A friend of mine has long been a fan of Gabor Mate. Dr. Gabor Mate works in the East Hastings area of Vancouver. If you’ve ever been to Vancouver, you’ll know it is where a lot of drug addicts hang out. Dr. Mate has been doing some incredible work there, and he has challenged a lot of views about what causes drug addiction. You can read one of his articles here. Dr. Mate’s main thesis is that people are not responsible for their drug addiction, at least not entirely. Drug addiction is related to trauma or abandonment early in life, and the addict has little control on getting their behavior/life under control. If that is true, then a number of questions become apparent. Is the war on drugs ethical?, or at least, is the criminalization of people who abuse drugs ethical?
Advances in brain science have started to reveal the plasticity of the brain. In materials engineering, we often talk about materials being plastic or elastic. An elastic is obvious, bend it in one way and it snaps back, without changes to the material. Bending a material into its plastic region though will deform it and whatever shape you leave it in, is its new form. It may still contain some elasticity, but it will snap back to the new shape, unless you deform it again.
The brain works much in the same way. Repeating or reinforcing certain patterns in life strengthens neural networks in the brain and these networks are self-reinforcing which is why it is very difficult to break habits. Those habits have strengthened neural pathways, which make us fall into our same patterns over and over again. You may have heard the saying that you have to do something for 21 days straight in order for it to become a habit. This is brain plasticity at work.
Dr. Mate talks about early childhood experiences that have reinforced (I’m taking liberty here) certain brain pathways and networks. These changes to the brain, that occur through childhood neglect of one form or another, can lead to addiction in adulthood. We really are the product of our environment. The question then becomes, if we are implementing policies that further erode the social safety net, that weaken families, that don’t support young mothers or their children, then are we all conspirators to supporting some kind of addiction later in life? If this is true, then do we have the right to punish people for doing things that we have had some hand in? Do we have the right to punish people who have already suffered abuse, and are the product of that abuse? Do we have the right to punish people who have little control over their behavior?