Criminal drug possession – Felony versus misdemeanor

In all but 13 States in the U.S., drug possession for personal use is still considered a felony punishable by years in prison and hefty fines. This despite the fact that a significant portion of those arrested meet criteria for dependence (addiction) on the drugs they are caught with, and the fact that our own federal drug abuse agencies (The National Institute on Drug Abuse – NIDA) considers addiction to be a medical condition that involves reduced control over the drug use itself. I guess that’s why the federal government also considers possession for personal use as a misdemeanor.

Drug users don't belong in prisonIn essence these state laws are putting drug users, and especially drug addicts, at risk of being locked up for years, placed on parole, and subject to the endless other barriers to employment and housing, which make it more difficult for these convicted felons to reintegrate into the community. As if fighting drug addiction wasn’t hard enough.

The question is, would reducing the penalty for drug possession for personal use to a misdemeanor in more states result in increased drug use and crime or would it actually help free up resources being used for incarceration towards more effective strategies for combating the problem?

California State senator Mark Leno is bringing up a bill for consideration in the state senate (SB1506) that is seeking to do just that – reducing the penalty for possession for personal use of any drug to a misdemeanor. Mind you, this law is not to affect any other drug-related offenses such as drug possession for sale, drug manufacturing, or transportation. What it would do is cap the maximum incarceration length of possession at one year in jail (not more years in prison) as well as cap the maximum community supervision length at 5 years (3 years are commonly assigned for such offenses).

I know what some of you are saying – drug users know they’re breaking the law and they should be punished for it. Indeed, punishing them for it will make them less likely to use, which will leave them facing no jail time instead of continuously facing single years in jail for reduced drug possession offenses. Besides, if we cut the penalties for drug possession aren’t we being soft on crime? Aren’t we saying that using drugs is okay?

The problem with that argument is that it assumes that states that have higher penalties for drug possession for personal use have lower rates of crime, drug use, or drug possession arrests. The don’t. Indeed, the 13 states (and D.C.) that already consider drug possession for personal use a misdemeanor have incarceration rates that are no higher, illicit drug use rates that are slightly lower, and addiction treatment admission rates that are on par and even a bit higher than the rates of felony states. Again, that means the states that reduced the penalty for drug possession see less arrests, more people in addiction treatment, and a smaller percentage of their population using such drugs. Interestingly, those results are somewhat similar to the effect complete decriminalization had on drug use, crime, and addiction treatment in Portugal.

In previous articles we’ve spoken about the stigma of addiction and the barriers people report to entering addiction treatment in the U.S. Aside from cost and lack of information, people usually report that they either don’t want help, think they can handle the problem on their own or are too ashamed to ask for help. We’ve also reported on the ridiculous prison overcrowding problem in California due to the high incarceration rates of drug users. The question of decriminalization has come up many times (see here, here, and here) and the evidence I’ve seen keeps pointing towards the conclusion that reduced penalties get more people into addiction treatment while reducing incarceration rates with no real collateral increased in illicit drug use or crime. When you think about it, since the Harrison Narcotics act of 1914 essentially created the black drug market in the U.S. when it restricted, for the first time, the sale of narcotics, it makes sense that loosening up those restriction would reduce the size of that same black market and with it drug-associated crime.

I have spent the last 10 years researching the best ways to fight addiction problems and almost everything I’ve seen suggests that treatment and prevention efforts, not long jail or prison sentences, are the best ways to combat the problem. I have seen evidence that very shirt-term incarceration can help certain resistant offenders, but those efforts can easily be applied for misdemeanor and require nothing close to multiple-year sentences. For that reason, I support not only Senator Leno’s SB1506 bill in California, but other efforts around the country to reduce the criminal penalties associated with simple drug possession to get more of the people who need help into addiction treatment and away from jails. It saves us money, it is more humane, and it just makes sense.

If you want to help Senator Leno pass this bill, contact his office through this link: http://sd03.senate.ca.gov/

 

Citations/Reading:

U.S. Census Bureau, 2012 Statistical Abstract, Table 308. Crime Rates by State, 2008 and 2009, and by Type, 2009 (2012).

Collins et al., (2010). The Cost of Substance Abuse: The Use of Administrative Data to Investigate Treatment Benefits in a Rural Mountain State. Western Criminology Review 11(3), 13-28.

Gardiner, Urada, and Anglin (2011). Band-Aids and Bullhorns: Why California’s Drug Policy Is Failing and What We Can Do to Fix It. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 23, 108-135.

