Terminally Addicted

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City of Addicts | Where Addiction Comes From | This is Mickey on Drugs | Free Market Pros and Cons

So, what brought you to Vancouver?

The question is asked all the time, because this is a city full of people who just got here. Vancouver is full of refugees forced to flee some war or personal catastrophe. Vancouver is full of people lured here by the promise of a new job, new rhythm, new view of mountains and water.

What that means, if you see Vancouver through the eyes of psychologist Bruce K. Alexander, is that this is a city of the "dislocated." And therefore, perfectly logically, this is a city of the addicted.

City of Addicts

What brought you to Vancouver? The question may be asked over a tumbler of single malt. Or a pint of beer. Or a scrap of foil unwrapped to reveal whatever grade of heroin is being sold on the street at the moment. It's no surprise to Alexander that Vancouver is home to a thriving drug trade and, as he puts it, the "sodden misery" of the Downtown Eastside. That particular corner of hell is merely reflective of the larger "malaise" that envelops Vancouver.

"Spreading in every direction from the Downtown Eastside centre of hard-drug addiction is a vast, doleful tapestry of less notorious, but often equally tragic forms of addiction," states Alexander. "There are gambling addicts in the casinos, alcoholics in the bars, money and power addicts in the financial district, workaholics in the offices, cybersex and video game addicts at the monitors ... and on and on."

What all these bedevilled souls have in common, in Alexander's view, are the feelings of depression that come with being cut off from the people, the culture, the place that might provide meaning in one's life. The more you feel dislocated, the more you feel depressed, the more you're vulnerable to addiction. Welcome, then, to Vancouver, Terminally Addicted City.

Alexander, who has studied addiction for thirty years as a professor at Simon Fraser University, lays out his provocative theory in a paper called "The Roots of Addiction in a Free Market Society," just released by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (see "related items").

His analysis represents a bracing challenge to the $30-million "Four Pillar Approach" to drug addiction in the region now being finalized by Vancouver's city hall.

"This balanced and compassionate initiative warrants public support," writes Alexander of the plan upon which Mayor Philip Owen has staked his political legacy. "Unfortunately, it does not warrant optimism. A century of intense effort has shown that no matter how well different approaches are coordinated, society cannot 'prevent,' 'treat' or 'harm reduce' its way out of addiction any more than it can 'police' its way out of it."

Sipping coffee among folks getting their caffeine fixes at The Grind Café, Alexander makes it clear that he's not down on colleagues who run treatment centres, hand out clean needles, detox drunks, or minister in myriad other ways to the city's addicted population. He sits on the board of the Portland Hotel, a showcase of harm reduction approaches borrowed from Europe. "But it's all band-aids," he says.

Where Addiction Comes From

The root cause of addiction in free-market society is free-market society itself, argues Alexander. Specifically, the way that free-market society is constantly tearing up and reinventing local economies, constantly demanding that people move from here to there or somewhere else to make a living, and as best they can, to make a life.

We just weren't built for it, argues Alexander. The same innate need that children have to bond with parents is expressed as a grown-up desire to "establish and maintain other close relationships, for example, with friends, school mates, co-workers, and recreational, ethnic, religious, or nationalistic groups." That is what noted psychologist Eric Erikson meant when he spoke of our life-long struggle to achieve "psychosocial integration." It is the "state in which people flourish simultaneously as individuals and as members of their culture," writes Alexander.

Okay, but just how does free-market society chip away at so basic a human requirement? Here's how Alexander explains it:

"In order for 'free markets' to be 'free,' the exchange of labour, land, currency, and consumer goods must not be encumbered by elements of psychosocial integration such as clan loyalties, village responsibilities, guild or union rights, charity, family obligations, social roles, or religious values. Cultural traditions 'distort' the free play of laws of supply and demand, and thus must be suppressed. In free market economies, for example, people are expected to move where jobs can be found, and to adjust their work lives and cultural tastes to the demands of a global market."

In other words, Alexander shares the critique of the protesters in Quebec. And he's given them one more arrow to launch over the walls. If free-market society mass-produces feelings of dislocation, then "mass addiction is being globalized along with the English language, the Internet and Mickey Mouse."

