Reflections on a 20 year drug career
By Bruce Weik
(The author is a retired substance abuse counselor, as well as a regular columnist for the Zephyr.)
People have some odd notions about drugs, drug use, and what can be done about the problem. I’m going to be brutally straightforward in discussing the myth, the reality, and the fix. No statistics, no fancy theories, just some thoughts, observations and feelings from 20 years of experience.
THE MYTH: When people think of drugs, they usually are referring to cocaine (crack), methamphetamine (meth), and/or cannabis (marijuana, grass, pot). The fact of the matter is, alcohol, nicotine, and prescription drugs are the most used and abused drugs in America. The primary reason for this is that they are legal, making them more widely available. Often, prescription drugs are sold on the street, having been acquired in a legal manner with a doctor’s prescription. Combined, the three cause enormous problems for our society. A good argument against legalizing drugs.
THE MYTH: Cannabis is a “gateway drug.” This is something of a half-truth. If you’re looking for the major “gateway drugs,” look no further than cigarettes and alcohol. People usually start their drug careers using one, or both. The research is split concerning cannabis being a “gateway” to more potent drugs. It would appear to be about a 50/50 argument, with half the studies saying, maybe cannabis users will move on to other drugs, and half the studies stating, no, cannabis users are content to stay with cannabis.
THE MYTH: I can use just a little bit of a drug, to help get over the rough times. It won’t happen that way. If you’re using drugs in a habitual manner, whatever drug, you will not be able to control it. It will control you. It generally speaking always happens that way.
THE MYTH: Anyone who is dependent on a drug should be written off as a no good druggie who will never get over it. I’ve heard that line during my entire career, sometimes from people you would think should know better. People can get over abusive or dependent use. I’ve seen many smokers quit, many alcoholics and many drug addicts quit. But it’s not easy. The best combination, and most successful one, is treatment and a support group. No magic, no frills, and a success rate, for long-term abstinence, of probably around 25%. Any program that claims otherwise is not using long-term abstinence as a criteria, or is straight-out pulling your leg. That’s how hard it is. One has to realize, quitting is not an event, it is a process. A person may need two or five or eight treatments before it sticks. Relapses are always a possibility. The object is not to beat yourself up, or the addict, if they relapse, but to help them get back to abstinence as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, today, money rules. Treatment can be costly, and nobody today wants to pay, particularly for repeat treatment events. Today’s political and economic climate dictates that it is easier to put a person in jail or prison than it is to help them get over their addiction. This is one of our greatest failures as a society.
THE MYTH: Forcing people into treatment is wrong. Forcing people into treatment is hard on the person and hard on the counselor, but due to the nature of addiction, it is a necessary evil. Very few people voluntarily enter drug treatment. We’re too proud, too sure we can beat it on our own. We don’t like to look at our weaknesses, and on top of that, the drugs screw up our thinking. The first treatment episode can be thought of as an introduction to living a drug free life. Little headway may be made, but the point is that it’s a start. Without this start, there will likely be one of three outcomes: Insanity, prison, and/or death. Remember, recovery is a long-term, lifetime process that requires lifestyle changes and ongoing support. Entering it with anything less of a commitment will almost guarantee failure.
THE MYTH: All counselors and programs are the same. This is an obvious mistake. Like doctors or lawyers or carpenters, some are better than others. The level of competence one rises to depends mainly on the initiative of the counselor. Experience is the best teacher, but young counselors have to start somewhere. The key is to have a good supervisory system in place, utilizing your most experienced counselors as teachers, mentors. Unfortunately, today, in many programs, that key element is missing. The focus has turned to how many people you can see in an eight hour period, not how good of a job you can do, or what you can teach the younger, less experienced counselors. Like recovery, building a staff is a process that takes nurturing, commitment, and guidance. So when looking around, look for continuity, dedication, and today’s new ingredient, a fair price.
That’s some of the myths I have heard along the way. There are many others. Not everyone will agree with how I’ve answered some of them. That’s fine. The point is not so much to necessarily agree with what I’ve said as it is to think about it. Exposing the myths will prepare us to better deal with The Reality.
A “war on drugs” will never work. Maybe a “war on indifference.” Perhaps a “war on negativity.” Or how about a “war on injustice”? But a “war on drugs” is doomed to failure from the very start. Because no matter how many drugs you intercept, no matter how many pesticides you drop on marijuana or poppy fields, or how many walls you build to keep drugs out, or how many people you put in prison, we will not stop people from wanting to use drugs. It seems to be human nature, to want to feel different, to want to feel better, be happier, to wanting to find a shortcut to answering “the great mystery.” Drugs fool us into thinking we can “get there faster.”
I’ve always figured that life is about finding happiness. Not the tee-hee kind of happiness, but “the happiness,” that contentment, satisfaction, love, security, joy, on top of the world kind of happiness. It’s hard to maintain, but I’m sure you have felt it, at least at times. That kind of happiness doesn’t come cheap. Because the path is filled with challenges, one looks for a shortcut. And there is no more available hope for immediate satisfaction than drugs. Drugs can take you away from your troubles, away from the challenges, the pressures, the failures, the poverty, in a way that nothing else can. It’s available, fast, but unfortunately, unforgiving. The “happiness” is short-lived, if at all. What seems like a heavenly experience soon turns to hell. You find yourself on a one-way street to nowhere. No one who becomes dependent is spared the trip. Not the rich, the poor, black, white, female, male, grandma, grandpa, husband, wife, kids. The line goes straight down.