Addiction research – Who are we studying?

I teach a class on the psychology of addiction (Psych 477 at California State University in Long Beach) and as I have been preparing the lectures something has become very clear to me – textbooks patently gloss over important details about the addiction research they cite. One of the most obvious gaps I’ve noticed this semester concerns the population of research subjects most addiction research is conducted on. An example will clarify:

A student group in my class had to read a study assessing the residual effects of methamphetamine on mood and sleep. They were amazed that no changes in mood were observed and that participants slept a full 6-8 hours the night after being administered meth! Would you have been surprised with these results given that we all have been told that crystal meth improves mood and causes insomnia?

Would it matter at all if I told you that the participants in the study were current meth abusers who use an average of 4 times every week?

For anyone not aware of the tainted history of health research in the U.S. (I’m including psychological research in this group), go ahead and read about the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment and Stanford Prison Experiment (video here). There are other examples including Stanley Milgram‘s obedience studies, and more but as exciting as the discussion of these studies is, it’s time to get back to my main point.

It is mostly due to the ethically-questionable, psychologically damaging, research above that research institutions are now required to vet proposed research studies using Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) to assure that human participants in studies are consenting to participate of their own free will, are not coerced, and are not suffering undue damage. This is also true of addiction research. Rarely does the public consider this fact however when they are being reported on research relevant to addiction. I know this because the kids in my class never gave it a second thought.

When reading about addiction research, think about the subjects participating in itNearly all addiction research, especially studies utilizing “hard” drugs like cocaine, meth, opiates, etc., are required to make use of a very limited part of society – drug using individuals with a history of use of the specific drug of interest who are specifically not interested in treatment. Individuals who have never tried the drug or who want to be treated for drug abuse or dependence (addiction) are excluded due to ethical concerns. In most studies, participants can not qualify if they are addicted to drugs other than those being studies (except smoking, for which exceptions are usually made since we’d be able left with no participants otherwise) or have any associated mental health disorders, which are very common among addicted individuals. I would further assert that for at least a substantial portion of these research participants, the term “addicts” may not be appropriate since many addicts would not willingly give up using their favorite substance for a week or two to be replaces with a hospital bed and an experimenter controlled dose of drug or placebo. Taken together, our research subjects are pretty obviously not representative of all drug users, or all addicts, or all anything else. They make up a very specific group – less than perfect, but what we have to work with.

In some studies that attempt to make a direct comparison between controls (or drug naive participants) and drug users, this is likely less of an issue. This can happen when researchers try to examine brain structure differences, or performance on a specific psychological or physical test. In such cases researchers can at least statistically identify contributions of length of use, method of use, and other relevant data on differences between people who use and those that don’t. There are probably still some serious differences between “true” addicts, recreational users, and semi-chronic users that would be important to understand here, but we can’t so we don’t. But when it comes to assessing mood effects, or indeed any of a number of subjective effects of drugs, drug cravings, and withdrawal, this limitation in the population to be studied is something that often needs to be made explicitly clear to most public consumers of research. Since we can’t assess changes in mood, absorption rate, anxiety, or any other such measure (some exceptions for very low doses in very specific circumstances) among people who are new to the drug, we end up assessing them among people with a lot of experience, but not enough of a problem to want addiction treatment. Again, this should be considered a pretty specific type of drug user in my opinion.

There are other types of studies – those conducted with abstinent ex-users or addiction treatment intervention studies utilizing addicts who want, or who reported to, treatment on their own or in response to advertisements. While these studies make use of populations that can be considered at least closer to the individuals they are specifically aimed at – assessing the return of  cognitive function after short or long term abstinence or testing a new intervention on those who want treatment – they still bring on limitations that need to be specifically considered.

An important point – most researchers recognize these issues and make them explicitly part of their research publications, in a specific section called “Limitations” but what seems troubling is that the public doesn’t have any awareness of these issues. So when someone tells you that “they just found out meth doesn’t actually make people lose sleep,” take a second to ask “for who?”

Rubber-band addiction recovery – No shame

There’s a specific issue that keeps coming up with nearly every addiction client I work with who is in early recovery. Regardless of whether they’re trying to stop unhealthy alcohol or drug use, sex or gambling behavior, or anything else, this issue keeps returning. It doesn’t even seem to matter if this is their first attempt at addiction recovery or if they’ve already been here many times before.

The issue: Shame about a desire to return to old behaviors and stopping their recovery.

