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Mexico, Drug Addiction,
and the Brain

Natalia J. Garland

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There has always been dissension regarding the disease concept of alcoholism and drug addiction, and regarding the A.A. approach to sobriety and recovery. Some of this dissent is theoretically based and some of it is culturally influenced. It is certainly appropriate, and essential, to include cultural sensitivity and treatment plan individualization in rehabilitation programs. Beyond program completion, however, many patients will rely on A.A. meetings as a major means of support. If some people choose to forego the A.A. route (which is still emphasized in most treatment facilities) and follow an alternate method, the question is whether that alternative results in sobriety. The important thing is that sobriety be maintained and the wellbeing of the individual be restored.

There also seems to be some controversy around the role of drug dealers in the problem of addiction in America. Can drug dealers be blamed for making drugs available? If drugs were not so plentifully and easily available, would some addicts never have experimented with drugs or never have become addicted? Are there potential addicts who could be spared if only drugs were not readily available at the corner grocery, in the school yard, or in mom's purse? Or, are drug dealers answering to a supply-and-demand situation created by addicts and a permissive society? And, do our laws and welfare programs contribute to the need for and availability of illegal and addictive drugs?

Recently, I came across an article by Angelo M. Codevilla. He is a professor of international relations, an editor of the American Spectator, and he formerly served on the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee. In his article, "Pro-Mexico," he discusses the historical relationship between Mexico and the United States, including immigration policy and the current drug trafficking from Mexico into the U.S. My focus will be on Codevilla's remarks about America's drug addicts. Below are the excerpts which I wish to address.

We classify drug use by the powerless as a "disease" and send them to "treatment programs" to words that no one takes seriously. By paying them Social Security supplemental income, we also relieve them of the responsibility of supporting themselves. Since money is fungible, Social Security pays for marijuana, cocaine, etc. Thus we enable and reward drug use. Among the powerful, drug use no longer disqualifies anyone for high responsibility. Whereas Bill Clinton mock-denied his drug use by joking that he had not inhaled, Barack Obama simply admitted using cocaine and was not blamed for it. In sum, our real laws support rather than diminish demand for drugs. But our laws also make sure, absolutely sure, that the drugs will flow exclusively through criminal channels. This ensures that drug prices will be high and that they will enrich and empower the scum of the earth. Then we, having coddled demand, empowered and enriched the criminal suppliers, blame Latin American societies for our drug problem. These are the illusions of a self-indulgent people who imagine themselves virtuous and blame others for their own corruption.

Neither the Mexican nor the U.S. governments can match the attractiveness of the incentives or the terror of the threats. And if the Mexican government were to try fighting fire with fire, to terrorize the terrorists, the U.S. government would be the first to denounce its "human rights abuses." In Mexico, some unofficial organizations have set about beheading and otherwise brutalizing persons associated with narco gangs. The U.S. government has treated them the same nasty way it treated the Colombian paramilitary organizations that took the starch out of that country's narco-terrorist group, the FARC.

Instead, the U.S. government's recipe is to pay for more police to be corrupted, more intelligence to be infiltrated, more technology to be evaded, more helicopters to fly around impotently, more innocent people to be push around ignorantly, while the narco cartels kill. Essentially, the U.S. government's policy is to let American society finance the drug cartels unofficially, while officially it finances the Mexican government's war against them. We are paying some Mexicans to make war on other Mexicans, principally in the fragile human ecosystem that is the U.S.-Mexico border, where some 6,000 people were killed in the last year. The benchmark of success? The price of cocaine may rise. But when the price rises, our darling college kids and yuppies pay it, and the same amount of deadly money flows south. No wonder that some Latin governments, notably Chile, have refused to cooperate with America's "war on drugs," preferring to give the traffickers free rein in their territory rather than get their police, judiciary, and army polluted to support American hypocrisy and tergiversation.

In short, the drug problem's root is that lots of Americans want drugs, and that the rest of us eschew the reasonable opposites of truly penalizing consumption (à la Singapore) or of total, Darwinian legalization. So long as we keep doing this, we will guarantee to the narcotraffickers effective control of the U.S.-Mexican border and a veto on good relations between the American and Mexican people.
[End of quotes.]

Codevilla seems to criticize the disease concept and drug treatment programs, as well as the addicts who enter those programs. My main objection to his remarks is that he seems to believe that addicts are not serious about recovery. We know that most addicts go through a stage of denial about their condition. They 'resist' treatment, in part, to avoid encounter with the painful emotions and life losses resulting from their condition and because they are, in fact, physically addicted to a chemical. It is difficult for addicts to picture a life free of dependence on drugs. This does not mean that addicts are not serious about recovery. Recovery involves various stages of growth which unfold over time.

