A terrible scourge is sweeping much of the country. Young and old of all classes. 52,000 Americans died of overdoses in 2015—about four times as many as died from gun homicides and half again as many as died in car accidents. Drug overdoses were 15,000 in 2000. Oxycontin was the precursor. Instead of taking a pill every 4-6 hours, when needed, you can get “continual” relief but it sets you up for addiction and billions in profits for the drug makers. In Germany and Japan, nothing stronger than Tylenol is given for childbirth. Here in the pain averse USA, pills are given out like candy to even teens. 4 year olds are dying because they are put under sedation for dental work.
By Christopher Caldwell, senior editor at the Weekly Standard.
In First Things:
We should all be dead,” said Jonathan Goyer one bright morning in January as he looked across a room filled with dozens of his coworkers and clients. The Anchor Recovery Community Center, which Goyer helps run, occupies the shell of an office building in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Founded seven years ago, Anchor specializes in “peer-to-peer” counseling for drug addicts. With state help and private grants, Anchor throws everything but the kitchen sink at addiction. It hosts Narcotics Anonymous meetings, cognitive behavioral therapy sessions, art workshops, and personal counseling. It runs a telephone hotline and a hospital outreach program. It has an employment center for connecting newly drug-free people to sympathetic hirers, and banks of computers for those who lack them. And all the people who work here have been in the very pit of addiction—shoplifting to pay for a morning dose, selling their bodies, or dragging out their adult lives in prison. Some have been taken to emergency rooms and “hit” with powerful anti-overdose drugs to bring them back from respiratory failure.
That is how it was with Goyer. His father died of an overdose at forty-one, in 2004. His twenty-nine-year-old brother OD’d and died in 2009. When he was shooting heroin he slept on the floor of a public garage. He would pick up used hypodermic needles if they were new enough that the volume gauges inked on the outside hadn’t been rubbed off with use. He OD’d several times before getting clean in 2013. Now he visits people after overdoses and tells them, “I was right where you’re at.”
There have always been drug addicts in need of help, but the scale of the present wave of heroin and opioid abuse is unprecedented. Fifty-two thousand Americans died of overdoses in 2015—about four times as many as died from gun homicides and half again as many as died in car accidents. Pawtucket is a small place, and yet 5,400 addicts are members at Anchor. Six hundred visit every day. Rhode Island is a small place, too. It has just over a million people. One Brown University epidemiologist estimates that 20,000 of them are opioid addicts—2 percent of the population.
Salisbury, Massachusetts (pop. 8,000), was founded in 1638, and the opium crisis is the worst thing that has ever happened to it. The town lost one young person in the decade-long Vietnam War. It has lost fifteen to heroin in the last two years. Last summer, Huntington, West Virginia (pop. 49,000), saw twenty-eight overdoses in four hours. Episodes like these played a role in the decline in U.S. life expectancy in 2015. The death toll far eclipses those of all previous drug crises.
And yet, after five decades of alarm over threats that were small by comparison, politicians and the media have offered only a muted response. A willingness at least to talk about opioid deaths (among other taboo subjects) surely helped Donald Trump win last November’s election. In his inaugural address, President Trump referred to the drug epidemic (among other problems) as “carnage.” Those who call the word an irresponsible exaggeration are wrong.
Jazz musicians knew what heroin was in the 1950s. Other Americans needed to have it explained to them. Even in the 1960s and 1970s, with bourgeois norms and drug enforcement weakening, heroin lost none of its terrifying underworld associations. People weren’t shooting it at Woodstock. Today, with much of the discourse on drug addiction controlled by medical bureaucrats, it is common to speak of addiction as an “equal-opportunity disease” that can “strike anyone.” While this may be true on the pharmacological level, it was until quite recently a sociological falsehood. In fact, most of the country had powerful moral, social, cultural, and legal immunities against heroin and opiate addiction. For 99 percent of the population, it was an adventure that had to be sought out. That has now changed.
America had built up these immunities through hard experience. At the turn of the nineteenth century, scientists isolated morphine, the active ingredient in opium, and in the 1850s the hypodermic needle was invented. They seemed a godsend in Civil War field hospitals, but many soldiers came home addicted. Zealous doctors prescribed opiates to upper-middle-class women for everything from menstrual cramps to “hysteria.” The “acetylization” of morphine led to the development of heroin. Bayer began marketing it as a cough suppressant in 1898, which made matters worse. The tally of wrecked middle-class families and lives was already high by the time Congress passed the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act in 1914, threatening jail for doctors who prescribed opiates to addicts. Americans had had it with heroin. It took almost a century before drug companies could talk them back into using drugs like it.