At the Matrix Institute on Addiction where I see some clients, they call this “The Wall” suggesting that it usually comes right after a relatively easy period of recovery in which clients are self-assured and confident that they’ve got their addiction beat. “The Wall” is supposed to be marked by anhedonia, depression, severe cravings, irritability, and more fun stuff like that. After the wall is the promised land of long-term recovery. By identifying the specific stages of recovery addicts are supposed to gain more understanding of their process and experience less shame. I love the Matrix method, but I see things a little differently.  The way I see it, “The Wall” is far from a single point in time, but is instead part of a larger pattern I like to call Rubber-band Recovery.

Rubber-band Recovery in Addiction

Addiction recovery is similar to letting go of a stretched rubber bandI’m sure everyone reading this has at some point played with a rubber band, stretching it and letting it snap back to its original state or pulling it between two fingers and playing it like a string (another name for this approach could be String Recovery, but that might get confused with theoretical physics and we don’t want that). When pulling the rubber-band one way, its internal structure pulls back, trying to get back to its natural state. The body can be thought to do the same when placed under chronic alcohol and drug use in addiction – it has a slew of internal processes that work hard to keep the body in its natural state, at homeostasis. Naturally, due to the pharmacological mechanisms of alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana, and many other drugs, these systems usually fail at setting everything back to normal especially during the use itself, which is why we get high. However, their work in a body that consumes drugs on a regular basis is obvious – reductions in the production of specific chemicals (like relevant neurotransmitters), changes in the structure of the brain itself (like producing less receptors or even removing some from the brain’s cells), and production of chemicals that combat the drugs’ actions.

All in all, the body and brain of a long-time, chronic, heavy user of alcohol and drugs are different from the body and brain they started with in important ways that specifically relate to their alcohol and drug use. They are like the stretched rubber band, similar but obviously not the same as it was in its relaxed state.

Individuals in early recovery from addiction essentially experience what happens when that taut, stretched, rubber band is let loose. Hurrying up to get back to its natural state, to homeostasis, it releases all that pent up energy and rushes through its original state, overcompensating and stretching a bit in the other direction. For the addict in early recovery, this is the process of withdrawal. As we’ve spoken about numerous times before when discussing withdrawal, a brain that has reduced its own production of dopamine because of large amounts of methamphetamine that flood its dopamine reserves will still be left with very low dopamine when the crystal meth stops coming in. Low dopamine will bring about many effects that look exactly like the opposite of a methamphetamine high – a large appetite, low energy, and reduced movement and motivation. For heroin addicts, the drug that’s caused them to feel no pain and become constipated will cause their bodies severe pain, diarrhea, and trembling when it’s removed from the equation. Some withdrawal is actually life threatening due to the extreme changes in body chemistry and structure that happen after long term use. In addition to all of the direct effects of the drugs and alcohol, those internal processes that have been working hard to counteract the effects of the drugs (they’re called “opponent processes” by some addiction researcher like Dr. Christopher Evans from UCLA) are still turned up to 10 and are going to take a little time to get back to their original state as well. All in all, that leaves addicts feeling pretty crappy to say the least during withdrawal, the worst part of early recovery from addiction.

But like that good old rubber-band addiction recovery than quickly turns around. Having overcome the worst part of withdrawal, addicts in early recovery often experience joy, confidence, energy, and clarity they probably haven’t felt in a long time. That along with the environmental influence of loved ones who are extremely happy to see an addict quit (especially the first time around) give those in very early recovery a feeling of great well being and happiness, like a nice pink-cloud they get to ride on for a bit. Remember, the rubber band is moving back in the direction it came from during active addiction and it’s likely that brain processes are doing a little overcompensating the other way now too, turning down those opponent processes and flooding the brain with the chemicals it’s been missing.

But alas, this little turn doesn’t last too long and back we go into the darker place of negativity, low energy, anhedonia, and more. But instead of calling this stage “The Wall,” I understand it as one of the inevitable turns in what is sure to be a back and forth, seesaw like trip of recovery ups and downs. Periods of confidence in our ability to overcome our demons are followed by others that make us feel week and irritable. The good news is that just like with a rubber-band, each successive cycle on this seesaw gets a little less intense, which means that confidence, elation, depression, and anger turn into comfort, contentment, and ease – our new homeostasis. After a ride like that most addicts really need a little rest and when we reach this stage (no matter what it looks like specifically for each person), long-term recovery feels like the norm instead of an effort. This is the real end goal of recovery – a state of being that feels normal and that doesn’t involve unhealthy alcohol or drug use, sexual acting out, or gambling.

