaid Cost. Often when I write about my opposition to the drug war, I encourage more widespread use of state-funded treatment […]

Pingback by a bird and a bottle

Thank you for you work! Good Luck.i

Comment by bing

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