The New Paltz chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) was joined by its Executive Director Betty Aldworth and New York Times bestselling author Maia Szalavitz last Friday in Lecture Center 102 to discuss Szalavitz’s ideas on addiction and treatment.
SSDP is a national grassroots student organization that engages in topics of drug use and policy.
“We neither condemn nor condone drug use,” said third-year communications major and president of SSDP Robert Hofmann. “Rather we try to teach people accurate drug education and drug science and let people decide for themselves how to use substances provided with harm reduction measures to ensure that people don’t harm themselves or die from using substances.”
New Paltz was privileged with Szalavitz and Aldworth’s presence after winning a phone banking contest that 30 SSDP chapters participated in. The goal of the contest was to encourage state legislatures to create ballot measures for adult use and medicinal marijuana legalizations.
After introductions by Hofmann and Aldworth, Szalavitz began the talk with a discussion about the history of drug laws, claiming that they were made “not about the danger of the substance, but the perceived danger of specific groups” and that they are “nothing about science and completely about racism.”
Szalavitz then recounted her own experience with drug addiction and six months of rehab. She said that she was interested in drug policy before her experience, but really dove into it after she got out of rehab.
Szalavitz’s transparency regarding her own experience is well backed by research and data.
“If I came out of brain cancer treatment and thought, ‘now I’m a brain surgeon’ I would rightly be told that, ‘no, you are not,’” she said. “I do think it’s very important to actually have genuine expertise and being out about my experience in this area has, as far as I can tell, only been helpful because it allows the more academic and research-based stuff I do say also have the ring of, ‘OK, this person also actually experienced this.’”
Aldworth then moved the discussion to definitions and their impact. The official definition of addiction has to do with withdrawal and tolerance, which by this interpretation, cocaine is not addictive according to Szalavitz.
“It’s about as addictive as potato chips,” she said.
Szalavitz defined addiction as “compulsive drug use despite negative consequences” and asserted that physical dependence is not the conclusive quality of addiction.
The discussion moved to examining drug policy. Szalavitz described addiction as a learning disorder because people with addictions learn to love the drug. She specified that substance abuse and dependence on substances are different and neither is synonymous with addiction.
She also highlighted the stigma of the word “abuse” in the phrase substance abuse saying, “you’re not abusing a poor little substance.”
Szalavitz said that most drug use is not addiction and that “people who become addicted tend to have something else going on,” be it trauma or mental illness.
Szalavitz also urged parents who think their children have a substance abuse problem to seek out counseling or family therapy instead of turning to treatment centers. She then spoke about the concerns of concentrating “problem kids” in juvenile prisons and the negative influence it creates.
“You end up with a contagion that you really don’t want,” she said.
Szalavitz said that if punishment was going to end addiction, addiction would not exist, but the current drug policy punishes people who are already feeling awful about themselves.
“The idea that by making people’s lives infinitely worse we can get them to stop using drugs is exactly the opposite of what we want to be doing,” she said. “The way to help people with any disorder is compassion, dignity and respect first.”
Szalavitz asserted that she does not care about drug use, but rather drug-related harm and drugs need to be taken seriously in our society.
“What you have in your veins has nothing to do with whether you’re in recovery,” she said. “Are you able to love and work?”
SSDP meets on Thursdays at 8 p.m. in SUB 418 and Szalavitz’s book “Unbroken Brain” will be available in paperback on May 9.