At the end of the rubber-band game we get back to just a good old unstretched rubber-band, and it feels good. In the process, it makes little sense to feel guilty, or ashamed, at all the intermediate stages. They’re part of the game of recovery and they’re essentially impossible to avoid completely. Intense cravings come during specific parts because of internal, biological, and external, environmental influences. Being ashamed of that would be essentially the same as being ashamed of extreme hunger when you haven’t eaten in 5 hours and see a commercial for your favorite food – silly and useless. I can guarantee that the rubber band doesn’t feel ashamed about they way it behaves when snapping back…

Are violent drunks giving the rest of us a bad name? Alcohol consumption and violence

We all know that drinking alcohol changes the way people think and can make them act strangely right? We also know that alcohol is involved in more than 50% of violent crimes and about 75% of partner violence. The question is, why the connection?

A recent paper I published suggests that drugs and alcohol can not themselves be thought to cause violence. Still, the relationship exists, so what gives?

(Before you go any further, if you’re unclear about the difference between causation and association, I suggest you read this article)

Your brain and alcohol abuse

The thought altering effects of consuming alcohol, and most drugs, can be said to affect something called executive functioning (EF). What exactly makes up this type of functioning is a source of some debate, but let’s just say that it refers to attention, strategic planning, reasoning, thought flexibility, and the ability to process information in working memory (an important type of memory used in learning).

You can probably already tell that this type of brain function is extremely important and that different people possess different levels of it. I can also tell you that alcohol consumption has  been shown to reduce overall executive functioning. If you drink alcohol, or have ever seen someone drink, this probably doesn’t come as a huge surprise.

The thing is that alcohol consumption messes up everyone’s EF, though obviously, the more you drink, the more affected you become. Still, given the fact that more than 50% of Americans report at least one binge drinking episode a year and less than 7% are involved in violent crime, something else must be at play, right?

Aggressive personality and irritability

As I mentioned earlier, I published a paper showing that aggressive personality, which I measured using 5 different tests, contributes far more to violent behavior than drug use alone. Still, a recent study found that irritability alone could account for some aggressive behavior. Still, the more interesting finding had to do with alcohol-related EF problems and irritability together. The experiment was pretty interesting, so let’s go over it for a bit.

Researchers at the University of Kentucky took more than 300 students and gave them a whole bunch of tests assessing their EF and their overall level of irritability. Afterward, half of the students were given alcohol to drink (about 3-4 drinks per person) and the other half was given a similar number of drinks that contained no alcohol but were sprayed before being handed to smell the same. The students were then asked to play a game that pitted them against another person. The secret was that there was no game and no other person, the winner and loser in each round was pre-determined. Every time the student “won” they got to give the other player a shock, but every time they lost, they themselves got shocked. As the game went on, the shocks the participants got increased in intensity. The researchers wanted to see how the students would react and how large the shocks they would give back would be.

The results showed that the more mistakes people made in their initial EF testing (and therefore the less overall EF capability they showed) the more aggressive they were. This makes sense, as people who are less able to plan, think ahead, and control their behavior would be more likely to engage in things that would hurt them, or misjudge events and think react inappropriately. Irritability was also shown to affect aggression, but this time only for men and intoxicated women.

The effect of alcohol abuse on aggression and violence

When the whole thing was put together the researchers found that for drunk men only, reduced EF and increased irritability worked together to generate even more aggression that was shown for all the other participants. For the simplest example think back to anyone you know who is pretty quick to react anyway and is a little too easily pissed-off. Chances are they become a pretty mean drunk who likes to get in fights.

Obviously this makes sense if you know someone like that, but in terms of helping us make decisions about who should be considered dangerous and who shouldn’t, especially when consuming alcohol, this research helps further explain why we see such a strong connection between alcohol abuse and violence or aggression.

The way I see it there’s a relatively small number of people (mostly men) who is normally pretty aggressive, irritable, and lacking in judgment and self-control, who often get violent when they drink alcohol. For them, many alcohol drinking episodes end badly, and since they’re the most visible of the aggressive drinkers, their behavior produces an association between alcohol consumption per se and violence. For the rest of us, alcohol consumption rarely leads to violence, but violence rarely occurs without drinking alcohol either, so we hardly ever enter the equation at all. That’s why the pattern holds.

