I recently posted on social media, "Drugs don't make people lie, steal, or manipulate. We Do" and attached the hashtags #shame #stigma #prohibition #criminialization I received a fair amount of pushback. Mainly, it was people recalling their own behavior while in active addiction, but they didn't detail why they did those things. I think the answer lies in investigating this question, the "why" do we lie, steal, and manipulate. Below is a response I posted to someone asking for an explanation.
It's easy to look at different behaviors that we commonly associate with people who struggle with problematic substance use like lying, stealing, manipulating, etc. and say they are a result of using drugs. However, we need to look deeper if we care about helping people. We have to ask the questions, why do people lie? Why do people steal? Why do people manipulate? It’s easy to blame it on the drugs. One reason it’s easier to do this is it absolves us of any responsibility to invest the time and energy it takes to understand the issues and it gives us a pass to challenge laws and policy that foster those behaviors that repulse us, it feeds the notion that addiction is about morality and poor decision making.
Most people who struggle with addiction lie because they feel like no one will understand the reason they use. Most people will not be able to comprehend the monumental pain they live with without the drug. Moreover, most of us have learned from past experience that honesty usually results in a negative or punitive response from others; or folks start to tell us what they think we “need” to do, which isn’t helpful. So we lie to avoid being spoken down to or having our pain minimized. Another reason is the shame that comes from drug use. Our society has a long romance with villainizing people who use drugs through policy and media. Most reality shows, TV, and film portray drug use as a deviant criminal exercise, this subconsciously impacts and persuades us to look at folks who use certain substances differently than we do others. This further affects how we speak to and deal with our friends and family who use certain drugs. Moreover, if you study American drug policy history you will find that discrimination is at the heart. Our drug policies weren’t created to make people healthier or improve families, well at least not SOME families. Drug policy is all about racism and xenophobia and this has come to be extended to poor whites as well to some extent. We have to look at the origins of our laws and how they have been exploited to shape our beliefs about certain subsets of the population.
The Harrison Act of 1914
The Volstead Act of 1919
The Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930
The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937
The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970
The difference between our nations response to crack cocaine vs opioids
If you learn about his history you’ll start to see some stunning patterns that shape how we feel about certain drugs and the people who use them today.
By prohibiting certain substances and criminalizing their possession and use we have created a sub-class of people that most of the country views negatively. This dramatically affects how we see them and how we interact with them. Most of our interactions and judgments are out of fear and ignorance. We think we know why they are doing what they are doing, but we really don’t. Most of our understanding comes from TV and what we hear from others.
If certain substances were legal, regulated, and dispensed for people who needed them, stealing, manipulating and lying would go away. Most people who use illicit substances procure them illegally, therefore getting and using them comes with inherent risk of arrest and other consequences.
When people habitually use certain substances there is a brain chemistry component that is helpful to understand as well, particularly when thinking about the lying, stealing issue. Over time drug use becomes tied to a very primitive part of the brain. It is viewed on the level of necessary for survival, similar to food, shelter, breathing etc. This occurs on a subconscious level, but it drives behavior. Therefore, when a person is without the needed substance their brain views it as a crisis and something that must be procured for survival. Imagine one day food becomes illegal and scarce. What lengths would you go to in order to secure food for yourself and your family? What laws would you break and what lies would you tell to get what you need? This is how it is for the person who uses drugs after a period of time. Now imagine if eating food was highly stigmatized and most of society has portrayed food eaters as low life, scum bag, liars, cheaters and thieves? How likely would you be to openly discuss your desire and need for food with another? You’d feel pretty ashamed and go to extreme lengths to hide it, right? It’s not a perfect analogy, but I hope my point is taken.
The bottom line is this, just because a person takes a drug doesn’t automatically mean that person will lie, steal, or manipulate. The factors that drive these behaviors have to do with societal and social expectations and influences. If we aim to help our drug using friends, we need to be willing to look at the myriad of other issues that drive those behaviors that repulse us so much. Otherwise we will only be pushing our expectations on them and never really help them. Case in point. I meet with people who actively use daily. Many of them are looking for help with stopping or moderating use to mitigate negative consequences. These folks know I won’t ever judge them for using and we talk openly about goals, set backs, and ways forward. There is no expectation on my part that they will stay abstinent. Therefore, shame is removed from use. They know they don’t need to impress me with doing what they think I want them to do. Because of the focus being on them and their lives, instead of outside goals and expectations they are exceptionally honest. They are honest because they know there will be no judgement with me and because they know all I care about is helping them be happy and content with their lives. Essentially, I treat people how I wish someone treated me when I was struggling. Really it’s how every human being wants to be treated, with kindness, compassion, and understanding.