There are many causes of the drug addiction myth, but one of the most important is Alcoholics Anonymous and other “12 Step” programs. These programs require that the participant believe that addiction exists and that they are in fact a drug addict, in order to participate in the program. The first step of the program is:
1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
This is intended literally. The participant is required to say (if not believe) that the drug/alcohol has taken them over and they cannot resist it by their own power. They have lost free choice. The drug is like a demon that has taken possession of the soul, making it impossible to live a normal life. This may seem like a conundrum, since if the drug is all powerful then there is no hope. However, a solution is provided in the subsequent steps:
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
By believing in a Higher Power and accepting its help, one can overcome the addiction. (Much has been said about the religious requirement of AA, but I think too much is made of this issue. After all, AA allows the participant to believe in any form of HP. For example, an atheist could simply choose ‘science’ as their HP.)
The problem with 12 step programs is that from the start you must admit that you are an addict in order to participate. You must say, “Hi my name is <blank> and I am an alcoholic.” If you say, “Hi my name is ___ and I have abused alcohol in the past” then you are hissed and booed by the other participants. You are seen as a person in denial, or as someone who doesn’t belong. This form of rejection is actually a well-known brain washing technique. Belonging is one of the strongest human drives, and coupled with the promise of a deep social connections and the resolution of one’s problems, there is almost no limit to what people will say and do.
For many people the myth is very appealing. Many people ended up in treatment for drug problems because of harmful behavior when intoxicated (e.g. drunk driving and belligerence). Instead of having to take responsibility for their behavior (“I knew I would be driving drunk but I had another drink anyway”), they can blame the drug itself. In this way they can wipe the slate clean, and if they fall off the wagon and behave badly again, it is not a moral failing. It is the demon drug.
Most drug and alcohol treatment models these days include 12 step programs. Thus, even if the patient does not believe in addiction, they must admit to being an addict in order to participate. Also, people who do not have a serious drug abuse problem may seek out 12 step programs for the social connections, and they too must admit to being addicts. In this way, most people who are involved with drug treatment are forced to accept the addiction myth, even if it isn’t true for them personally. How are we to know whether addiction is real without asking the drug users themselves and inquiring of their inner experience? Since most of them have been through this type of program, the answer is not surprising.
The steps are considered sacred in AA, and questioning them is anathema. Once passed, there is no looking back. Due to the popularity of AA, it is not surprising that the addiction myth is propagated throughout all levels society and has now attained the status of ‘disease’.
How did AA get so popular if it is spreading a myth? Wouldn’t it have been debunked a long time ago? First of all, outsiders would generally not question the drug abuser’s narrative because it’s a personal problem and it would be considered rude. Second, we tend to think that as long as a program is effective, then it doesn’t matter what the participant is required to believe, as long as it doesn’t hurt others. After all our country is founded on freedom of religion. So the ‘harmless myth’ spread. I don’t know whether the founders would be pleased that it is used as a justification for the drug war.
However there is a profound moral hazard with the AA belief system. Because one is powerless, one can continue to offend, and blame the drug instead of their own free choice. As long as one professes allegiance to the steps, one is quickly forgiven. I’ve seen several examples of this online, where a person behaves atrociously but then is quickly forgiven because they ‘made amends’ (step 8). A woman’s irresponsible behavior with regard to her children (hanging out with her drug using husband) is tolerated because she acknowledged it and regretted it, even though she had a history of repeating it (saying, “I guess I still have some step-work to do”). In this way, AA is a refuge for sociopaths: they’re not a bad person, they just have a disease beyond their control.
I went to an AA meeting once and really enjoyed it. It made me wish I could participate. But I simply could not get past the first step. It would be a lie. I imagine others with more serious issues would be sorely tempted. In fact, I’m quite certain that the friend I went with was not an addict and joined primarily for the social aspect. I suspected this as well for many of the others there based on the stories provided (mostly examples of drinking too much and regretting it the next day). At this point in my life I could easily do without alcohol if I was part of a sober group.