Citations:

Godlaski, A. J., Giancola, P. R. (2009). Executive function, Irritability, and Alcohol-Related Aggression. Psychology of Addictive Behavior, 23, 391-404.

Jaffe, A. et al., (2009). Drug Use, Personality and Partner Violence: A Model of Separate, Additive, Contributions in an Active Drug User Sample. The Open Addiction Journal, 2.

Drug Policy Alliance and the Recovery Movement

I had the opportunity to sit on a panel today during a drug policy alliance session on the role of the recovery movement in drug policy discussions. While it was obvious that everyone on the panel could generally agree that the current U.S. policy when it comes to drug use, abuse, and addiction is not working and unsustainable, it wasn’t clear that we had a common roadmap of how to get to a better place.

Some of the panel speakers were in recovery and others weren’t and while most were from the U.S. we had a representative of the Scandinavian approach for a nice little “reality check” and a bit more balance than one normally gets on these things. From student representatives of the Columbia University Students for Sensible Drug Policy to the distinguished William Moyers from Hazeldon, our panel certainly didn’t lack in a breadth of experiences. Still, even our eight member-panel couldn’t appease everyone when it came to diversity (we missed the mark on racial representativeness). The discussion was civil, but definitely showed that there are serious differences that need to be bridged if the decriminalization discussion is to ever get serious.

I’m all for collaboration and I definitely think that we need to end up in a place where drug use is no longer criminalized as it currently is. Quadrupling our prison population in a few decades with approximately 20% of inmates incarcerated for drug offenses is stupid, expensive, and does little to stop the problem we’re trying to deal with as evidenced by the relatively stable rate of use, abuse, and addiction in this country.

But how do we move forward? Do we make these drugs legal for everyone to use or place an age limit on it? Do we pretend that there’s no risk that use of legal substances will go up to meet the rates of alcohol and tobacco abuse or do we prepare for the possibility that it might? Do we completely remove legal sanctions from the discussion or do we keep them for a specific subset of hard to reach individuals?

As far as I’m concerned, until these questions are considered and dealt with, there’s not going to be any change. Unfortunately, from my reading of the panel and crowd today, even at a Drug Policy Alliance conference, the responses to each of those questions is likely to bring up a lot of debate. I guess that means our work is not yet done…

Addiction stories: How I recovered from my addiction to crystal meth

By the time I was done with my addiction to crystal meth, I had racked up 4 arrests, 9 felonies, a $750,000 bail, a year in jail, and an eight year suspended sentence to go along with my 5 year probation period. Though I think education is important to keep getting the message out about addiction and drug abuse, there is no doubt that addiction stories do a great job of getting the message across, so here goes.

My crystal meth addiction story

The kid my parents knew was going nowhere, and fast. That’s why I was surprised when they came to my rescue after 3 years of barely speaking to them. My lawyer recommended that I check into a rehab facility immediately; treating my drug abuse problem was our only line of legal defense.

cocaine linesI had long known that I had an addiction problem when I first checked myself into rehab. Still, my reason for going in was my legal trouble. Within 3 months, I was using crystal meth again, but the difference was that this time, I felt bad about it. I had changed in those first three months. The daily discussions in the addiction treatment facility, my growing relationship with my parents, and a few sober months (more sobriety than I had in years) were doing their job. I relapsed as soon as I went back to work in my studio, which was a big trigger for me, but using wasn’t any fun this time.

I ended up being kicked out of that facility for providing a meth-positive urine test. My parents were irate. I felt ashamed though I began using daily immediately. My real lesson came when I dragged myself from my friend’s couch to an AA meeting one night. I walked by a homeless man who was clearly high when the realization hit me:

I was one step away from becoming like this man.

You see, when I was in the throes of my crystal meth addiction, I had money because I was selling drugs. I had a great car, a motorcycle, an apartment and my own recording studio. After my arrest though, all of that had been taken away. I just made matters worse by getting myself thrown out of what was serving as my home, leaving myself to sleep on a friend’s couch for the foreseeable future.

Something had to change.

homelessI woke up the next morning, smoked some meth, and drove straight to an outpatient drug program offered by my health insurance. I missed the check-in time for that day, but I was told to come back the next morning, which I did. I talked to a counselor, explained my situation, and was given a list of sober-living homes to check out.

As I did this, I kept going to the program’s outpatient meetings, high on crystal meth, but ready to make a change. I was going to do anything I could so as not to end up homeless, or a lifetime prisoner. I had no idea how to stop doing the one thing that had been constant in my life since the age of 15, but I was determined to find out.

