David 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: