Shameful Pleasures

Chart from Wikipedia by Derek Snider, CC-BY-SA 3.0

There is a lot of controversy about current experiments to decriminalize ‘hard’ drugs. Critics, and long-time supporters of the horrific “war on drugs”, argue that it’s a road to perdition, and that the only answer is to get users into ‘treatment’ (although no effective treatment exists), and incarcerate them as long as they refuse treatment, along with their pushers.

That perspective reflects a catholic view of human nature — we are all sinners who need to be coerced to follow a virtuous path and punished if we refuse to follow it. If we give up the war, they believe, the devil and anarchy will take over the planet. Repent thy sins or face god’s wrath, as exercised by his devout followers. They offer Vancouver’s Downtown East Side as proof of that belief, as a warning.

Their belief, as with most religious dogma, is that every transgression is a slippery slope. Give the sinners this, and next they’ll want that.

So what do users of these substances, and opponents of the endless war on drugs, ultimately want? There is of course no one answer to this, but some want only to be left alone. Others want the government to meet their basic needs, which for them, now, includes an affordable, legal, safe supply of the drugs they’re addicted to.

Those who are addicted to nicotine and alcohol already have this, though the government sees fit to punish those addicted to these substances through massive hidden taxes that often deprive users of the money they need to keep themselves and their families healthy and comfortable. Often the result is broken homes, homelessness, and an increase in crime and illness — a result that likely stems more from financial instability and stress than from behaviours “under the influence”.

It could be argued that we are even more hypocritical in our attitude to those addicted to sugar, salt, and saturated fats, which are packed into products that take up more than half of the space in supermarkets that is not already taken up by alcohol, and which sicken and kill far more people than all other drugs put together. Products catering to these addictions are not only freely available, they are massively subsidized, falsely advertised as nutritious, and openly marketed to children.

Hospitals and homes are filled with people with diabetes, heart diseases, cancers, immune-system disorders and other chronic and wasting diseases, unable to work, live ‘normal’ lives and look after themselves and their families — all because they are addicted to the unhealthy substances in our food supply.

So why the double standard? Perhaps it’s because consumption of these drugs masquerades as socially acceptable behaviour. We all have to eat and drink, right? What’s the harm in getting a little pleasure, a little buzz, from something we have to do anyway? With bars on almost every street-corner, especially in poorer and more oppressed neighbourhoods, alcohol is almost unavoidable.

I’m not cynical enough to believe we tolerate the marketing of unhealthy addictive substances and poisons just because they’re profitable. There has to be a deeper reason than that. I wonder if this is the pressure-release valve that we tacitly recognize our high-stress, crowded, gruelling, unnatural, suffering-filled modern way of life needs to prevent the citizenry blowing up and just refusing to continue supporting our oppressive, unhealthy, and grossly-unequal civilization?

This is a complex phenomenon, and the resulting social behaviours weren’t and aren’t prescribed, directed, caused or controlled by any group in our society. We get hooked on our particular drugs, from caffeine to fentanyl and from TV to video games to porn, because they give us pleasure and promise to give us more if we keep using them. We are mostly not even conscious of this happening. Evolution apparently drives us to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, so we pursue the former and avoid or sedate ourselves against the latter. Addiction is just conditioning with a positive feedback loop.

What offends our puritan culture is not the exercise of our conditioned evolutionary instinct, but exercising it in a way that casts our civilization culture in a bad light. If we’re rich, we can hide our socially unacceptable addictive behaviours behind the closed doors of our homes. But if we’re poor, they get exercised instead in public — in bars and bathrooms, and in the streets and back alleys. We tacitly accept the need to feed our addictions, but we don’t want to explicitly acknowledge or know about them, and don’t want to see them in public. This, of course, is not about addiction, but about shame.

It is also about fear — of the unknown, and of scary, dysfunctional public behaviour. It’s fear, for example, that underlies much of the opposition to legalizing psychotropic drugs. What will this person unpredictably do next, that could harm themselves, or me? That fear is understandable, and applies just as much to dealing with the behaviour of people intoxicated with alcohol. We want users of such substances removed from public spaces in the interest of public safety. While providing affordable, safe street drugs won’t solve that problem, it’s a problem we’re already dealing with with alcohol.

Our shame at seeing fentanyl or methamphetamine users (or, increasingly, those using both opioids and stimulants at once) in the streets, sometimes going through withdrawal, is also understandable. We feel ashamed for them, and for the circumstances that have led to their misery that “shouldn’t ever have to arise” in a healthy society.

