An individual who gets through age 21 without smoking, using illegal drugs or abusing alcohol is virtually certain never to do so. This is the conclusion reached after nine years of research by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. The study reached other conclusions as well. Parents, it noted, can be much more effective in helping their children avoid addiction by providing firm and consistent guidance in this area. Further, religion and spirituality are key factors in both the prevention of substance abuse and the treatment of the resulting addiction. But most importantly it concluded that the most effective cure for addiction is to reach young people before they get hooked.
Drug abuse is a huge problem in our country. Substance abuse cost the United States almost $100 billion in 2000, mostly in increased health-care, prison, social service and welfare costs. Addictions to nicotine, alcohol, and drugs exacerbated dramatically the numbers and severity of cases of cancer, respiratory distress, AIDS and cardiovascular disease. There is evidence that drug addicts commit 100 crimes a year. Addictions tear apart families and ruin lives in untold numbers. Addiction is an immense public health problem.
Yet, for the most part, we try to overcome abuse by punishing offenders, locking them away out of sight. Noting that this approach is not working, there is a budding effort out there to legalize drug use and create "shooting galleries" on the model of those in the Netherlands. This I fear would be just another way of putting those who are addicted out of sight and out of mind most of the time. The shooting gallery notion reminds me of the asylums of the last century, created for the best of motives, but resulting in horrendous pain for inmates.
In the past 100 years we have come to recognize that addiction is not easily overcome. While we have learned that it is more like a chronic illness than a moral failure, there still lingers the notion that if you are addicted, it is your own fault and that the way to prevent substance abuse is to punish offenders.
We must come to understand addiction as a condition that cannot be cured, but rather must be managed, much as hypertension or diabetes must be managed. Just as diabetics require regular medication, addicts too require ongoing treatment. One such treatment is modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous, which integrates spirituality, mentoring, and honest confrontation. The most effective treatments require addicts to confront their demons with brutal honesty. They then admit that they need the help of God to defeat those demons and the addiction. They are usually helped along by a guide who understands the nature of addiction (often from personal experience) and who will both support and challenge them.
The findings of the CASA study mentioned above have interesting implications for fighting substance abuse in North America. There is, for example, a close connection between the use of cigarettes and alcohol among young people and the use of illegal drugs - from marijuana to cocaine. Each of these substances releases dopamine, the hormone which produces sensations of pleasure. Almost no one smokes marijuana unless they have first inhaled tobacco smoke. Teens who have imbibed in alcohol and smoked cigarettes in the past 30 days are 30 times more likely to use marijuana than those who have not. Teens who have done all three are 16 times more likely to use cocaine than those who have not.
All of that said, the most effective remedy for substance abuse in this country is the prevention of addiction in the first place. Most addiction problems will be solved if we can get our children to age 21 without their having smoked or abused alcohol. In this, the school, the community, the family and the church, mosque or synagogue can and must work together. The community can and should rigorously enforce laws restricting the sale of alcohol and tobacco to youth. Schools ought to provide information to young people and their parents on the nature and dangers of substance abuse. Parents must educate themselves about the subject, be alert for signs of incipient abuse and be prepared to give direction to their children. Churches must provide the moral teaching that will support both community and parents in their efforts to guide their kids and provide for young people a spirituality that gives them the tools to cope with the difficulties in their lives.
Addiction is literally killing the young of this nation and robbing others of a chance for a full life. Let's work together to defeat this menace.
Rev. Michael Nash is pastor of the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Nativity in downtown Juneau.