If you take too much heroin, your breathing slows until you die. Unfortunately, the drug sets an addictive trap that is sinister and subtle. It provides a euphoria—a feeling of contentment, simplification, and release—which users swear has no equal. Users quickly develop a tolerance, requiring higher and higher amounts to get the same effect. The dosage required to attain the feeling the user originally experienced rises until it is higher than the dosage that will kill him. An addict can get more or less “straight,” but approaching the euphoria he longs for requires walking up to the gates of death. If a heroin addict sees on the news that a user or two has died from an overly strong batch of heroin in some housing project somewhere, his first thought is, “Where is that? That’s the stuff I want.”
Tolerance ebbs as fast as it rises. The most dangerous day for a junkie is not the day he gets arrested, although the withdrawal symptoms—should he not receive medical treatment—are painful and embarrassing, and no picnic for his cellmate, either. But withdrawals are not generally life-threatening, as they are for a hardened alcoholic. The dangerous day comes when the addict is released, for the dosage he had taken comfortably until his arrest two weeks ago may now be enough to kill him.
The best way for a society to avoid the dangers of addictive and dangerous drugs is to severely restrict access to them. That is why, in the twentieth century, powerful opiates and opioids (an opioid is a synthetic drug that mimics opium) were largely taboo—confined to patients with serious cancers, and often to end-of-life care. But two decades ago, a combination of libertarian attitudes about drugs and a massive corporate marketing effort combined to instruct millions of vulnerable people about the blessed relief opioids could bring, if only mulish oldsters in the medical profession could get over their hang-ups and be convinced to prescribe them. One of the rhetorical tactics is now familiar from debates about Islam and terrorism: Industry advocates accused doctors reluctant to prescribe addictive medicines of suffering from “opiophobia.”
In 1996, Purdue Pharmaceuticals brought to market OxyContin, an “extended release” version of the opioid oxycodone. (The “-contin” suffix comes from “continuous.”) The time-release formula meant companies could pack lots of oxycodone into one pill, with less risk of abuse, or so scientists claimed. Purdue did not reckon with the ingenuity of addicts, who by smashing or chewing or dissolving the pills could release the whole narcotic load at once. That is the charitable account of what happened. In 2007, three of Purdue’s executives pled guilty to felony misbranding at the time of the release of OxyContin, and the company paid $600 million in fines. In 2010, Purdue brought out a reformulated OxyContin that was harder to tamper with. Most of Purdue’s revenues still come from OxyContin. In 2015, the Sackler family, the company’s sole owners, suddenly appeared at number sixteen on Forbes magazine’s list of America’s richest families.
Today’s opioid epidemic is, in part, an unintended consequence of the Reagan era. America in the 1980s and 1990s was guided by a coalition of profit-seeking corporations and concerned traditional communities, both of which had felt oppressed by a high-handed government. But whereas Reaganism gave real power to corporations, it gave only rhetorical power to communities. Eventually, when the interests of corporations and communities clashed, the former were in a position to wipe the latter out. The politics of the 1980s wound up enlisting the American middle class in the project of its own dispossession.
OxyContin was only the most commercially successful of many new opioids. At the time, the whole pharmaceutical industry was engaged in a lobbying and public relations effort to restore opioids to the average middle-class family’s pharmacopeia, where they had not been found since before World War I. The American Pain Foundation, which presented itself as an advocate for patients suffering chronic conditions, was revealed by the Washington Post in 2011 to have received 90 percent of its funding from medical companies.
“Pain centers” were endowed. “Chronic pain” became a condition, not just a symptom. The American Pain Society led an advertising campaign calling pain the “fifth vital sign” (after pulse, respiration, blood pressure, and temperature). Certain doctors, notoriously the anesthesiologist Russell Portenoy of the Beth Israel Medical Center, called for more aggressive pain treatment. “We had to destigmatize these drugs,” he later told the Wall Street Journal. A whole generation of doctors was schooled in the new understanding of pain. Patients threatened malpractice suits against doctors who did not prescribe pain medications liberally, and gave them bad marks on the “patient satisfaction” surveys that, in some insurance programs, determine doctor compensation. Today, more than a third of Americans are prescribed painkillers every year.