When I showed up at the sober-living facility that was to be the place where I got sober, I was so high I couldn’t face the intake staff. I wore sunglasses indoors at 6 PM. My bags were searched, I was shown to my room, and the rest of my life began.

I wasn’t happy to be sober, but I was happier doing what these people told me than I was fighting the cops, the legal system, and the drugs. I had quite a few missteps, but I took my punishments without a word, knowing they were nothing compared to the suffering I’d experience if I left that place.

Overall, I have one message to those struggling with getting clean:

If you want to get past the hump of knowing you have a problem but not knowing what to do about it, the choice has to be made clear. This can’t be a game of subtle changes. No one wants to stop using if the alternative doesn’t seem a whole lot better. For most of us, that means hitting a bottom so low that I can’t be ignored. You get to make the choice of what the bottom will be for you.

You don’t have to almost die, but you might; losing a job could be enough, but if you miss that sign, the next could be the streets; losing your spouse will sometimes do it, but if not, losing your shared custody will hurt even more.

At each one of these steps, you get to make a choice – Do I want things to get worse or not?

Ask yourself that question while looking at the price you’ve paid up to now. If you’re willing to go even lower for that next hit, I say go for it. If you think you want to stop but can’t seem to really grasp just how far you’ve gone, get a friend you trust, a non-using friend, and have them tell you how they see the path your life has taken.

It’s going to take a fight to get out, but if I beat my addiction, you can beat yours.

By now, I’ve received my Ph.D. from UCLA, one of the top universities in the world. I study addiction research, and publish this addiction blog along with a Psychology Today column and a number of academic journals. I also have my mind set on changing the way our society deals with drug abuse and addiction. Given everything I’ve accomplished by now, the choice should have seemed clear before my arrest – but it wasn’t. I hope that by sharing addiction stories, including mine, we can start that process.

Loss, but not absence, of control – How choice and addiction are related

In a recent post the notion that “loss of control” is an addiction myth was raised by our contributing author, Christopher Russell, a thoughtful graduate student studying substance abuse in the U.K. Though I obviously personally believe in control- and choice-relevant neurological mechanisms playing a part in addiction, this conversation is a common one both within and outside of the drug abuse field. Therefore, I welcome the discussion onto our pages. I’d like to start out by reviewing some of the more abstract differences between my view and the one expressed by Christopher and follow those with some evidence to support my view and refute the evidence brought forth by him.

Addiction conceptualization – Philosophical and logical differences and misinterpretations

One of the first issues I take with the argument against control as a major factor in drug addiction is the interpretation of the phrase “loss of control” as meaning absence, rather than a reduction, in control over addiction and addictive behavior. Clearly though, one of the definitions of loss is a “decrease in amount, magnitude, or degree” (from Merriam-Webster.com) and not the destruction of something. Science is an exercise in probabilities so when scientists say “loss”, they mean a decrease and not a complete absence in the same way that findings showing that smoking cigarettes causes cancer do not mean that if an individual smokes cigarettes they will inevitably develop cancerous tumors. Similarly, the word “can’t” colloquially means having a low probability of success and not the complete inability to succeed. Intervention that improve the probability of quitting smoking (like bupropion or quitlines for smoking) success are therefore said to cause improvements in the capacity for quitting.

Next, Christopher wants scientists to identify the source of “will” in the brain but I suggest that “will” itself is simply a term he has given a behavioral outcome – the ability to make a choice that falls in line with expectations. In actuality, “will” is more commonly used as a reference to motivation, which while measurable, isn’t really the aspect of addiction involved in cognitive control. Instead, what we’re talking about is “capacity” to make a choice. The issue is a significant, not semantic one, since the argument most neuroscientists make about drug abuse is that addicts suffer a reduced capacity to make appropriate behavioral choices, especially as they pertain to engaging in the addictive behavior of interest. If someone is attempting to get into a car but repeatedly fails, we say they can’t get in the car (capacity), not that they don’t want to (will). Saying that they simply “don’t” get in the car doesn’t get at either capacity or will but instead is simply descriptive. I don’t believe that science is, or should be, merely descriptive but instead that it allows us to form conclusions based on available information.

