First, let me just say, that I am not "for" drugs. I barely drink (and was well over 30 before I ever had any alcohol at all), have never smoked (anything), and am fairly resistant to taking even painkillers (which my wife thinks is insane). Basically, unless the doctor has told me to take it, I'm not much for putting drugs into my body. I'm part of the "war on drugs" culture that came out of the 80s. You know, that whole egg-frying-in-a-pan-that's-really-your-brain thing.
We have the wrong idea about addiction and what it means, and the way we've been warring against drugs for the past few decades obviously hasn't worked. Of course, most people, especially old, rich, white dudes in politics strongly believe in doing the same thing over and over and over and over with the hope that, at some point, it will suddenly work. Einstein's definition of insanity.
For a long time, we've know that some personalities are more prone to addiction than others, you know, weak people. At least that's how we've always termed it culturally. Weak people are poor people, usually minorities, who are unable to enrich themselves, living destitute lives hooked on drugs and alcohol. If only they were better, stronger people, they wouldn't have problems with the drugs.
But that's all wrong, and that's not what it means when we say that some personalities are more prone to addiction than others. [For a discussion of personality, you can take a look at my "Exploring Personality" series.] Now, I'm not going to get all clinical, and I'm not going to cite a bunch of studies and include a lot of links that no one is going to look at anyway. This is going to be a very general overview of some recent studies and what I think they mean. So, sure, the conclusions are my own, but I think they are valid.
One thing we know is that some people are more prone to addiction than others, but let me re-frame that statement:
Under the right conditions, all people are prone to addiction. Some people are more prone, but all people are susceptible. And it doesn't even have to do with the actual drugs.
See, if you put a rat, alone, in a small cage with nothing in it but the rat, well, it doesn't make the rat happy. If you hang a bottle of water on one side of the cage and a bottle of drug-spiked water on the other side of the cage, guess which water the rat will drink. It doesn't take long before you have one addicted little rat. And I hear you thinking, "But that's just a rat..."
Wait! There's more!
If you have another cage, a large, comfortable cage full of fun, little rat toys and a whole community of rats and you have the same two bottles of water, guess what happens. The rats almost never become addicted. Some of them, sometimes, will sample the drug water, evidently just for the experience of it, but it doesn't become a cage full of drug-addicted rats. It's kind of the definition of recreational drug use. All of them try it but, mostly, they just ignore it.
What you can take from this is how rats react to their environments. Rats in a negative environment -- alone in a cramped little cage with no stimulation -- will becomes addicts if given accessibility to drugs. Rats in a positive environment -- plenty of social opportunity and things to keep them busy -- will almost never become addicts even with easy access to drugs. The reality of the situation is that it's not the drugs that are the problem; it's the environment.
Now, if you take an addicted rat, and not just an addicted rat, a heavily addicted rat, and take him out of his cramped, little cage and put him in the other cage, the one with all the rat friends and toys, a very unexpected thing happens: The rat kicks its addiction. It almost immediate, in fact. Some of them have to deal with withdrawal symptoms, but, pretty much, they just stop the drugs. Even though the drugs are right there in front of them, they give them up. Not some of the rats. All of the rats.
Because the addiction stems from the poor environment and the brain's search for (for lack of a better all-encompassing term) stimulation, not the drugs. The drugs are just the tool the brain uses to deal with what is, basically, a trap. But you take away the trap and you give the rat freedom and options and a social environment and you take away the "need" for the drug and the brain just says, "That's enough."
Do you know what this tells me? It tells me that people with addiction problems are suffering from the same condition as the rat in the tiny cage. They feel trapped and the drugs are the way they cope. We've been trying to solve the problem by taking away the drugged water supply, but the problem is that there are too many bottles of drugged water for us to ever get rid of them all. You take one down, and someone else comes by and hangs another in the same spot. Or we take the person out of the tiny cage and put him in a slightly better cage with only plain water to drink (rehab) until he breaks the addiction but, after that, we drop him right back into the cage he was in before. It's nearly impossible to break the addiction cycle with these methods.
You know what would break the cycle and cause people to just drop their addictions? If we took the billions and billions of dollars we spend on the "war on drugs" and used it to help build better environments for the people struggling with addiction. Which includes helping them to find some purpose and work they find meaningful. They'll give up the drugs on their own that way.
We will never win the war on drugs by trying to bring down drug dealers and take down drug lords in other countries. There's too much money to be made. The only way to break the cycle is to remove the need the for the addiction.