Recently a neuroscientist discovered he was a psychopath. He was studying the brain scans of psychopaths, and intended to use some brain scans of family members and one of himself for the control group. Now one of the brain scans from the control group show clear signs of psychopathy, so he thought he must have misplaced it. He checked the reference number, and found out it was his own brain! This came as a total surprise to him, he never showed any signs of psychopathy, yet, he was very convinced that if his brain scan showed similarities with that of psychopaths, he must be a psychopath himself. Retrospectively his wife admitted that she thought he had some of the signs like lacking in empathy, and he found some famous murderers in his family. Instead of hiding this intimate fact about himself, he wrote a book about it, showing how amazing brain scans are. His book argued that brain scans can detect a psychopath like him, who never had any compelling symptoms of psychopathy. Continue reading
A new study among students, found that those who smoked cannabis performed better academically than their tobacco smoking, stigmatized peers. The study has been collecting data among students (8,331 in total) in grade 7,9 and 11 for 30 years, and noticed the following trends. While the use of tobacco around the 90ties decreased, the use of cannabis increased. While the use of tobacco became increasingly associated with a slow and painful death due to cancer, the cry for legalization of cannabis for medicinal purposes (for example to treats side effects of cancer treatment) gave cannabis a more positive image. The study emphasizes that performing worse academically has nothing to do with the substance tobacco itself. Although it is well known that cannabis can effect one’s memory, no such effect is known about tobacco. The fact that tobacco users perform worse than cannabis users has all to do with changing social norms and the marginalizing of tobacco smokers. The study seems to suggest that it is a double effect: marginalized students will choose to smoke tobacco rather than cannabis, but this will marginalize them further. Students who use marijuana are more like the general population, so perform better academically than the marginalized group. Instead of zooming in on the effects of marginalization of tobacco smokers, the study chooses to warn again the normalization of cannabis use, which, according to the study, is a very dangerous substance, in many aspects as dangerous as tobacco. Non-users of tobacco or cannabis still perform better than cannabis users. The study wants to make a case against the legalization of cannabis.
Zinberg famously distinguished three aspects that determined the effect of a substance: the properties of the substance itself, the characteristics of the person taking them, and the social setting wherein the substance is taken. This study nicely illustrates the importance of setting, or social norms around substance use. It shows that setting determines more of the negative effects of the substance than the properties of the substance itself, and how hard it is to determine the negative effects of a substance separated from the social context. It shows that the attractiveness of certain substances is more determined by their social status than by their properties. Many studies have also shown that the effect of a substance in a vulnerable population is different than in a general population. The famous veteran study of Robins showed that Vietnam veterans who became dependent on heroin in Vietnam, had no problems giving up their habits once returned to the United States. The general population mostly succeeds better in the recreational or temporarily use of a substance, because they have more incentives to control their use, and less other problems to self-medicate for. Continue reading
In a fascinating paper presented at the St Cross Ethics Seminar in Oxford, on 27 March 2014, Professor Neil Levy (Oxford and Melbourne) sought to solve the following puzzle about addicts: on the one hand, addicts are thought to lack control, but on the other they appear to engage in the kind of reason-responsive behaviour typical of rational agents (for example, many addicts for a small financial incentive will avoid the objects to which they are addicted).
Levy’s central claim was that addicts do lack control, but that this lack of control consists in a lack of control over belief-formation, leading to a change of mind – or ‘judgement-shift’. So addicts are rational in so far as they are acting on the basis of their current beliefs about what is best for them. Continue reading
A Dutch program pays chronic alcoholics in beer for cleaning the streets and parks. A Canadian homeless shelter provides their alcohol clients with six ounces of white wine every 90 minutes. Giving alcohol to alcoholics, it seems counterproductive from a ‘just say no’ perspective, but I would like to argue that it makes sense on many levels.
