Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ph.D.

Schaler, J.A. (1989, June 26). Drug use is a choice, not a disease.
The Washington Post, Letters to the Editor, p. A10.

National drug policy director William Bennett's remarks on June 6 in San Diego are most revealing ["For the Record," June 16]. Mr. Bennett states that those who advocate drug legalization ignore "the proven utility of legal sanctions as a spur to abstention." He chooses to ignore the fact that although drug use is prohibited in our prisons, which are maximum enforcement efforts or police states, it is also rampant. Indeed, prohibition is positively correlated with drug use and criminal activity.

He also states that legalization advocates fail "to take adequate measure of the psychology of mid- and high-severity drug addiction." I believe it is Mr. Bennett who needs a lesson in psychology. He betrays the unsound philosophy of the addictions treatment industry, which views drug use as a putative disease, devoid of volitional intentionality.

According to Mr. Bennett, the "addict is a man or woman whose power to exercise . . . rational volition has . . . been seriously eroded by drugs, and whose life is instead organized largely -- even exclusively -- around the pursuit and satisfaction of his addiction." If the addict's power to exercise rational volition is seriously eroded, on what basis does the addict organize life "largely -- even exclusively -- around the pursuit and satisfaction of his or her addiction"? This act of organizing, like the act of drug abstention, is conscious, volitional and intentional. The difference between a person who chooses to use drugs and one who does not is primarily a difference in values.

Mr. Bennett and his cohorts give the drug user essentially two options: treatment or jail. If the drug user is "sick," i.e., is not responsible for his behavior, why should he go to jail for his illness? If the drug user is someone who chooses to use drugs because he finds meaning in doing so, why should he be forced into "treatment"? Treatment for what? For having different values?

"User accountability" is another of Mr. Bennett's contradictory policies. If accountability must be instilled, then theoretically those who are not held accountable "by some external pressure, legal or otherwise" are using drugs without consequence. However, the reality is that drug use brings its own consequences. Mr. Bennett's policy teaches that unless accountability is instilled there are no consequences to drug use. He defeats the purpose of drug education, which urges people to make wise choices regarding drug use in light of its psychological and physiological consequences.

Finally, Mr. Bennett says that "among the most unanimous and vehement opponents of drug decriminalization and destigmatization are drug-treatment professionals themselves," who argue "that the removal of sanctions against drugs . . . would most likely increase the overall addict population, and decrease the overall number of addicts entering treatment."

Decreased number of addicts entering treatment due to decriminalization? This concern is hardly surprising. The addictions treatment industry objects to decriminalization on the same grounds that illegal drug dealers do: money.

Drug-treatment professionals as vehement opponents of destigmatization? I suspect they may publicly disagree with Mr. Bennett on this point. They consider themselves to be vehement opponents of stigmatization. But Mr. Bennett's slip reveals their true attitude. Treatment professionals view drug users as sick; Mr. Bennett views them as criminal. Both labels are derogatory. Treatment philosophy emphasizing abhorrence of self and reliance on a "higher power" is the essence of moralism.

Silver Spring
The writer is a former chairman of the Montgomery County Drug Abuse Advisory Council.