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Will treating addiction as a 'disease' combat a growing epidemic?

June 12, 2012|By Alexandra Le Tellier
  • For nearly 40 years scientists have been working on vaccines against all kinds of addictions, including nicotine, marijuana and alcohol.
For nearly 40 years scientists have been working on vaccines against all… (Illustration by Wes Bausmith…)

Should drug addiction be considered a disease, or will thinking about addiction in this way only further enable drug users by convincing them that they're powerless?

Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the National Drug Control Policy and President Obama’s top drug policy advisor, believes so, saying that addiction should be treated as a public health issue. Kerlikowske addressed the issue from the Betty Ford Center in Palm Springs on Monday, calling for more accessible rehabilitation and recovery programs.

Morgan Little elaborated on Politics Now: "Previous federal drug policies were a three-legged stool, Kerlikowske said, with criminalization, prevention and treatment serving as the foundation for national policies. Now, there will be a fourth leg -- recovery. […] The proposed access includes a voucher system to allow not only those recovering to pay for treatment, but also would pay for costs such as transitional housing, child care and work-appropriate clothing."

The thinking at MusiCares Foundation and Map Fund, which help music people with emergency financial assistance and addiction recovery resources, concurs with the idea that addiction is a disease. "The shame around addiction is -- simply put -- a barrier to treatment and recovery," Neil Portnow, president and CEO of the Recording Academy and its MusiCares Foundation, told the Los Angeles Times in an email Tuesday. "In fact, we just hosted a panel in conjunction with our annual MusiCares MAP Fund benefit focused on removing the stigma of addiction."

Neuroscientist Marc Lewis, on the other hand, has a hard time accepting the idea that addiction is a disease. It can act "like a disease," writes Lewis, a former drug addict, on a website for his new book "Memoirs of an Addicted Brain." He continues: "If you are tuned into the helplessness, the insidious, relentless growth of addiction, if you see addiction as something that takes over one’s body, one's mind, maybe one’s soul, then the disease model is going to be meaningful to you." The problem with that line of thinking, according to Lewis, is that it comes with the implication that "'you' can't do anything about it -- at least not without help."

Whatever side of this debate you fall on, it's hard to disagree with Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Palm Springs), who argues that more must be done to curb a growing epidemic. Introducing Kerlikowske on Monday, Bono Mack said: "Today, two classes of medicines -- painkillers and insomnia and anxiety drugs -- are responsible for about 70 deaths and nearly 3,000 emergency room visits a day.  These are alarming numbers.  As a nation, we must do more to combat this growing public health epidemic."

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Follow Alexandra Le Tellier on Twitter @alexletellier. Follow Opinion L.A. on Twitter and Facebook.

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