Very few of them go on to a full-blown addiction. The calamity of the 1990s opioid revolution is not so much that it turned real pain patients into junkies—although that did happen. The calamity is that a broad regulatory and cultural shift released a massive quantity of addictive drugs into the public at large. Once widely available, the supply “found” people susceptible to addiction. A suburban teenager with a lot of curiosity might discover that Grandpa, who just had his knee replaced, kept a bottle of hydrocodone on the bedside table. A construction boss might hand out Vicodin at the beginning of the workday, whether as a remedy for back pain or a perquisite of the job. Pills are dosable—and they don’t require you to use needles and run the risk of getting AIDS. So a person who would never have become a heroin addict in the old days of the opioid taboo could now become the equivalent of one, in a more antiseptic way.
But a shocking number of people wound up with a classic heroin problem anyway. Relaxed taboos and ready supply created a much wider appetite for opioids. Once that happened, heroin turned out to be very competitively priced. Not only that, it is harder to crack down on heavily armed drug gangs that sell it than on the unscrupulous doctors who turned their practices into “pill mills.” Addicts in Maine complain about the rising price of black-market pharmaceutical pills: They have risen far above the dollar-a-milligram that used to constitute a kind of “par” in the drug market. An Oxy 30 will now run you forty-five bucks. But you can shoot heroin when the pills run out, and it will save you money. A lot of money. Heroin started pouring into the eastern United States a decade ago, even before the price of pills began to climb. Since then, its price has fallen further, its purity has risen—and, lately, the number of heroin deaths is rising sharply everywhere. That is because, when we say heroin, we increasingly mean fentanyl.
Fentanyl is an opioid invented in 1959. Its primary use is in transdermal patches given to people for end-of-life care. If you steal a bunch of these, you can make good money with them on the street. Addicts like to suck on them—an extremely dangerous way to get a high. Fentanyl in its usual form is about fifty times as strong as street heroin. But there are many different kinds of fentanyl, so the wallop it packs is not just strong but unpredictable. There is butyrfentanyl, which is about a quarter the strength of ordinary fentanyl. There is acetylfentanyl, which is also somewhat weaker. There is carfentanil, which is 10,000 times as strong as morphine. It is usually used as an animal tranquilizer, although Russian soldiers used an aerosol version to knock out Chechen hostage-takers before their raid on a Moscow theater in 2002. A Chinese laboratory makes its own fentanyl-based animal tranquilizer, W-18, which finds its way into Maine through Canada.
China manufactures a good deal of the fentanyl that comes to the U.S., one of those unanticipated consequences of globalization. The dealers responsible for cutting it by a factor of fifty are unlikely to be trained pharmacists. The cutting lab may consist of one teenager flown up from the Dominican Republic alone in a room with a Cuisinart and a box of starch or paracetamol. It takes considerable skill to distribute the chemicals evenly throughout a package of drugs. Since a shot of heroin involves only the tiniest little pinch of the substance, you might tap into a part of the baggie that is all cutting agent, no drug—in which case you won’t get high. On the other hand, you could get a fentanyl-intensive pinch—in which case you will be found dead soon thereafter with the needle still sticking out of your arm. This is why fentanyl-linked deaths are, in some states, multiplying year on year. The federal CDC has lagged in reporting in recent years, but we can get a hint of the nationwide toll by looking at fentanyl deaths state by state. In Maryland, the first six months of 2015 saw 121 fentanyl deaths. In the first six months of 2016, the figure rose to 446.
Sometimes arrested or hospitalized users are surprised to find that what they thought was heroin was actually fentanyl. But there are addicts who swear they can tell what’s in the barrel of their needles. One in Rhode Island, whom we’ll call Gilberto, says heroin has a pleasant caramel brown tint, like the last sip of Coca-Cola in a glass. Fentanyl is clear. And many addicts claim they can recognize the high. “Fentanyl just hits you. Hard,” Gilberto says. “But it’s got no legs on it. It lasts about two hours. Heroin will hold you.” This makes fentanyl a distinctly inconvenient drug, but many addicts prefer it. All dealers, at least around Rhode Island, describe their heroin as “the fire,” in the same way all chefs describe their ribs as so tender they just fall off the bone.
“I knew we were screwed, as a state and as a country,” Jonathan Goyer says, “when I had a conversation with a kid who was going through withdrawals.” Although he had enough money to get safer drugs, the kid was going to wait through the sweats and the diarrhea and the nausea until his dealer came in at 5 p.m. That would allow him to risk his life on fentanyl.
Those in heroin’s grip often say: “There are only two kinds of people—the ones I get money from and the ones I give money to.” A man who is dead to his wife and his children may be desperate to make a connection with his dealer. They don’t buy much besides heroin—perhaps a plastic cup of someone else’s drug-free urine on a day when they need to take a drug test for a hospital or employer. This will set them back twenty or thirty dollars. In addiction, as in more mainstream endeavors, the lords of hedonism are the slaves of money. Gilberto in Rhode Island claims to have put a million dollars into each of his needle-pocked arms, at the rate of three fifty-bag “bricks” of heroin a day.
Dealers are businessmen and behave like businessmen, albeit heavily armed ones. They may “throw something” to a particularly reliable customer—that is, give him enough heroin from time to time to allow him to deal a bit on his own account and stay solvent. An addict who discovers that the 10mg pills he is paying $18 each for in Maine are available for $10 in Boston, a three-hour drive away, may be tempted to sell them to support his own habit. The line between users and pushers blurs, rendering impractical the policy that most people prefer—be merciful to drug users, but come down hard on dealers.
Addicts wake up “sick,” which is the word they use for the tremulous, damp, and terrifying experience of withdrawal. They need to “make money,” which is their expression for doing something illegal. Some neighborhood bodegas—the addicts know which ones—will pay 50 cents on the dollar for anything stolen from CVS. That is why razor blades, printer cartridges, and other expensive portable items are now kept under lock and key where you shop. Addicts shoplift from Home Depot and drag things from the loading docks. They pull off scams. They will scavenge for thrown-out receipts in trash cans outside an appliance store, enter the store, find the receipted item, and try to return it for cash. On the edge of the White Mountains in Maine, word spread that the policy at Hannaford, the dominant supermarket chain, was not to dispute returns of under $25. For a while, there was a run on the big cans of extra virgin olive oil that sold for $24.99, which were brought to the cash registers every day by a succession of men and women who did not, at first sight, look like connoisseurs of Mediterranean cuisine. Women prostitute themselves on Internet sites. Others go into hospital emergency rooms, claiming a desperately painful toothache that can be fixed only with some opioid. (Because if pain is a “fifth vital sign,” it is the only one that requires a patient’s own testimony to measure.) This is generally repeated until the pain-sufferer grows familiar enough to the triage nurses to get “red-flagged.”
The population of addicts is like the population of deer. It is highest in rustic places with access to urban supplies. Missouri’s heroin problem is worst in the rural counties near St. Louis. New Hampshire’s is worst in the small cities and towns an hour or so away from the drug markets of Massachusetts: Lawrence, Lowell, and Boston. But the opioid epidemic of the past decade is unusually diverse. Anchor’s emergency room clients are 82 percent white, 9 percent Hispanic, and 6 percent black. The state of Rhode Island is 85 percent white, 9 percent Hispanic, and 5 percent black. “I try to target outreach,” Goyer says, “but the demographics are too random for that.”
Drug addiction used to be a ghetto thing. Now Oxycodone has joined shuttered factories and Donald Trump as a symbol of white working-class desperation and fecklessness. The reaction has been unsympathetic. Writes Nadja Popovich in The Guardian: “Some point to this change in racial and economic demographics as one reason many politicians have re-evaluated the tough ‘war on drugs’ rhetoric of the past 30 years.”
The implicit accusation is that only now that whites are involved have racist authorities been roused to act. This is false in two ways. First, authorities have not been roused to act. Second, when they do, they will have epidemiological, and not just tribal, grounds for doing so. A plague afflicting an entire country, across ethnic groups, is by definition more devastating than a plague afflicting only part of it. A heroin scourge in America’s housing projects coincided with a wave of heroin-addicted soldiers brought back from Vietnam, with a cost peaking between 1973 and 1975 at 1.5 overdose deaths per 100,000. The Nixon White House panicked. Curtis Mayfield wrote his soul ballad “Freddie’s Dead.” The crack epidemic of the mid- to late 1980s was worse, with a death rate reaching almost two per 100,000. George H. W. Bush declared war on drugs. The present opioid epidemic is killing 10.3 people per 100,000, and that is without the fentanyl-impacted statistics from 2016. In some states it is far worse: over thirty per 100,000 in New Hampshire and over forty in West Virginia.
