With Friends Like David Sheff…

David SheffDavid Sheff is the author of Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy. It only came out today, so I haven’t read it. Of course, I’m not going to. As regular readers could have predicted, I bristled when I heard the title of the book. Who can reasonably say that addiction is “America’s greatest tragedy”? Have we forgotten about slavery? Or the genocide of the Native Americans? Or more recently, what about our drone attacks on civilians in Afghanistan? These strike me as distinctly greater tragedies than addiction. And right on point: what about the tragedy of those who are greatly harmed and even killed by the drug laws?

I understand that Sheff is what we would call a liberal. He wants to limit some of he harm done by our drug laws. But he still buys into the same old lies about drug use being a terrible problem that we must do something about. The book claims to be a myth-shattering look at drug abuse” that is based on the “latest research in psychology, neuroscience, and medicine.” But the latest research on drug use indicates that it is not a disease any more than other human behaviors. What is perhaps most telling is that the book’s description starts with, “Addiction is a preventable, treatable disease, not a moral failing.” But the very word “addiction” makes the whole discussion moral. There is a scientific definition of the word “addict,” but the way that Sheff uses the word, all it means is, “Someone who does drugs I don’t approve of in quantities I don’t approve of.”

The author was on The Last Word yesterday. Lawrence O’Donnell made a comment that floored me, “You want marijuana to be legalized. You also think it can be harmful.” This sent Sheff off on a discussion of how children should not use cannabis because it affects their development. I agree with that. Children shouldn’t use drugs, and in fact (Sheff did not mention this), having drugs illegal actually makes them easier for kids to obtain. But my problem with this comment has nothing to do with kids.

All human behaviors are risky. You can die from drinking too much water. It is only in the realm of drugs (because we approach them moralistically) that people expect that behaviors should have no danger before we let others do them. And that is the problem with people like David Sheff. They want drugs to be less dangerous. They want others to be less moralistic about their use. But they can’t get past their belief that drugs are uniquely dangerous because they think drug use is a moral issue. They’ve come to believe that drug addiction is not a moral issue by medicalizing it and turning it into a disease. But they still maintain the moral paradigm of drug use. They’ve just invented a disease that causes people to act “immoral.”

Sometimes, allies are worse than enemies. When it comes to the fight against the drug war, in the long term David Sheff and Lawrence O’Donnell are such allies.


Here is the interview:

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “With Friends Like David Sheff…

  1. I listened to his interview on Fresh Air and couldn’t agree more. Sheff is a prototypical hyper sensitive parent who equates drug use with addiction. The type that is always throwing their hands up in the air and screaming "Think of the children!" This, despite the fact that he used drugs during his youth and never became addicted. At one point he said that only 1 in 10 kids who smoke pot will become addicts, but then later recommends that all people refrain from smoking pot until age 25.

    Obviously the man is traumatized from his experiences with his son, but the sad thing is that much of his own behavior sounds like enabling. He is as addicted to his child ash his child is addicted to drugs.

  2. A. Smith – Add to that the fact that addiction isn’t the worst thing in the world. Loads of people are addicted to caffeine and they manage just fine. I’ve gotten over minding that people understand nothing about drugs. But when they are writing about? When they claim to be liberals? It’s a joke.

  3. Sheff = my mum (not always a great thing), although of course mum > Sheff Great post!

    I fell asleep last night thinking about something like this. Addiction as a disease isn’t supposed to be about weakness or whatever, but that’s nonetheless how it’s implicitly treated. A weakness, defect, the definition of weakness.

    Of course I beg to differ. I forget where I was going with that though… but hey, at least you’re getting closer to the criticism of "addiction" and the recovery industry that I so often prod you to write more about. Or have, in the recent past :)

    Sorry to hear about the spam at HH blog’s, but oh well. One blogs enough, and you can do just as well writing here are you can there (and, in fact, do).

  4. @Mike – Yeah, sorry I didn’t get back to you. I did get your email. I’m just not sure what I have to say. Now is the time to write a book on it. The non-disease industry is starting to take off.

    One blog may be too much. I question the point except to waste a bunch of time…

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