This is Mickey on Drugs

Alexander admits his views make him "an outsider" in his profession, which prefers to think of itself as non-political and dedicated to healing patients, not societies. But like any good scientist, Alexander points to research backing his theory.

First, there are the rats. Years back, Alexander ran an experiment in which rats were allowed to consume narcotics by tapping a bar. The rats left alone in their cages fast became junkies. The ones that were allowed to wander a "rat park" and mix freely with other rats stayed clean. Presumably, they felt less "dislocated" than their addicted peers.

Then there are the Scots. Alexander has made a close study of the history of Scottish Highlanders, noting that they had the best whiskey but little record of alcoholism until the second half of the eighteenth century. That's when the British conquered the clans, destroyed their society, and integrated the Highlanders into the emerging free-market system.

Alexander sees parallels between the Highlanders and Native people throughout the Americas. According to anthropologists' reports, while some aboriginal groups traditionally used alcohol and other narcotics, it was only after the profoundly "dislocating" arrival of the Europeans that addictions soared. Which is why Alexander doesn't buy the theory that alcoholism runs higher among certain groups because they carry an over-represented "addiction gene."

If alcoholism is high among Russians, for example, Alexander chalks it up to the wrenching dislocation that the Soviet-style industrialization imposed on a society of age-old agrarian villages. "Marx and Lenin wanted to adopt the machinery of the Industrial Revolution without the ideology. But a factory fragments people, dislocates them. Russia just got the worst of it. All the ills of free market society without any of the benefits."

Free Market Pros and Cons

That's right, Alexander is willing to grant that free market society has produced many benefits. "Longevity. Individual rights. Microwave ovens. These are all miracles."

But he asks that we consider the trade-offs, as vividly illustrated in a recently published study on life in Alberta over the past forty years. Life span, education levels and personal wealth are all way up. So are divorce, obesity, gambling and addiction. "Our task," says Alexander, "is to recognize when the negatives become unbearable."

In saying so, Alexander issues a weighty challenge. For starters, he is asking that we move beyond the common view of addiction. That is, as a disease that picks off individuals one at a time, and can only be defeated the same way - one lonely battle of will power at a time. That is the message implicit in Alcoholics Anonymous, which focuses the power of the group on strengthening the individual's resistance to temptation.

Instead, Alexander wants us to take a macro view of the problem. From his point of view, the free-market society we find ourselves with is not some inevitable outcome of Darwinian evolution. It is the product of decisions made that can, through politics, be revised.

Similarly, addiction isn't merely a bad thing that happens to some people, requiring more or less compassion from those of us unscathed. Today's high levels of addiction can be viewed as so much "collateral damage," to borrow that infamous phrase from the U.S. military brass. War, like the framing of economic policy, is a conscious course of action. In Desert Storm, the collateral damage could be measured in numbers of civilians maimed and slaughtered. To add up the collateral damage wrought by free-market society, suggests Alexander, look around and start counting all the addicts you know.

Given his analysis, Alexander could be forgiven for sinking into a depression of his own, so daunting are the prospects for solving addiction as he defines it. But the psychologist describes himself as well balanced and "very hopeful." He says his critique of free-market society leaves him "clear headed," liberated from false optimism.

The problem with city hall's four-pillar approach for Vancouver, he says, is that it is "an insufficient edifice" built on the faulty soil of free-trade society. And so he offers other prescriptions toward the end of his paper: "We need to restore social spending ... enhance our ability to care for one another ... invest in social housing ... reform our public services so they become more nurturing ... rebuild programs like welfare and UI that give people choices and allow them to stay in their home communities." He also wants full employment atop the public policy agenda, and measures to restore Canada's sense of itself as an "honourable, sovereign nation, rather than a puppet of the United States."

As psychological prescriptions go, it would be hard to find one more sweeping, or political. But then, here's what Bruce Alexander thought when he turned on the television news to see how the demonstrating and pepper spraying was proceeding in Quebec City: "Those protesters could have more impact on the problem of addiction than all the psychologists and social workers put together."

David Beers is a writer and editor based in Vancouver. He is author of Blue Sky Dream: A Memoir of America's Fall from Grace. This piece originally appeared in the Vancouver Sun. It is posted on rabble.ca with permission.

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