My following book review appears in the Sydney Morning Herald/Melbourne Age today:
Addicted? How Addiction Affects Every One of Us and What We Can Do About It
Matt Noffs and Kieran Palmer
When the Australian Greens recently called for the legalisation and regulation of cannabis, following moves in countless US states, Uruguay and Canada, the response from the federal government was immediate. Health Minister Greg Hunt dismissed the idea as “dangerous” and argued marijuana was a “gateway drug” to harder substances such as ice and heroin.
The evidence for Hunt’s theory is highly contested, with countless, reputable studies showing that poverty and troubled social environment have far more influence on a person’s drug intake than partaking in cannabis.
Hunt’s intervention followed a predictable route by opponents of serious drug reform (though he’s pushing for Australia to become a global leader in medical marijuana). As similar debates have taken place across the world – from opponents of Portugal’s successful decriminalisation of all drugs in 2001 to critics of heroin-assisted treatment in Switzerland – many sensible ideas are shunned by prohibition advocates to maintain a law and order response to illicit substances. Decades of these policies have singularly failed to stem drug taking; the Global Drug Survey consistently finds that Australians are some of the highest users per capita of illegal drugs.
These are just some of the concerns eloquently expressed in this important book by two workers on the frontlines of the drug debate. Matt Noffs and Kieran Palmer work for the Noffs Foundation in Sydney, an organisation founded in 1970 by Reverend Ted Noffs and his wife Margaret. It’s dedicated to assisting young people with drug and alcohol problems.
The message of Addicted? is largely about challenging the dangerous myths around drug use and advocating a more sensible approach: “The causes of addiction are generalised: living in a rough area, being of lower-than-average intelligence, being of low socio-economic status, belonging to a particular culture, even having a certain skin colour. The inner qualities of addicts are also overgeneralised: they have no self-control, no willpower, no ambition, or have simply given up on life…Rarely, if ever, is substance dependence viewed as a health issue, affliction of the mind and body, perpetuated by poor or risky health-related behaviour.”
Noffs and Palmer successfully demolish the stereotypes around drugs, explaining how most people taking illegal substances aren’t addicted to them. With justified irony, they rightly ask whether the Western addiction to smartphones, devices used far more extensively than any illicit drug and undeniably causing negative impacts on societal relations, should be curtailed with a “Just Say No” public messaging campaign akin to what is still used against drugs?
“Regulation is the word here,” they write. “Some of the studies of smartphone addiction show that parents can take control of their children’s use and manage the potential problems that arise.” Banning smartphones is never seriously suggested as a solution and yet that’s what many nations believe should happen to drugs despite fewer people being affected.
Addicted? takes aim at the media’s coverage of drugs and asks why most stories we see rarely hear from users themselves. They’re often demeaned, judged and discarded as a lost cause, smeared as people who don’t deserve a second chance. Think of how often the commercial networks and ABC feature drug-bust stories; journalists are spoon-fed images and startling facts by police with little context or history. Because this isn’t a dry policy book, though it has strong suggestions for governments to treat all citizens with respect regardless of what they ingest, Noffs and Palmer offer the personal stories of resilience and success against addiction that the corporate press usually avoids.
Reminiscent in parts of Johann Hari’s Lost Connections, a powerful rebuke to the excessive prescribing of anti-depressants, Addicted? offers clear and proven ideas to enrich lives touched by trouble (though they’re equally relevant for everybody). “While addiction can be harmful and suck away our spirit, it need not be an eternal shackle,” they conclude. “It is a part of our biology and our being, but its destructiveness can be minimised and managed.”
In a book filled with generosity and insights, it’s heartening to feel compassion directed at the most marginalised and invisible members of society. Noffs and Palmer live this philosophy and in a just world they would be tasked to redesign Australia’s decrepit drug laws.
Antony Loewenstein’s book on the global drug war will be published next year.