That there is a segment of individuals who develop compulsive behavioral patterns tied to alcohol and drug use and who attempt to stop but fail is, to my mind, evidence that those individuals have a difficulty (capacity) in stopping their drug use. Their motivation (will) to quit is an aspect that has been shown to be associated with their probability of success but the two are by no means synonymous. It is important to note, and understand, that the attribution for the performance should not fall squarely on the shoulders of the individuals. We humans are so prone to making that mistake that it has a name, “The fundamental attribution error,” and indeed, individuals who show compulsive, addictive, behavior do so because of neuropharmacological, environmental, and social reasons in addition to the complex interactions between them all. But no one is disputing that and in fact, the article used by Christopher to point out the notion of a “tipping point” in addiction directly points out that fact in the next paragraph (Page 4), which he chose not to reference or acknowledge.

“Of course, addiction is not that simple. Addiction is not just a brain disease. It is a brain disease for which the social contexts in which it has both developed and is expressed are critically important… The implications are obvious. If we understand addiction as a prototypical psychobiological illness, with critical biological, behavioral, and social-context components, our treatment strategies must include biological, behavioral, and social-context elements.” (Lashner, 1997)

Lastly, Christopher’s philosophical musings are interesting, but they seem to stray away from trying to find an explanation for behavior and instead simply deconstruct evidence. In a personal communication I explained that while most addiction researchers understand that addiction, like most other mental health disorders is composed of a continuum of control ranging from absolute control over behavior to no control whatsoever (with most people fitting somewhere in the middle and few if any at the extreme ends), categorization is a necessary evil of clinical treatment. The same is true for every quantitative measure from height (Dwarfism is sometimes defined as adults who are shorter than 4’10”) to weight (BMI greater than 30 kg/m²). I think it’s equally as tough to argue that someone with a BMI of 29.5 is distinctly different from an individual with a BMI of 30 as it is to argue that there is no utility in the classification. Well, the same applies for drug addiction, although some people categorically object to classification and believe it has no utility or justification.

Now for the evidence – “Choice” and “control” are not the same as “will”

Some people quit, even without help – Christopher and a number of the people he cites in support (Peele, Alexander), suggest that because some people do stop using that it can’t be said that there is a problem with any individuals’ capacity to stop. The problem with that argument is that it supposes that everyone is the same, a fact that is simply false. As an example I would like to suggest that we compare cognitive control with physical control and use Huntington’s Disease (HD or Huntington’s Chorea) as an example.

HD patients suffer mental dementia but the physical symptoms of the disease, an inability to control their physical movement resulting in flailing limbs often referred to as the Huntington Dance, are almost always the first noticeable symptoms. Nevertheless, HD sufferers experience a number of debilitating symptoms that originate in brain dysfunction (specifically destruction of striatum neurons, the substantia nigra, and hippocampus) and that alter their ability (capacity) to control their movements and affect their memory and executive function leading to problems in planning and higher order thought processes. So, while it is true that most people can control their arm movements, here is an example of individuals who progressively become worse and worse at doing so due to a neurophramacological disorder. There is currently no cure for HD but some medications that help treat it no doubt restore some of the capacity of these patients to control their movements. If a cure is found it would be difficult to say, as Christopher suggests of addiction, that the cure does not affect the capacity of HD patients to control what they once could not. I chose HD for its physiological set of symptoms but a similar example could easily be constructed for schizophrenia and a number of other mental health disorders (including ADHD and drug addiction). Importantly, cognitive control is a function of brain activity, activity that can become compromised as the set of experiment I will discuss next show.

An experiment conducted at UCLA (1) has shown that cocaine administrations reduced animals’ ability to change their behavior when environmental conditions called for it. Even more meaningful was the finding that once animals are exposed to daily doses of drugs, the way their learning systems function is altered even when the drugs themselves are no longer on board and even when the learning has nothing to do with drugs per se.

In the experiment, conducted by Dr. David Jentsch and colleagues, monkeys were given either a single dose (less than the equivalent of a tenth of a gram for a 150lb human) or repeated doses (1/8 to 1/4 of a gram equivalent once daily for 14 days) of cocaine. The task involved learning an initial association between the location of food in one of three boxes and then learning that the location of the food has changed. We call this task reversal learning since animals have to unlearn an established relationship to learn a new one.

Obviously, the animals want the food, and so the appropriate response once the location is changed is to stop picking the old location and move on to the new one that now holds the coveted food. This sort of thing happens all the time in life and indeed, during addiction it seems that people have trouble adjusting their behavior when taking drugs is no longer rewarding and is, in fact, even troublesome (as in leading to jail, family breakups, etc.).