In 2015, the Princeton economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case released a paper showing that the life expectancy of middle-aged white people was falling. Prominent among the causes cited were “the increased availability of opioid prescriptions for pain” and the falling price and rising potency of heroin. Census figures show that Case and Deaton had put the case mildly: Life expectancy was falling for all whites. Although they are the only racial group to have experienced a decline in longevity—other races enjoyed steep increases—there are still enough whites in the United States that this meant longevity fell for the country as a whole.
Bill Clinton alluded to the Case-Deaton study often during his wife’s presidential campaign. He would say that poor white people are “dying of a broken heart.” Heroin has become a symbol of both working-class depravity and ruling-class neglect—an explosive combination in today’s political climate.
Maine’s politicians have taken the opioid epidemic as seriously as any in the country. Various new laws have capped the maximum daily strength of prescribed opioids and limited prescriptions to seven days. The levels are so low that they have led some doctors to warn that patients will go onto the street to get their dosages topped off. “We were sad,” State Representative Phyllis Ginzler said in January, “to have to come between doctor and patient.” She felt the deadly stakes of Maine’s problem gave her little alternative.
Paul LePage, the state’s garrulous governor, has been even more direct. Speaking of drug dealers at a town hall in rural Bridgton in early 2016, he said: “These are guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty, these types of guys. They come from Connecticut and New York, they come up here, they sell their heroin, they go back home. Incidentally, half the time they impregnate a young white girl before they leave.” This is what the politics of heroin threatens to become nationwide: To break the bureaucratic inertia, one side will go to any rhetorical length, even invoking race. To protect governing norms, the other side will invoke decency, even as the damage mounts. It is what the politics of everything is becoming nationwide. From town to town across the country, the correlation of drug overdoses and the Trump vote is high.
The drug problem is already political. It is being reframed by establishment voices as a problem of minority rights and stigmatization. A documentary called The Anonymous People casts the country’s 20 million addicts as a subculture or “community” who have been denied resources and self-respect. In it, Patrick Kennedy, who was Rhode Island’s congressman until 2011 and who was treated for OxyContin addiction in 2006, says: “If we can ever tap those 20 million people in long-term recovery, you’ve changed this overnight.” What’s needed is empowerment. Another interviewee says, “I refuse to be ashamed of what I am.”
This marks a big change in attitudes. Difficult though recovery from addiction has always been, it has always had this on its side: It is a rigorously truth-focused and euphemism-free endeavor, something increasingly rare in our era of weasel words. The face of addiction a generation ago was that of the working-class or upper-middle-class man, probably long and intimately known to his neighbors, who stood up at an AA meeting in a church basement and bluntly said, “Hi, I’m X, and I’m an alcoholic.”
The culture of addiction treatment that prevails today is losing touch with such candor. It is marked by an extraordinary level of political correctness. Several of the addiction professionals interviewed for this article sent lists of the proper terminology to use when writing about opioid addiction, and instructions on how to write about it in a caring way. These people are mostly generous, hard-working, and devoted. But their codes are neither scientific nor explanatory; they are political.
The director of a Midwestern state’s mental health programs emailed a chart called “‘Watch What You Call Me’: The Changing Language of Addiction and Mental Illness,” compiled by the Boston University doctor Richard Saltz. It is a document so Orwellian that one’s first reaction is to suspect it is a parody, or some kind of “fake news” dreamed up on a cynical website. We are not supposed to say “drug abuse”; use “substance use disorder” instead. To say that an addict’s urine sample is “clean” is to use “words that wound”; better to say he had a “negative drug test.” “Binge drinking” is out—“heavy alcohol use” is what you should say. Bizarrely, “attempted suicide” is deemed unacceptable; we need to call it an “unsuccessful suicide.” These terms are periphrastic and antiscientific. Imprecision is their goal. Some of them (like the concept of a “successful suicide”) are downright insane. This habit of euphemism and propaganda is not merely widespread. It is official. In January 2017, less than two weeks before the end of the last presidential administration, drug office head Michael Botticelli issued a memo called “Changing the Language of Addiction,” a similarly fussy list of officially approved euphemisms.