A safe, legal, affordable, properly labeled drug supply would certainly help reduce poisonings and the resultant staggering death toll, but it’s questionable whether visible ‘hard’ drug use in public places would change, any more than regulated alcohol sales could have been expected to reduce public drunkenness. And if the picture on the streets is unchanged, the program will inevitably be labelled a failure by critics, with calls for its cancellation and a return to mandatory ‘treatment’ and incarceration.

So while I believe that we should provide a safe, legal, affordable, regulated supply of drugs that people are going to take anyway, just to reduce the carnage of deaths and hospitalizations from poisoned street drugs, I don’t think that’s going to change the public behaviours that induce such shame and fear in the rest of us.

If we addressed the social factors underlying the craving for drugs to escape the pain and misery of many people’s existence — chronic poverty, homelessness, stress, the lack of meaningful work, financial anxiety, and chronic illness just for a start — it would certainly have a dramatic effect. But we might as well wish for the moon and the stars. The existing economic and political systems that have led to these chronic social problems are well-entrenched and digging in their heels while teetering on the edge of collapse. We can’t hope to reform them.

People, especially those facing profound and chronic stress, take opioids and stimulants for the same reasons people use alcohol and nicotine, and for the same reasons we enjoy sugar, salt and saturated fats in our diet — they invoke chemical reactions in our bodies (dopamine etc) that increase our pleasure and sedate and distract from our pain.

This is biologically (and, to a lesser degree, culturally) conditioned behaviour that has evolved over millions of years for our benefit — sugars, salts and fats, for example, are relatively scarce in the natural world, and are essential in small quantities to our health, so it’s no wonder we crave them. It’s sheer hubris to think that we can change our addictions through any ‘treatment’ or ‘reprogramming’ activity, as the utter failure of programs trying to do this, despite mammoth public and private funding, attests. And it’s equally hubristic to think we are going to change the utterly broken systems that have given rise to our now-ubiquitous, unhealthy addictions.

I suspect that one of the reasons conservatives in particular oppose the legalization of ‘hard’ drugs, is their acknowledgement that life in our modern civilized world is really hard and stressful, and so they fear that if these drugs were legalized, ‘everyone’ would be taking them, and our society would fall apart. Well, guess what, folks, it’s already falling apart. Legalizing alcohol didn’t make it fall apart any faster. And a lot of drugs, including heroin and cocaine, used to be legal, and society didn’t fall apart then.

I’m not much interested in trying to change people’s behaviours — it’s pretty clear to me that laws, jails, bribes, pleas, threats, and therapies don’t change our behaviours, at least not for long. Our species, IMO, just isn’t meant to live this way. We live in a global culture that produces so little pleasure and causes so much pain. Can’t blame anyone for wanting a brief and temporary respite from it.

A footnote thought: It’s intriguing that fans of the ‘privatization of everything’ haven’t taken note of what’s happened with the ‘private sector’ controlling the sale of illicit drugs — gangsterism, violence, bribery, extortion, price-fixing and price-gouging, tampering, deceptive marketing, fraud, money-laundering, oligopoly, negligence, and poor quality control. The ‘free market’ at work.

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3 Responses to Shameful Pleasures

  1. realist says:

    You are missing Kava-Kava, very nice, used for 2000 years.

  2. Ray says:

    Look into the brain.
    Why has evolution steered us to constantly look for dopamine rewards?
    Not much we can do about it.
    If the rewards are available, we’ll grab them. We have to. Not much choice here. Feeling pleasure is great!
    Just consider the sex pleasure reward. Would anybody with a “sane” mind engage in this dubious, costly kind of activity if there was no dopamine reward? Hardly.
    Nature has discovered that, in order to play a better energy dissipation game, it is much more advantageous to create new organisms than to keep repairing aging organic structures such as humans. The only problem is that you need a little incentive to entice these organisms to engage in this very costly life creating activity.
    Flood the brain with dopamine and give the poor suckers a pleasurable orgasm.
    They can’t resist it.
    They ‘ll do anything for another rush of dopamine. Bring on the drugs!

  3. realist says:

    “in order to play a better energy dissipation game”
    Yes it seems that Nature’s “goal” is to maximize entropy and that evolution is the way to do it.
    This is pretty ominous for individual creatures and makes Dave lamentations about our ugly world rather pointless.

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