The illusion of addiction — Matthew Jerome van Huizen

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JULY 12 — I wish respond to the comments made by our Health Minister, Datuk Seri Dzulkefly Ahmad on June 27, 2019, and his insinuation that Malaysia should be moving towards a removal of penalties against drug possession for personal use.

I am sure that someone as erudite and as wise as the Health Minister would know that words are congealed thought, in some cases, very congealed indeed. Some words however are congealed lack of thought. And when used badly, it is because we are too lazy to think about what they mean which is George Orwell’s greatest point in his matchless essay on “Politics and the English Language.”

But if we pause to let words unfold and grow, then we understand and use them better or abandon them, as we have abandoned the witless political slogans of the previous government. As such I want to examine in particular one word used by the Health Minister.

The word which I take issue with is this. “Addiction”. The expression “addiction” is widely and variously used. There are people who claim, seriously, to be “addicted” to sex or to gambling. It is now impolite to refer to habitual drunkards. They are “alcoholics,” supposedly suffering from a complaint that is not their fault. In short, it has become fashionable today to say that an addict is completely powerless over their addiction and, unless they have structured help, they have no hope.

Of these alleged “addictions,” only the smoking of cigarettes is still disparaged by polite liberal-minded persons. This is probably because of its undoubted anti-social stink and foul mess, the huge shared cost of treating smokers for the diseases they voluntarily contract, and the alleged danger to non-smokers exposed to its fumes. Yet they can still garner sympathy by saying, I cannot help myself.

But what does addiction really mean? Let us now try to unfold and dig deeper into this three-syllable word so easily bandied about by the Health Minister.

The chief difficulty with the word “addiction” is the idea that it describes a power greater than the will. If it exists in the way we use it and in the way our legal and medical systems assume it exists, then free will has been abolished. I know there are people who think and argue this is so. But this is not one of those things that can be demonstrated by falsifiable experiment. In the end, the idea that humans do not really have free will is a contentious opinion, not an objective fact.

In Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream he cites the complete blockade of the heroin supply in Vancouver during the 1970s, when supposed “addicts” carried on taking the inert powders that dealers continued to sell for several weeks. They suffered no “withdrawal symptoms.”

According to further research cited by Hari, from The Archives of General Psychiatry, some 20 per cent of US soldiers serving in Vietnam had “become addicted to” heroin while there. The study showed that 95 per cent of these men had stopped using heroin within a year of returning home. “Treatment” and “rehabilitation” made no difference to this outcome. As Hari writes, “If you believe the theory that drugs hijack your brain and turn you into a chemical slave . . . then this makes no sense.”

Indeed it doesn’t. I could also cite the millions of hospital patients given medical morphine (effectively the same as heroin) during illness or recovery from injury, who do not become dependent upon it.

Simply put, addiction is a illusion. It is not a disease like HIV or diabetes, where a scan here or a blood test there can show without doubt you suffer from it. Addiction has no observable or objective test, it is all but a spectre. But yet this falsehood flourishes in great power, like the green bay tree.

As to the reason why the illusion of addiction has spread to someone as intelligent as the health minister is simply this. It is what we desire. Which of us, indulging in some pleasure, is not secretly relieved to find that others are weaker than we are, have nastier and more selfish pleasures, and that these things are generally excused because of a vast, universal thing that we cannot control or influence? Indulgence, like misery, seeks company for reassurance. And this is the malice of what I call the century of self. For we all prefer the easy, comforting falsehood to the awkward truth. But at the same time, we all know exactly what we are doing, and seek with ever-greater zeal to conceal it from ourselves.

But our actions, and in extension the actions of this government and the health minister has consequences. If Malaysia goes along with this illusion of addiction, and begins to view a drug user as a patient and not a criminal, there is no doubt that there will be sad cases, mumbling in shop doorways or curled up, heavily drugged with antipsychotics, on musty beds in corners of locked wards, 90 years from now, who will owe their plight to the slick and fancy word used by the Health Minister last week.

The crematoriums and cemeteries of the future will also have received the bodies of many hundreds of people killed by criminals deranged by drugs, or killed by drivers intoxicated by drugs, who — if drugs had not been decriminalised — would have lived full, safe lives.

If Malaysia intends to fully embrace the illusion of addiction, may God forgive the Health Minister and those who will have helped to bring this about.

* Matthew Jerome van Huizen is an Advocate and Solicitor of the High Court of Malaya.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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