Residents of the upper-middle-class town of Marblehead, Massachusetts, were shocked in January when a beautiful twenty-four-year-old woman who had excelled at the local high school gave an interview to the New York Times in which she described her heroin addiction. They were perhaps more shocked by her description of the things she had done to get drugs. A week later, the police chief announced that the town had had twenty-six overdoses and four deaths in the past year. One of these, the son of a fireman, died over Labor Day. At the burial, a friend of the dead man overdosed and was rushed to the hospital. One fireman there said to a mourner that this was not uncommon: Sometimes, at the scene of an overdose, they will find a healthy- and alert-looking companion and bring him along to the hospital too, assuming he might be standing up only because the drug hasn’t hit him yet. In communities like this, concerns about “hurtful” words and stigma can seem beside the point.
Former Bush administration drug czar John Walters and two other scholars wrote last fall, “There is another type of ‘stigma’ afflicting drug users—that their crisis is somehow undeserving of the full resources necessary for their rescue.” Walters is talking largely about law enforcement. As he said more recently: “If someone were getting food poisoning from cans of tuna, the whole way we’re doing this would be more aggressive.”
Which is not the direction we’re going. In state after state, voters have chosen to liberalize drug laws regarding marijuana. If you want an example of mass media–induced groupthink, Google the phrase “We cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem” and count the number of politicians who parrot it. It is true that we cannot arrest our way out of a drug problem. But we cannot medicate and counsel our way out of it, either, and that is what we have been trying to do for almost a decade.
Calling addiction a disease usefully describes certain measurable aspects of the problem—particularly tolerance and withdrawal. It fails to capture what is special and dangerous about the way drugs bind with people’s minds. Almost every known disease is something people wish to be rid of. Addiction is different. Addicts resist known cures—even to the point of death. If you do not reckon with why addicts go to such lengths to continue suffering, you are unlikely to figure out how to treat them. This turns out to be an intensely personal matter.
Medical treatment plays an obvious role in addressing the heroin epidemic, especially in the efforts to save those who have overdosed or helping addicts manage their addictions. But as an overall approach, it partakes of some of the same fallacies as its supposed opposite, “heartless” incarceration. Both leave out the addict and his drama. Medicalizing the heroin crisis may not stigmatize him, but it belittles him. Moral condemnation is an incomplete response to the addict. But it has its place, because it does the addict the compliment of assuming he has a conscience, a set of thought processes. Those thought processes are what led him into his artificial hell. They are his best shot at finding a way out.
In 1993, Francis F. Seeburger, a professor of philosophy at the University of Denver, wrote a profound book on the thought processes of addicts called Addiction and Responsibility. We tend to focus on the damage addiction does. A cliché among empathetic therapists, eager to describe addiction as a standard-issue disease, is that “no one ever decides to become an addict.” But that is not exactly true, Seeburger shows. “Something like an addiction to addiction plays a role in all addiction,” he writes. “Addiction itself . . . is tempting; it has many attractive features.” In an empty world, people have a need to need. Addiction supplies it. “Addiction involves the addict. It does not present itself as some externally imposed condition. Instead, it comes toward the addict as the addict’s very self.” Addiction plays on our strengths, not just our failings. It simplifies things. It relieves us of certain responsibilities. It gives life a meaning. It is a “perversely clever copy of that transcendent peace of God.”
The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous thought there was something satanic about addiction. The mightiest sentence in the book of Alcoholics Anonymous is this: “Remember that we deal with alcohol—cunning, baffling, powerful!” The addict is, in his own, life-damaged way, rational. He’s too rational. He is a dedicated person—an oblate of sorts, as Seeburger puts it. He has commitments in another, nether world.
That makes addiction a special problem. The addict is unlikely ever to take seriously the counsel of someone who has not heard the call of that netherworld. Why should he? The counsel of such a person will be, measured against what the addict knows about pleasure and pain, uninformed. That is why Twelve Step programs and peer-to-peer counseling, of the sort offered by Goyer and his colleagues, have been an indispensable element in dragging people out of addiction. They have authority. They are, to use the street expression, legit.
The deeper problem, however, is at once metaphysical and practical, and we’re going to have a very hard time confronting it. We in the sober world have, for about half a century, been renouncing our allegiance to anything that forbids or commands. Perhaps this is why, as this drug epidemic has spread, our efforts have been so unavailing and we have struggled even to describe it. Addicts, in their own short-circuited, reductive, and destructive way, are armed with a sense of purpose. We aren’t. It is not a coincidence that the claims of political correctness have found their way into the culture of addiction treatment just now. This sometimes appears to be the only grounds for compulsion that the non-addicted part of our culture has left.
Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard.