We Need a Conceptual Breakthrough in the War on Drugs

Stanton Peele By: Dr. Stanton Peele

Posted on November 6th, 2012 - Last updated: December 20th, 2017
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Among the misconceptions fostered by AA and the disease theory of addiction is the idea of “hitting bottom” — that there is some objective state beneath which no human being will go. The same is true in our misconceptions about what will end our war on drugs. Opponents of the war think that pointing out continuing disastrous results will cause us to reassess and end it. Instead, as with quitting any addiction, people need another ring to grab onto in order to let go of their addiction, to either a drug, OR to the war on drugs.

What we need is a new way to think about addiction. And it’s not the disease way, which some drug policy reformers consider to be an alternative to the criminalization mode of thought. It’s not. The disease model is of one piece with the criminal model of drug use and addiction.

Read the Times Headlines and Weep

If some objective amount of failure would cause us to end the drug war, it would have ended long ago. Thus, recent major-league foreign drug war disasters — trumpeted on the front page of the New York Times— stand no chance of making us re-evaluate our basic drug war assumptions. These disasters have occurred in, first, Honduras:

  • May 17, 2012 — “Honduran Drug Raid Deaths Won’t Alter US Drug Policy.”
  • Oct. 12, 2012 — “In Honduras, Deaths Make US Rethink Drug War” (emphasis added)

Whoops! The above is only a small sample on the topic in the Times, even a small sample of what you get if you search the Times for “Honduras drugs.”

But let’s turn to a more recent headline (although the others are hardly aged): Oct. 20, 2012 — “Guatemala Shooting Raises Concerns About Military’s Expanded Role.”

Those concerns deepened in recent weeks with the revelation of ties between former soldiers and drug gangs, and the fatal shooting of several indigenous demonstrators by soldiers on patrol with the police, an event critics of the militarized approach to policing seized on as an example of what can go wrong.
Allegations of corruption and killings by the military have also raised questions about the partnership with the American antidrug program here, just as the United States is reassessing its collaboration with security forces in neighboring Honduras after their role in several deadly episodes there.

My, we’ll have to re-evaluate our drug war! But haven’t we been fine-tuning it, from a military standpoint, for quite a while now? Like 50 years? Indeed, the headlines listed here all stem from recent adjustments, to wit: Nov. 6, 2011 — “D.E.A. Squads Extend Reach of Drug War”; May 5, 2012 — “Lessons of Iraq Help US Fight a Drug War in Honduras.” Just a few more adjustments, and we’re sure to get it right!

Now what about this headline: July 29, 2012 — “South America Sees Drug Path to Legalization”? Well, there were these: March 5, 2012 — “US Remains Opposed to Drug Legalization, Biden Tells Region,” and April 14, 2012 — “Obama Says Legalization Is Not the Answer on Drugs,” an administration view that I believe remains operative, as was true in 2011. Indeed, Obama has indicated that he is a drug warrior since the outset of his administration. Sorry, Democrats.

Why Can’t We Change Our Drug Policy?

Americans believe drugs cause addiction — the more drugs, the more addiction. So we need, above all, always to stem the supply of drugs. And the disease theory espoused by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (embodied by Nora Volkow: June 13, 2011 — “A General in the Drug War”) is the sine qua non of this thinking. The brain adjusts to drugs — or the dopamine that they produce — so that no one can resist their addictive appeal. And there has never been a greater addiction-as-disease advocate in the United States government than Joe Biden.

The U.S. now has plans to combine its alcohol (the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism) and drug agencies under the new rubric of addictive diseases. But we have two different theories about these addictions. We believe alcohol is not addictive in itself, but that some people are predisposed to be addicted to it. We believe that all people who use drugs (think heroin — also cigarettes) become addicted to them. The most advanced thinkers believe this. Just ask your local drug reformer if heroin and alcohol and cigarettes are all addictive in the same way.

Dr. Mark Willenbring is the former NIAAA director of research on treatment and recovery who announced”Alcoholism Isn’t What It Used To Be” based on the discovery by that agency (actually, it had long been known) that most people recover from alcoholism spontaneously. When Willenbring attended a workshop I did in Minneapolis, he said, “Of course, the same isn’t true for heroin.” He’s wrong. (Willenbring has no experience with drugs.) People spontaneously recover from heroin addiction,[1] as well as from cocaine and crack addiction, in the same way that they do from alcoholism. It’s very hard to get our heads around this idea. Consider this: The temperance movement that dominated 19th-century America and ended in Prohibition argued that drinking alcohol regularly naturally led to alcoholism.

So, in order to withdraw from our war on drugs, we need a new way of conceiving of addiction. We have to accept that people can deal with — reject the presence of drugs around them — in the same way that they may pick and choose to drink alcohol. There are no more grounds for banning one of them than the other.

I know. You don’t believe this. Let the war proceed!


[1] Charles Winick, 1962, “Maturing Out of Narcotic Addiction,” Bulletin on Narcotics, 14, 1-7.

Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele, recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.