Is drug addiction a form of self-indulgence? Again, the biopsychosocial dynamics of addiction must be individually evaluated. It is possible, for some people, that drug use or abuse is a form of self-indulgence. Some people just like to get high. It is regarded as fun. However, throughout my career, my observation has been that many drug abusers and addicts are probably genetically predisposed to addiction, that many come from backgrounds of severe emotional and physical trauma, and that they are probably under the grip of a powerful chemical imbalance in the brain. They are not darlings and yuppies, but sick and suffering human beings.

Only days after I came across Codevilla's article, I received the latest edition of Alcohol Alert in the mail. This issue's article is entitled, "Neuroscience: Pathways to Alcohol Dependence." It discusses how alcohol changes and impairs brain function. I selected three paragraphs from the section entitled, "The Brain's Unique Communication System."

Tolerance and withdrawal are tangible evidence of alcohol's influence on the brain. Scientists now understand some of the mechanisms that lead to these changes--changes that begin with the brain's unique communication system. The brain communicates through a complex system of electrical and chemical signals. These signals are vital to brain function, sending messages throughout the brain, which, in turn, regulate every aspect of the body's function. Neurotransmitter chemicals play a key role in this signal transmission.

Under normal circumstances, the brain's balance of neurotransmitters allows the body and brain to function unimpaired. Alcohol can cause changes that upset this balance, impairing brain function. For example, the brain balances the activity of inhibitory neurotransmitters, which work to delay or stop nerve signals, with that of excitatory neurotransmitters, which work to speed up these signals. Alcohol can slow signal transmission in the brain, contributing to some of the effects associated with alcohol intoxication, including sleepiness and sedation.

As the brain grows used to alcohol, it compensates for alcohol's slowing effects by increasing the activity of excitatory neurotransmitters, speeding up signal transmission. In this way, the brain attempts to restore itself to a normal state in the presence of alcohol. If the influence of alcohol is suddenly removed (that is, if a long-term heavy drinker stops drinking suddenly), the brain may have to readjust once again: this may lead to the unpleasant feelings associated with alcohol withdrawal, such as experiencing "the shakes" or increased anxiety.
[End of quote.]

In other words, the brain of an alcoholic or drug addict does not function, or no longer functions, normally. There are both short-term (euphoria) and long-term (dependence) effects resulting from alcohol and/or drug abuse. Codevilla is not exactly correct when he says that "...the drug problem's root is that lots of Americans want drugs..." The problem is that lots of Americans have brains that function differently due to the damaging effects of drugs. Drug addicts experience irrational changes in the way they think, feel, and behave. That means there is an ongoing American market for illegal drugs, and those drugs enter the country through the U.S.-Mexico border.

How do American addicts pay for their drugs? Codevilla seems to believe that some addicts who receive welfare (S.S.I.) use this money to buy drugs. If that is true, then it is the responsibility of the U.S. government to track S.S.I. cases and substantiate each recipient's eligibility. From my career observations, I have found that many alcoholics and drug addicts are employed and have health insurance. Some are referred to treatment through their employer. Some are referred through the criminal justice system or through child protection services. Others are able to pay for outpatient therapy on a sliding-scale fee basis (a fee much lower than the amounts they spent on alcohol and drugs). Those who live on welfare often seem to have other extenuating circumstances--such as a single mother with young children, or disabling health problems. And there are some women who pay for their drugs through prostitution and who receive assistance only after they enter a treatment program.

Is America to blame? Have Americans normalized drug abuse? Are Americans too lax or too busy to keep a watchful eye on the kids? Are American voters too politically correct, or too forgiving, to uphold certain standards for elected officials? Do Americans (because of their own drug use) find it easier to identify with a president who admits to drug experimentation than with a president who has remained drug abstinent throughout his life? Should America's national health priorities include drug treatment?

Is Mexico to blame? Why does Mexico have a "fragile human ecosystem?" Why has Mexico never taken care of its poor? Why has Mexico never developed a solid education system or prosperous economy? Why are drug smugglers glorified in a Mexican form of music known as narcocorridor? Why do Mexicans (and apparently some Mexican Americans) glamourize the very people who terrorize and brutalize them? The following is a quotation from The Beat magazine, 2002.

The narcocorrido finds its closest counterpart in American gangsta rap. Both celebrate the greed, glamour, violence and risk-taking of the drug trade, painting traffickers and dealers as common men who triumph in a society that provides few doors to success. But while gangsta rap is less than two decades old, narcocorridos lie squarely in the tradition of the 19th century corrido song form which gained wide popularity after the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20 with songs that eulogized the meteoric career of Pancho Villa. From the way Los Tigres, Grupo Exterminador and Jenni Rivera extol the drug culture, you might expect they clawed their way out of the gangsta life. But with the exception of Chalino Sanchez, whose rough-hewn, off-key voice on "El Crimen de Culliacán" signifies that he was the real thing--as did his gun battle with a would-be assassin while performing on a Palm Springs stage--artists on Corridos y Narcocorridos insist they have nothing to do with the narco culture and are simply performing the material that sells best.
[End of quote.]

