Johann Hari: Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong (2)
Now, this has really significant implications. The most obvious implications are for the War on Drugs. In Arizona, I went out with a group of women who were made to wear t-shirts saying, "I was a drug addict," and go out on chain gangs and dig graves while members of the public jeer at them, and when those women get out of prison, they're going to have criminal records that mean they'll never work in the legal economy again. Now, that's a very extreme example, obviously, in the case of the chain gang, but actually almost everywhere in the world we treat addicts to some degree like that. We punish them. We shame them. We give them criminal records. We put barriers between them reconnecting. There was a doctor in Canada, Dr. Gabor Maté, an amazing man, who said to me, if you wanted to design a system that would make addiction worse, you would design that system.
Now, there's a place that decided to do the exact opposite, and I went there to see how it worked. In the year 2000, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe. One percent of the population was addicted to heroin, which is kind of mind-blowing, and every year, they tried the American way more and more. They punished people and stigmatized them and shamed them more, and every year, the problem got worse. And one day, the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition got together, and basically said, look, we can't go on with a country where we're having ever more people becoming heroin addicts. Let's set up a panel of scientists and doctors to figure out what would genuinely solve the problem. And they set up a panel led by an amazing man called Dr. João Goulão, to look at all this new evidence, and they came back and they said, "Decriminalize all drugs from cannabis to crack, but" -- 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 that's not really what we think of as drug treatment in the United States and Britain. So they do do residential rehab, they do psychological therapy, that does have some value. But the biggest thing they did was the complete opposite of what we do: a massive program of job creation for addicts, and microloans for addicts to set up small businesses. So say you used to be a mechanic. When you're ready, they'll go to a garage, and they'll say, if you employ this guy for a year, we'll pay half his wages. The goal was to make sure that every addict in Portugal had something to get out of bed for in the morning. And when I went and met the addicts in Portugal, what they said is, as they rediscovered purpose, they rediscovered bonds and relationships with the wider society.
It'll be 15 years this year since that experiment began, and the results are in: injecting drug use is down in Portugal, according to the British Journal of Criminology, by 50 percent, five-zero percent. Overdose is massively down, HIV is massively down among addicts. Addiction in every study is significantly down. One of the ways you know it's worked so well is that almost nobody in Portugal wants to go back to the old system.
Now, that's the political implications. I actually think there's a layer of implications to all this research below that. We live in a culture where people feel really increasingly vulnerable to all sorts of addictions, whether it's to their smartphones or to shopping or to eating. Before these talks began -- you guys know this -- we were told we weren't allowed to have our smartphones on, and I have to say, a lot of you looked an awful lot like addicts who were told their dealer was going to be unavailable for the next couple of hours. (Laughter) A lot of us feel like that, and it might sound weird to say, I've been talking about how disconnection is a major driver of addiction and weird to say it's growing, because you think we're the most connected society that's ever been, surely. But I increasingly began to think that the connections we have or think we have, are like a kind of parody of human connection. If you have a crisis in your life, you'll notice something. It won't be your Twitter followers who come to sit with you. It won't be your Facebook friends who help you turn it round. It'll be your flesh and blood friends who you have deep and nuanced and textured, face-to-face relationships with, and there's a study I learned about from Bill McKibben, the environmental writer, that I think tells us a lot about this. He looked at the number of close friends the average American believes they can call on in a crisis. That number has been declining steadily since the 1950s. The amount of floor space an individual has in their home has been steadily increasing, and I think that's like a metaphor for the choice we've made as a culture. We've traded floorspace for friends, we've traded stuff for connections, and the result is we are one of the loneliest societies there has ever been. And Bruce Alexander, the guy who did the Rat Park experiment, says, we talk all the time in addiction about individual recovery, and it's right to talk about that, but we need to talk much more about social recovery. Something's gone wrong with us, not just with individuals but as a group, and we've created a society where, for a lot of us, life looks a whole lot more like that isolated cage and a whole lot less like Rat Park.
If I'm honest, this isn't why I went into it. I didn't go in to the discover the political stuff, the social stuff. I wanted to know how to help the people I love. And when I came back from this long journey and I'd learned all this, I looked at the addicts in my life, and if you're really candid, it's hard loving an addict, and there's going to be lots of people who know in this room. You are angry a lot of the time, and I think one of the reasons why this debate is so charged is because it runs through the heart of each of us, right? Everyone has a bit of them that looks at an addict and thinks, I wish someone would just stop you. And the kind of scripts we're told for how to deal with the addicts in our lives is typified by, I think, the reality show "Intervention," if you guys have ever seen it. I think everything in our lives is defined by reality TV, but that's another TED Talk. If you've ever seen the show "Intervention," it's a pretty simple premise. Get an addict, all the people in their life, gather them together, confront them with what they're doing, and they say, if you don't shape up, we're going to cut you off. So what they do is they take the connection to the addict, and they threaten it, they make it contingent on the addict behaving the way they want. And I began to think, I began to see why that approach doesn't work, and I began to think that's almost like the importing of the logic of the Drug War into our private lives.
So I was thinking, how could I be Portuguese? And what I've tried to do now, and I can't tell you I do it consistently and I can't tell you it's easy, is to say to the addicts in my life that I want to deepen the connection with them, to say to them, I love you whether you're using or you're not. I love you, whatever state you're in, and if you need me, I'll come and sit with you because I love you and I don't want you to be alone or to feel alone.
And I think the core of that message -- you're not alone, we love you -- has to be at every level of how we respond to addicts, socially, politically and individually. For 100 years now, we've been singing war songs about addicts. I think all along we should have been singing love songs to them, because the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.