People look for that high. While physiologically explainable, a high is pretty much different for every addicted person. I suppose it’s not so much that the high is different, as it is the high is used for different purposes: to forget, to remember, to have energy, to settle down, for sleeping, for staying awake, to have more sex, to not want to have sex, to looking for God, to trying to forget God. The reasons are endless. This is one of the unfortunate problems. There is an easy answer to ending drug use — simply don’t use anymore. But there is no easy answer to why a person used in the first place. This complicates treatment, making it hard to get at the root causes. But then again, maybe to quit you don’t need to get at root causes. Maybe just quitting will suffice.
The high numbs us of our pain. It transports us to a place we think is good, but turns out bad. As it ends up, the high can be approached in many non-drug ways. Runners talk about getting a high. Meditation, yoga, relaxation can get you there. The mountains, the ocean, the forest, make people feel high. Achievements, accomplishments, successes, excelling at something — be it playing the guitar, basketball, quilting, cooking, writing — a whole host of things can produce this “natural high.” Of course, you have to do those things, you have to work at it. It’s easier to walk out to the street corner, go to the bar, or get a prescription that you know you’re not going to use correctly. It’s faster, it’s immediate. But it’s not real.
You can stop one drug only to find yourself addicted to something else. To gambling. To working. To sex. To religion. To all the above. Addiction is the mistaken belief that we can solve our longings for a better life, for a happier life, that we can “fix” ourselves, with a drug rather than with “blood, sweat, and tears.” Such a belief is always a mistake.
The reality is there are hundreds of reasons why people use drugs. So where does this leave us? How can we beat something people want so badly? What can we do? Where can we get “the fix”?
So what do we do about drug use and abuse and sellers? The fix is not as easy to come by as “the fix.” I can go down to any Main Street, USA and have what I need within ten–fifteen minutes. The same holds true for Galesburg as holds true for Springfield or Chicago. You can get any drug you want, at Alice’s Restaurant.
While it’s hard to pin down why a person may use drugs, there is no such mystery surrounding why they are sold. They do it for the money. It’s easy money, although a career fraught with danger. As it works out, in a recent study done in Chicago, the easy money theory is not all it’s made out to be. Taking into account the time street sellers spend buying, selling, defending their territory, and bailing themselves out of trouble, they made about minimum wage. And oddly enough, most of the drug dealers continued to live with their mothers, long after they should have departed. Over the short haul, drug dealing looks to be lucrative. But like drug using, drug dealing is not going to work for long. It’s a downward spiraling career choice, full of myths and misinformation about how it can take you from a miserable existence to one of glamour. It won’t. We need to expose that myth.
Putting drug sellers in prison is for the most part an unending process. You break the law, obviously you should pay. That’s how it works. But the penalties need to be reasonable. The “mandatory sentences, three strikes you’re out” mentality is wrong. Every situation is different. We need to allow for that. Granted, this takes some judgement and commonsense. That shouldn’t be too much to ask from our judicial system.
Drug users are another story. Addiction is a disease. It can be helped. It should not be a crime to be an addict. If there’s to be a sentence, it should be to treatment, not to prison. There should be conditions, but they need to be realistic. We know addicts for the most part are going to relapse. We know they are not going to be happy, being forced into treatment. We know they’re going to have a hard time finding a job, particularly if they have a criminal record. We know they will do whatever is necessary to protect their addiction and livelihood. The conditions under which treatment needs to occur need to be enormously flexible. Unfortunately, most treatment programs, and the legal system, are enormously inflexible.
Cannabis use should be decriminalized. Make no mistake, there are problems with chronic, long-term use. But remember, there are problems with chronic, long-term use of alcohol and nicotine. If we were to judge on sheer problems generated, those two would have to go first. The evolution of drug use, with the advent of crack cocaine and meth, has made cannabis use something of a non-issue. Still, cannabis is the number one targeted drug in our “War Against Drugs.” Our prisons are full of minor drug users and sellers. We need to radically change our approach. I’m not convinced that cannabis use should be legalized, but I am firmly convinced that we need to make its use less of a crime, perhaps a misdemeanor. It would take some serious thinking, but the discussion needs to take place.
So, to summarize:
1. Try to get reasonable information about drugs, drug use, and drug sellers. Remember, everyone is giving you their biased viewpoints. Gather information from various sources. Look to see that it is presented in some substantiated way. I’ve given you personal information in this three part series, backed for the most part by my twenty year career in alcohol and drug counseling.
2. In life, there are givens. One seems to be that we all want to somehow feel better, be happier. Drugs of all kind afford us that opportunity. They provide us with a shortcut, we think, to the promised land. Drug use, and consequently abuse, will never go away, mainly, as I see it, for that reason. There would be no drug problems, or sellers, if people didn’t want drugs. It is a problem that needs ongoing review and a constant push for innovative solutions.
3. Drug abuse and dependence can be overcome. The best combination to date is treatment and ongoing support. Remember, it may take repeated treatment, and the support may be needed for a lifetime. But recovery is possible.
4. We need to rethink how we treat addicted people. Prison is not an answer.
5. We need to decriminalize cannabis.
6. And finally, we need to each take the responsibility for showing our young people that life can be fulfilling, rewarding, and happy, in a non-drugged way. That we are capable of facing the world without the use of drugs. If parents do not model this type of behavior for their children, the cycle of addiction will continue to grow. No prevention in the world will overcome them watching us attempting to make our lives better by using drugs.