It would seem that some Americans and some Mexicans have, at least, one thing in common: the dehumanization of addicts. Some Americans have normalized drug experimentation and recreation. Taking your first snort of cocaine is almost the same as taking your first puff on a cigarette or your first sip of alcohol. This in itself is insideous because there is nothing normal about the progression of addiction for those first-time users who will develop lifelong dependency. It could be suspected that drug availability--not just cultural decline or parental laxity--is responsible for changing the view on drugs from that of a dangerous substance to that of an expected phase of teenage behavior.

A few parents even allow their underaged kids to drink alcohol--so long as they drink at home, as though that could prevent chemical changes in their yet underdeveloped brains. In these instances, the potential for addiction is underestimated or simply ignored. And there are some parents who regard marijuana as no more harmful than alcohol, and who themselves abuse alcohol and marijuana--and their kids know it.

If presidential candidates said they never tried drugs, the public would suspect most of them of lying--because most people nowadays have tried drugs. Most people have taken that unnecessary risk, whether out of curiosity, peer pressure, or the desire to modulate their mood. Some of them, like certain presidents and presidential candidates, were able to quit or recover without incurring great losses. Others, however, are now either buying from the drug dealers or they are in the rooms of A.A.

We must question if President Obama's recent 'Beer Summit' set a bad example for America's youth.* The 'Beer Summit' normalized alcohol intake in America--a president, a police officer, and a college professor drinking beer and with no regard for the message they might imprint on children who lack good role models (and with no sensitivity toward racial and cultural groups which have a low tolerance for alcohol or whose communities are plagued with addiction). What's wrong with drinking iced tea? Or a refreshing lemonade? Why not have a 'Cranberry Juice Summit?' Obama missed an opportunity to set a standard.

Some Mexicans view America's addicts as objects, as nothing more than a market for a product. The solution, however, is not as Codevilla would mise en scène: "In short, the drug problem's root is that lots of Americans want drugs, and that the rest of us eschew the reasonable opposites of truly penalizing consumption (à la Singapore) or of total, Darwinian legalization."

The Singapore method is not an alternative to America's current laws against drug possession--laws which are effective when enforced and when the offenders are prosecuted. In addition to drug possession laws, it would be helpful to develop more drug-abuse prevention programs for youngsters. America also has D.U.I. laws and child protective services--programs which are effective when adequately funded and staffed. The Darwinian method would inflict unbounded misery on the spouses and children of addicts. It is not a matter of survival of the strong and extinction of the weak, but of generational continuation of trauma and addiction.

A better solution would be for America to take care of its own through addiction research and treatment--a solution that would be reasonable, humane, and feasible if given national priority. Drug smugglers cannot sell their product if there is no market. If there are millions of people worldwide who have achieved sobriety through A.A., C.A., and N.A., then we must be thankful for those in recovery who continue to reach out to the sick and suffering. If it were not for A.A. and its sister organizations, the market for illegal drugs would be even greater.

[*NOTE: I heard on one news program that Obama drank non-alcoholic beer (FOX News Sunday, 08/02/09). If this is true, this information was not widely known. The impression was that Obama drank beer; and he openly said that he was inviting the officer and professor to the White House for a beer. Non-alcoholic beer, by the way, contains a small percentage of alcohol. Whether Obama drank beer or non-alcoholic beer, the fact that he drank a beer product gives forth a very different image from drinking iced tea or some other soft beverage.

Perhaps any President of the United States should be required to adhere to an alcohol zero-tolerance policy. The President should be totally alert at all times and ready to make quick decisions in times of catastrophe and war. Even the slightest alcohol-induced impairment should not be risked or tolerated.] (Written 08/10/09: bibliography available.)

[ADDED NOTE: Yesterday, on July 20, 2010, President Obama met with British Prime Minister Cameron and they spoke to the press. Obama began his opening remarks as follows.

We have just concluded some excellent discussions--including whether the beers from our hometowns that we exchanged are best served warm or cold. My understanding is, is that the Prime Minister enjoyed our 312 beer and we may send him some more. I thought the beer we got was excellent--but I did drink it cold.
[End of quote.]

It is baffling. Is this kind of talk supposed to be charming, witty, macho? While Mrs. Obama confronts America's problem with obesity, the President flouts his beer-drinking: a bad example for our youth and an incongruous image for our addicted society. Moreover, beer is filled with calories! How can you criticize Mac Donald's hamburgers when you are drinking calorie-laden beers?] (Written 07/21/10)

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2009 Natalia J. Garland