The strongest case for giving alcohol to people with chronic alcohol dependence is based on the principle of ‘harm reduction’. Canadian ‘wet-shelter’ programs have emerged for two main reasons. The first is that many homeless shelters are abstinence based which means inveterate drinks would continue to sleep rough, even in freezing winter months, resulting in tragic deaths. The second reason is that chronic inebriates often consume non-beverage alcohol like hand sanitizer, mouth wash and aftershave thereby exacerbating already severe health problems. A recent study by the Centre for Addictions Research found that a “managed alcohol program” approach reduced emergency hospital visits and arrests among participants at the Kwae Kii Win Centre Managed Alcohol Centre by 40-80%. Significant changes among program participants included an improvement in accommodation renewed contact with their families, and better diet. Whilst participants still receive their alcohol throughout the day the alcohol is given by staff in controlled doses at fixed intervals. The dose is enough to prevent withdrawal symptoms, but not high enough to cause intoxication. Although there are many formal harm reduction programs for heroin users, it is less common for people who are alcohol dependent, despite the fact that withdrawing from alcohol can be lethal. Continue reading
This week, I’ve been thinking about smoking. Full disclosure: My name is Jim and I am a smoker. I have smoked for nearly a decade now – since around 2005 – and I only smoke menthol cigarettes. I am addicted to the sweet menthol smoke, where that touch of red fire at the end of a white stick seems so perfectly suited to almost any occasion from celebration to commiseration. I give up on average for a month or two a year, every year. I always come back, though. The reason I say this is to highlight that I am by no means one of these dour-faced moralizers, condemning smokers for their ‘filthy habit’. Like a snot-nosed child, it may be filthy, but it’s my filthy habit. Most efforts to encourage people against smoking focus on the idea that smoking is personally damaging: it causes illness and death, it costs a lot of money, it harms others, it litters the environment, and so on. This week, however, I’ve been thinking about whether the real concern is that smoking might be morally wrong. (NB: I’m discussing where whether it is morally wrong, not whether it should be legally banned or whether people should have the ‘right’ to smoke – these are distinct questions). Continue reading
The death of celebrities due to addiction: on helpful and unhelpful distinctions in destigmatising addiction
Philip Seymour Hoffman is dead. Probably due to an overdose of heroin. Hoffman didn’t have to die if he wasn’t so ashamed of his substance use that he did it in secrecy. Because he overdosed alone, no one could call an ambulance on him that would have probably saved his life. http://truth-out.org/news/item/21645-philip-seymour-hoffman-didnt-have-to-die#.UvAI48u3dcc.facebook Some are using the media attention surrounding his death to push for better drug laws. Some want to treat heroin addicts with heroin while some simply want to draw attention to a secret demographic: high educated, rich, white, middle age heroin users. Both attempts try to destigmatise heroin use. Continue reading
The laws that prohibit possession of certain drugs are ostensibly justified because they protect people from the health risks that are associated with uncontrolled or heavy use. Some have argued that criminalizing possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use is overly paternalistic (people should be free to make potentially risky choices as long as they don’t put others at risk) or even counterproductive (criminalizing drug use fuels a black market, many aspects of which present greater dangers to individual drug users and wider society). I find these arguments intuitively persuasive (although clear evidence would be needed to substantiate the claim that criminalization is in fact counterproductive).
So, if there is a justification for putting controls on personal drug use it seems that it ought to appeal solely to the physical and social harms that would result from a policy of drug liberalization. Such an approach is roughly reflected in the UK drug laws: the graded classification system, which determines the maximum penalty for possessing drugs in each class (A to C), considers only the harmfulness of the drug: punishment is linked to risk to health. Criminalization of drug use thus has nothing to do with a moral evaluation of this drug use.
However, a news story this month raises the question of whether moral considerations are sometimes playing a role in the sentencing of those convicted of possessing illegal drugs. Continue reading
It has been an interesting week awaiting the announced reforms on the alcohol laws in New South Wales, Australia. After another incident with alcohol fuelled violence where a young boy died due to an unprovoked single punch, the family of this young man, Thomas Kelly, submitted a petition asking for intoxication to be taken into account in sentencing as a mandatory aggravating factor, rather than a mitigating factor, which is now sometimes the case. While the government reflected on what to do about alcohol induced violence, the discussion in the media sparked up high.
1. Should intoxication be an aggravating or mitigating factor?
For a long time I wanted to go to Indonesia on a holiday, to see the rice fields, the buffalo’s and the wayang puppets. But for some reason it took me actually years to realize this. The reason why I didn’t go had nothing to do with practical difficulties: I had money, time, a travel companion, it was more a psychological threshold: the travel seemed so important to me that I felt I couldn’t just book it, I was thinking that people would find it decadent to just book a trip to Indonesia, and there always seemed to be some other travel destination that had more priority. Now this story became very popular in the news and on twitter. Luke Harding, a 19-year-old youngster went clubbing in the UK and woke up in the destination of his dreams, Paris.
Earlier this month, a BBC news magazine report explored a new, controversial drug law in Australia’s Northern Territory targeting alcohol problems among aboriginal people. In short, the new law entails that problem drinkers can be forced into treatment. Drinkers who go on to escape from rehab three times face a jail sentence. This will cost around $95m (US) over three years. The measure is presented in the article as an initiative that originates (at least partly) from the aboriginal community themselves, who are fed up with the effects of alcohol, in particular alcohol- related violence. Aboriginal people in the Alice Springs area are 31 times more likely to die from alcohol-related causes than other Australians.
So, as the article wonders, is forced rehab a solution for Australia’s aboriginal problem drinkers?