Is Addiction socially constructed? What are the roots of addiction and why do people use drugs – this blog proposes a radical answer, inspired by a TED talk…

A popular post that has circled around in the ether earlier this year is a TED talk by Johann Hari about addiction. His talk has the humble title “Everything you think know about addiction is wrong”. The talk originates from his newly released book “Chasing the scream” where Hari wants to acknowledge the “war on drugs”, as he so frames it.

So, what does Hari know that seems to have past the rest of us?

Some quotes from his TED talk might give us an idea:

And if what we believe about addiction is right – those people are exposed to all those chemical hooks (heroin) – What should happen? They should become addicts. This has been studied really carefully. It doesn’t happen; you will have noticed if your grandmother had a hip replacement, she didn’t come out as a junkie.”

Hari is basically talking about drugs having properties other than their chemical bonding to get us hooked. This view occurs a lot in his talk, and as I would presume, his book. Instead he is referring to some kind of social bonding, or rather, the absence of with, to explain why some people get addicted and some people manage to stay out of addiction.

This is an interesting aspect, seldomly talked about in the general public when addiction is on the agenda. The interesting part is that it’s partially correct. This is a topic Hans Olav Fekjaer has written a great deal about in his book “The psychology of Getting High.”

Several examples show that when randomly distributed, people are having a hard time differentiating between different drugs (even nicotine) and perceive almost none of them as pleasurable. This is also something Diyanath Samarasinghe has talked about in his book “Oh, go on – have one more” where he talks about the origins of pleasure.

Therefore nothing mind blowing really in Hari’s talk so far. I guess the best magic is being able to present something old as new, which Hari has done with great success. I should add that when I first saw his talk, it actually made me quite glad that someone finally was able to bring the question of social constructivism of drugs to a broader audience. The lack of knowledge of the social adaptation of “getting high”, sometimes known as the placebo effect, is one of the greatest obstacles for me when trying to convey the positive aspects of sobriety on social skills. I thank Hari for the seeds of social constructivism he might have sown within people.

Since he considers himself an evidence-based crusader and peace maker on the “war on drugs” he mentions Portugal as the perfect example as how to disarm an ever growing drug epidemic, with the simple tool of decriminalization. Everyone familiar with the situation in Portugal knows that there is more to the story than that, hence I leave it therein, but Hari himself puts focus on an important aspect in his reasoning which I would like to quote:

[…] and this is the crucial next step – take all the money we used to spend on cutting addicts off, on disconnecting them, and spend it instead on reconnecting them with society.”

And here is the reason why I see his talk as a refreshing brief in the contemporary debate about the topic of drugs, among many things. He pushes the importance of human connection as the main driver of addictive behaviour; he talks about how today’s society has created an environment where the seeds of addictive behaviour can grow and blossom.

Since I have my background in nutrition science and the knowledge of healthy lifestyle choices, it brings to mind my view on obesity:

Obesity is a normal response to an abnormal environment.

I think this view point is a fruitful one since it doesn’t stigmatize the person of the matter, and rather putting focus on the conditions where contemporary problems are rooted. He ends with this one liner, which could surely summarize his entire talk:

[…] the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.”

Finally, the reason I find this talk so engaging is not our differing views on global illicit drug policy, rather it’s the astonishing similarities between his beliefs and the everyday work of the global IOGT movement. Because, what is it that we do?

We are connecting people. We are creating the social environments enabling people to flourish and prosper. We are not afraid of drug users, rather we welcome them. May they be former or not, I think everyone has a place in our movement, and I’m happy that we don’t discriminate nor stigmatize anyone who currently has or has had a problem with alcohol or other drugs.

We’ve been connecting people for more than 160 years, beyond any boundaries possible. Let’s keep going heart-driven and step up our efforts.