Johann Hari wrote a wonderful article about Portugals’ alternative approach to drug addiction. Studies show that punishment (tough love) rarely works for addicts, rats or inmates. One of our most human needs is to be connected socially. Unfortunately most current approaches for both crime and addiction use methods that isolate and punish people for their behavior. The exact opposite of what they need.
Photo from Insight Prison Project website.
In both cases, the drug only becomes irresistible when the opportunity for normal social existence is destroyed. – Bruce Alexander
This study clearly shows that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, but connection. Our minds, bodies and very beings yearn for social connection. It is interesting to me that when both rats and people are given a choice between “addictive” drugs or social connections choose social connections. This is how researchers realized that it wasn’t the drugs that led to addiction, but the isolation.
Thankfully, Portugal has led the way in showing us a better way to treat drug addiction. About 15 years ago Portugal had one of the worst drug addiction problems in Europe. After using the traditional punitive war-on-drugs approach with no success, Portugal decided to try a very different approach. They made drugs legal, focusing on giving addicts support instead of punishment. They were given places to live, work, emotional skills and social connections. This approach has reduced addiction by over 50% and can be a model for other countries.
This is similar to the restorative justice movement that I’ve written about several times. Most restorative programs focus on restitution, responsibility, dialog, community service, making peace and more. Restorative justice is being used in schools, prisons, and as an alternative to prison and punishment.
The part of the article about shunning addicts really hit home for me. Usually, shunning an addict will deepen the addiction or worse. Sadly, I can attest to the truth of this. My Dad struggled with alcohol abuse, causing many problems with family, work and more. We tried the confrontation and intervention approach. It led to more drinking, pain and isolation. My parents divorced and within a few short years, my father died of alcohol-related illnesses, alone and isolated. I know that we did the best we knew how, but I feel the pain of my father’s isolation and truly believe he died of a wounded heart as much as the alcohol. Clearly he needed love and connection more than he needed discipline.
And to be clear, I’m not saying that we let addicts harm us and run rampant over our lives. I simply want us to acknowledge the evidence that addicts need love more than discipline.
I hope this compassionate approach to crime and drug rehab takes root in our homes, schools, governments and more. We all need and want more love.