The skies were cloudy and the north wind was gusting, delivering sharp needles of rain, when Koko and I went walking — quickly, to build heat — this gray morning.
“It’s cold,” I reported to my neighbor Andy, who agreed, but then when on to tell me he’d been communicating via email with someone in Nova Scotia, where it was truly cold — an unfathomable minus 26 degrees.
At least the winter ice melts in the spring. The other kind of “ice” is present all year-round, dominating the lives of way too many people, including that whole miserable group of unfortunate souls involved in the life of two-year-old Cyrus Bell, whose chilling death is now the focus of a highly publicized murder trial in Honolulu.
Locally, it was an overriding factor in the tragic life of Ashlee Pasion Rita, the 27-year-old pregnant mother of three recently sentenced to 10 years in prison following a long string of arrests and convictions related to her crystal meth habit and the need for money to support it.
At the end of an editorial in The Garden Island that addressed the “systemic failure” evident in Rita’s case and called upon the mayor to fulfill a campaign promise to build an adolescent drug treatment facility on island, a reader commented:
Sad story but this woman is the failure- stop blaming the system it works fine for 95% of us that live here. The blame needs to be put on her family. Where were they all these years?
That comment, which was both true and false, for me raised the question, so then what do you do with Rita and all the other “failures” who are addicted to drugs? Keep cycling them through the criminal "justice" system, where it costs $88,000 per year to incarcerate them, and who knows how much to bring them to trial and keep their kids in foster care?
Meanwhile, as the editorial reported, addicts continue to impact our community, and even when they’ve done their time, they’re not necessarily ready to join society:
The Kaua‘i Community Response Drug Plan 2008-2013 states that 80 to 90 percent of all crimes committed on Kaua‘i are drug-related, and that more than 1,500 individuals on probation, parole, drug court or awaiting sentencing “need help to re-integrate into the community, but there are gaps in the continuum of care needed.”
It seems, when you look at those kinds of statistics, and the cases of Ashlee Rita and Cyrus Bell, that the law enforcement model we’ve relied upon isn’t working when it comes to reducing addiction and its associated costs and ills. Yet locally, we’re still stuck in that mode, and so are the feds, as Democracy Now! reports:
The Obama administration’s budget proposal for the Office of National Drug Control Policy sets aside nearly twice the amount of funding for law enforcement and criminalization than for treatment and prevention of drug addiction. Out of a total of $15.5 billion dollars, some 10 billion dollars are for enforcement measures. National Drug Control Policy Gil Kerlikowske praised the numbers as reflecting a “balanced and comprehensive drug strategy.”
Well, just last year the newly-appointed drug czar and former Seattle police chief had called for an end to the so-called “war on drugs," raising hopes among advocates of harm-reduction approaches to curbing drug use. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal last May Kerlikowske said “People see a war as a war on them. We’re not at war with people in this country.”
It sure feels like a war, and like the “war on terror” and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we’re investing a lot of lives and money in a fight that we're bound to lose, because we're failing to address the root cause.
The Democracy Now! report served as a segue to an interview with Dr. Gabor Mate’, an author and physician who has spent the past 12 years working with drug addicts in Vancouver. As he noted:
“Without exception, these are people with extraordinarily difficult lives. The commonality is childhood abuse…..And that’s what sets up the pain biology of addiction. In other words, the addiction is related both psychologically in terms of emotional pain relief and neurobiological development through early adversity.”
When people are stressed, mistreated or abused, Dr. Mate’ said, their brains don’t develop properly, which increases their propensity for addiction.
So as he sees it, the war on drugs is effectively “punishing people for having been abused.” And since “stress drives addiction,” the war on drugs “actually entrenches addiction deeply.”
Rather than dealing with drugs and addiction from a criminal perspective, Mate’ says we need to take “a compassionate, caring approach that would allow these people to develop.”
But that shift would require us to address as well the deeper issues — the social and political policies, the economic and racial inequalities — that feed the stress and abuse. Dr. Mate’ also links stress to the rise in ADD — attention deficit disorder — which he says is not a disease or genetic disorder, but a problem of brain development.
Yet, instead of focusing on stress reduction in our society, we’ve put 3 million kids on various forms of speed and another 500,000 on anti-psychotic drugs, creating a breeding ground for another generation of addicts and future inmates.
As Dr. Mate’ noted, this approach serves some sectors of our society, and while he didn't specify which, it's pretty obvious that we're talking about the massive prison complex and pharmaceutical industry.
Meanwhile, as he observed, everyone in our society is “always seeking satisfaction from outside,” looking to quell a hunger that can never be satiated through stuff or sex or work or service or extreme sports or any of those other legal, even admired and well-rewarded, addictions:
My point is, there’s no clear distinction between the identified addict and the rest of us. There’s just a continuum on which we all may be found. They’re on it because they’re suffered a lot more than the rest of us.
And when you look at it like that, you have to wonder, what sort of society would take the stance of lock 'em up and throw away the key?