February 4, 2012 in City

A turn-of-the-century approach to the war on drugs

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Dr. Michael Reznicek has one thing in common with your stoner friend – or self – from college.

But just one: He wants to legalize drugs.

All drugs. Even the hard ones. Pot, coke, meth, smack …

“I know it’s radical,” Reznicek said. “The solution is to go back to the way things were before 1914.”

It’s not often you hear yearning for the blissful days of 1913, before the country’s prohibitive mania took over. But Reznicek’s argument – which is being made in a book published this month, “Blowing Smoke” – is that we’ve taken the wrong approach to narcotics, primarily in viewing drug use as a disease. We’d be much better off to simply let people do what they want, impose consequences for crime, stop funding rehabilitation and rehab-linked services, and tax and regulate narcotics, he said.

“I approach this from my experience with addicts,” said Reznicek, a 53-year-old clinical psychiatrist from Spokane who has worked in prisons, state hospitals and elsewhere. “They are perfectly capable of controlling themselves.”

In this, Reznicek is outside the mainstream, to put it mildly. He believes his book, published by Rowman & Littlefield, is the first to seriously advance this idea in an academic forum. He says that when he raises his criticisms of the disease model within the psychiatry community, he is treated as a pariah.

“In almost all cases, I was just looked at like, ‘What planet are you from?’ ” he said.

A lot of us who are somewhat open to legalization arguments also like the idea of treating drug addicts rather than imprisoning them.

“The debate seems to be do we punish or do we treat,” he said. “(But) most of the punishment through the courts is to force people into rehab. So the punishment arm works very closely with the therapeutic arm.”

He said that we should consider drug abuse a habit, not a disease over which the user has no power, and argues that the science for the disease model – which is extensive, at least in terms of the sheer volume – is unpersuasive. People have habits of varying degrees and intensities, and a lot of factors, including social pressures and opprobrium, influence their decisions.

“People practice habits as long as they provide comforts or a reward, and they give up habits when they start to cause pain,” he said.

Lots of scientists disagree with him. Lots and lots. Reams of studies are cited in support of the idea that drug use alters brain chemistry and biology, changes behavior in long-term ways, and causes compulsive behavior with destructive consequences. Genetic variations linked to addiction are being discovered, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The NIDA doesn’t suggest that the disease model is equivalent to, say, cancer, or that addicts are powerless. It says self-control can be “seriously impaired.”

It’s hard to argue with that. The true wreckage of addicts’ lives would seem to belie the notion that they have a mere habit – addicted people often pursue destructive behaviors over and over again, long past the point of understanding why they shouldn’t and long past the point of crashing through the walls of their lives.

“Why would someone deliberately ruin their lives?” asked Grace Creasman, director of addiction studies at Eastern Washington University. “Why would anyone do that to themselves? Why would they lose their jobs, their husbands or wives, their whole lives, unless there was something more to it?”

Reznicek is not unfamiliar with addicts. The vast majority of people he treated in prison – not directly for addiction, but as a psychiatrist – had substance abuse problems. He believes that society’s efforts to treat them, and state-funded rehab in particular, actually enables them by softening consequences and teaching them they can’t control themselves.

His arguments are not necessarily simplistic, but they have a simplistic appeal: People who do not struggle with addictions often underestimate how hard they are to fight. So it’s easy for them to wonder why the addict can’t just apply some willpower.

Reznicek notes that cigarettes are among the most addictive products around, and that tens of millions of people have quit smoking. He also points out some of the unquestionable downsides to prohibition, including the fact that it creates an outlaw culture. Smoke a joint and you step across that line; someone who’s gotten deeply into addiction has gone well into a criminal culture that may have as much to do with their problems as the drug itself, he said. It’s prohibition that creates that culture.

“If you are a young addict in the meth scene, you have walked down a very dark road to get into the subculture,” he said. “It’s not just the chemical properties of meth.”

The lure of legalization, in various guises and forms, is strong. The war on drugs seems to make little sense. Our marijuana laws – and medical marijuana in particular – are insane. Reznicek is very persuasive on the problems of prohibition, and some of the limits of the disease model.

It would be surprising, though, if all the answers to the problem were found a century ago.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.


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