07/23/2013 11:22 am ET Updated Sep 22, 2013

Who Hates the Addict?


I've written a bit about who the addict is -- now for an even darker reality.

North Americans have long had a love-hate rapport with drugs and alcohol. So we party-hardy and love it. People brag about going "crazy." Yet North Americans do other things, to drug users and people who have seemingly lost control ... out of hate? I ask the reader to take this notion seriously: Do Americans and Canadians, in large numbers, truly hate the drug addicted? As a historian of addiction, my two cents is that addiction -- people being out of control -- is anathema to the Land of the Free. If you are out of control, then in a sense you are not truly "free." This, in turn, can generate intense hostility.

No, this angle doesn't explain everything. But it explains a lot.

On July 10 of this year, Toronto's Globe and Mail reported that "Toronto's board of health has become the first governing body in the province to endorse supervised intravenous drug injection sites." The article goes on to note that resistance is likely to dog such initiatives, notably from Toronto's own mayor. Even now, the feds are working up a new legislative bloc: purportedly designed to protect neighborhoods, the new law would render the creation of safe injection clinics close to impossible.

Of course, in the U.S. such clinics are not in the cards, and we are lucky that at least some needle exchange programs are available -- and even these initiatives are under constant threat.

Why the resistance to initiatives that prevent the spread of infection, save the lives of addicts and non-addicts alike, and do so without giving out dope? No maintenance doses here -- people must have their own drugs already. So a safe injection site or a needle exchange program is not about giving people drugs. These endeavors have no effect on supply.

Meanwhile, also on July 10 of this year, Clarence Walker writes in the Drug War Chronicle about Jody Butler's indefinite incarceration in Louisiana: "It wasn't murder, rape, or child molestation; it was the possession of small amounts of marijuana and crack cocaine found on him ..." True, it wasn't Butler's first offence, but still ... Indefinite incarceration because of minor possession?

Add it all up -- we are dealing with a great deal of hostility. One way to understand it is to go back to the early 20th century. Historians such as David Courtwright have described the way the addict was, essentially, turned into a criminal by a host of social changes (including of course the drive for prohibition). In the 19th century, your typical opiate habitué was white, female and middle or upper middle class. Things changed, and as the composition of the addicted population became less white and less affluent, so did social perceptions of the addict.

But why did it have to play out this way? We need to go back a little farther. It was right here, in the Land of the Free, that the very idea of addiction really got off the ground, receiving more attention than anywhere else. Out-of-control people, first drunkards, were not truly "free." The temperance movement -- the largest single-issue mass campaign in U.S. history -- tried its best to rid the world of drunkenness. Later, the out of control junkie -- derelict, scumbag - came to represent addiction as such.

Those of us fighting for enlightened drug policies need to be aware of this reality: A society of self-starters, raised on one-liners such as "A man's gotta do it for himself", is a society that expects everyone to be "free". The un-freedom of addiction is an insult to everything that American capitalist culture wants of us. The addict's very existence is a rebuttal to a hard-nosed, individualistic conception of self upon which many North Americans have built their hopes, and according to which they measure their self-worth -- and that of others.

So helping the addicted in any way is anathema. Insisting -- against all evidence -- that they could all just "stop" is an ideological impasse. Hatred can't explain it all, but it is integral to the mix: hatred of addiction, but also of anyone addicted.