In the experiment, animals exposed to cocaine had trouble (when compared to control animals that got an injection of saline water) learning to reverse their selection when tested 20 minutes after getting the drug, which is not surprising but still an example of how drug administration can causally affect an individual’s ability to make appropriate choices. As pointed above, the most interesting finding had to do with the animals that got a dose of cocaine every day for 14 days. Even after a full week of being off the drug, these animals showed an interesting effect that persisted for a month – while their ability to learn that initial food-box association, they had significant trouble changing their selection once the conditions changed. Remember, this effect was present with no cocaine in their system and with learning conditions that had nothing whatsoever to do with cocaine.

If that’s not direct evidence that having drugs in your system can alter the way your brain makes choices, I don’t know what is.

Another study conducted by Calu and colleagues with rats found similar (or even more pronounced) reversal learning problems after training the animals to take cocaine for themselves, clarifying that it is the taking of cocaine and not the method that causes the impairments.

Another entire set of studies has shown that stimuli (also known as cues or triggers) that have become associated with drugs can bring back long-forgotten drug-seeking behavior once they are reintroduced. This was shown in that Calu paper I mentioned above and in so many other articles that it would be wasteful to go through all the evidence here. Importantly, this evidence shows that drug associated cues direct behavior towards drug seeking in a way that biases behavior regardless of any underlying will. My own research has shown that animals who respond greatly to drugs (nicotine in our case) likely learn to integrate more of these triggers than animals who show a reduced response, indicating once again that these animals bias  their behavioral selection towards drug-seeking more than usual. While we have more studies to conduct, we believe that genetic differences relevant to dopamine and possibly other neurotransmitters important for learning (like Glutamate) are responsible for this effect.

While we can’t do these kinds of experiments with people (research approval committee’s just won’t let you give drugs to people who haven’t used them before), there is quite a bit of evidence showing an association between trouble in reversal learning and chronic drug use in humans (see citation 3 for example) as well as research showing very different brain activity among addicted individuals to drug-associated versus non-drug cues (like seeing a crack pipe versus a building). All this evidence suggests that drug users are different in the way they learn generally, and more specifically about drugs, than individuals not addicted to drugs. When it comes to genetics, we know quite a bit about the  association between substance abuse and specific genes, especially when it comes to dopamine function. As expected, genetic variation in dopamine receptor subtypes important in learning about rewards (D4 and D2) has been revealed to exist between addicts and non addicts. Without getting into the techniques and analysis methods involved in these genetic studies, their sheer number and the relationship between substance abuse and other impulse disorders points to a direct relationship between drug use disorders (and possibly other addictive disorders) and a reduced capacity to exert behavioral control. Less capacity for control is what researchers have found sets addict apart from non-addicts.

Summary, conclusions, and final thoughts

The toyota Prius is slow but efficientIn closing, there are undoubtedly imperfections about the ways we diagnose addiction (drug addiction and others). It would probably be nice if we could figure out a way to incorporate what we know about the continuous nature of the disorder with the need for clinical delineation of who requires addiction treatment and who doesn’t. Addiction researchers are far from the only ones who wonder about this question though (the same issues are relevant for schizophrenia, depression, and nearly every mental health disorder) and I am certain that better and better solutions will emerge.

However, the discussion of stigma in this context needs to allow us to discuss the reality of addiction without having to resort to blaming and counter-blaming. If I describe the Toyota Prius as being slow but incredibly efficient I am no more stigmatizing than if I describe a Ferrari as being incredibly fact but wasteful in terms of fuel. The same applies, or should apply, to health and mental health diagnoses – Just because an individual is less able to exert cognitive control over impulses should not by definition call into question their standing as a human being. We are complex machines and by improving our understanding of the nuts and bolts that make us function we can only, in my opinion, improve our ability to make the best use of our capabilities while understanding our relative strengths and weaknesses. Any other way of looking at it seems to me to be either wishful (I can do anything if I want it badly enough) or defeatist (I will never be anything because I’m not good at X) and neither seem like good options to me.

Citations:

1) Jentsch, Olausson, De La Garza, and Tylor (2002): Impairments of Reversal Learning and Response Perseveration after Repeated, Intermittent Cocaine Administrations to Monkeys. Neuropsychopharmacology, Volume 26, Issue 2, Pages 183-190

2) Calu et al (2007) Withdrawal from cocaine self-administration produces long-lasting deficits in orbitofrontal-dependent reversal learning in rats. Learning & Memory, 14, 325-328.

3) Some evidence in humans from Trevor Robbins’ group: Reversal deficits in current chronic cocaine users.