February 15th, 2010 5:33 pm | by Leah Dimatteo News | Posted In: CLEAN UP

Dr. Gabor Maté Brings His War on the War on Drugs to Reed College

Gabor Mate. Reed 2/12/2010

Gabor Maté is an MD whose practice at Vancouver BC's Portland Hotel Society involves treating patients challenged by life-threatening drug addictions, mental illness, Hepatitis C or HIV.

As part of his tour for the release of his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Maté, sponsored by the ACLU of Oregon and the Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, spoke at Reed College on Friday night. His lecture, called “Understanding Addiction and Advocating for Reform,” debunked the widespread beliefs that addiction is genetically linked or that it is simply a disease of choice.

According to Maté, addiction is any stress-induced behavior with negative consequences, yet a person still craves it, relapses from it, and derives short-term pleasure from it. Anything from drug dependency to workaholism to excessive gambling, Maté says, can be considered addictions. And overwhelming scientific evidence supports the claim, he says, that addictive behaviors cannot be fully explained by genetics or as a disorder of choice.

“The genetic hypothesis takes us off the hook as a society,” Maté says, “If [addiction] is genetic, than we as a society are not responsible for it. It [the genetic hypothesis] is an explanation of the way things are that doesn't threaten the way things are.”

Maté argues instead that addictive behavior is the result of trauma and environmental stressors such as abuse or parental neglect during the critical developmental stages during childhood.

In the absence of an adult nurturer, children must develop mechanisms to self-soothe, Maté says. Essentially, drug addiction for such people is a form of self-medication that relieves stress and alleviates deep-seated physical and emotional pain. Without drugs, such addicts feel no sense of pain relief, no sense of pleasure and reward, and no sense of connection, which makes life feel extremely miserable and lonely.

For Maté, the existing system for dealing with drugs and addiction is backwards. Criminalization and punitive measures only worsens the addict's already vulnerable condition. “If the biggest driver of addiction and relapse is stress,” Maté says, “then who devised the system that stresses the addicted to the max? The law creates the crime, and the crime creates the criminal…In effect, the system prosecutes and punishes people for being abused in the first place”

His solution? Maté proposes decriminalization of drug use and compassionate, holistic therapy in place of prison sentences and social ostracization. He points to Portugal as a real-life example to support his claim that such solutions would lead to a decrease in disease transmission and fewer incarcerated individuals. “The question is not how do we treat the disease," he says. "But how do we help the person develop?”
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