Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ph.D.

Colorado Daily, Boulder, September 24, 2003

A choice or a disease?

By MEAGAN BALINK Colorado Daily Campus Editor

Psychologist and author Jeffrey Schaler is scheduled to make a proclamation to the campus community tonight that has already rocked the American medical and mental health establishments.

In his talk "Addiction is a Choice: The blame game, drug war and other horrors," Schaler will tell the Princeton Review's number-one party school that drug and alcohol addiction is based on choice and is not a medical disease.

"Just because you take a drug and it has a particular effect doesn't mean you needed that particular drug, just because it makes you feel better," says Schaler. "That is a lie perpetuated by pharmaceutical companies, psychiatrists and psychologists that believe this."

Schaler, who believes in abolishing drug prohibition by legalizing street drugs such as cocaine and marijuana, says people have the right to put whatever they want in their bodies and minds, so long as they don't hurt other people in the process.

Brian Schwartz, an officer with Campus Libertarians, which is sponsoring Schaler's visit, says the psychologist's perspective is particularly relevant to the CU community, given recent clamor over the Princeton Review ranking.

"We want to bring in speakers who add libertarian ideas and support freedom, but are interesting to students," Schwartz said.

Schwartz says the importance of Schaler's talk is to educate students on an alternative perspective concerning drugs and alcohol.

"A lot of students are opposed to drug prohibition, which is a Libertarian stance," said Schwartz, "yet a lot of them may believe addiction is a disease."

However, Bob Maust, director of CU's alcohol education program "A Matter of Degree," believes the issue is more complicated.

"The concept that it (drug abuse) is strictly each individual's choice doesn't seem to me to square with some of the other elements at play in our society," Maust said. "We know that people sometimes know the information (effects of drugs and alcohol), but they are not acting on the information because there are other things at play."

Schaler says society uses the disease model as a scapegoat for people who choose to make bad decisions that hurt themselves or others.

"I don't mean to assert in my positions that people are weak in their character because they take a certain drug," says Schaler. "I don't think any drugs are safe or dangerous - drugs are inert - it all depends on how you use a substance."

Schaler says people use illegal drugs for reasons similar to those for which they use prescription drugs, such as anti-depressants or mood stabilizers.

"People aren't liking their life, so they change the lens of perception," says Schaler. "Changing the lens doesn't mean there is necessarily something wrong (medically)."

However, Maust adds that advertising and messages sent to consumers by alcohol and tobacco companies play a huge role in influencing a person's decisions.

"When you make your own choices, where is the information you are getting?" says Maust, pointing to commercial campaigns of companies like Anheuser-Busch. "It is a one way conversation to the consumer."

Both Schaler and Schwarz say people are fed lies that they are enslaved to drugs like alcohol.

"Our nervous systems are genetically built so that we are predisposed to certain things," says Schaler. "That's not the same thing as saying, 'My genes made me go to this party or my genes made me take this drug.'"

While there is no medical "test," such as a blood test, to determine whether a person is considered an alcoholic, Maust says such findings are still a possibility.

"I think we are still in the discovery stages on that," says Maust of genetic links to drug and alcohol addiction. "We have some major international research being done at CU as to what are the genetic links..."

Maust adds that when a person starts manifesting certain destructive behaviors in relation to alcohol or drugs, labels become irrelevant anyway.

"When we talk about the question of will, at some point (illegal) drugs can interfere with a person's ability to think clearly," says Maust. "It often happens so quickly and so powerfully that it takes them away from a rational discourse with themselves."

While Schaler and Schwartz agree that any kind of drug affects a person if not used responsibly, they point to a larger issue of social norms.

"The bigger picture is that they (society) want to demonize an inanimate object because it is hard to accept that individual people make poor decisions," says Schwartz. "It is politically easier to say 'Let's ban this drug.' What they are really doing is persecuting a minority of people that use these things."

Schwartz said Schaler's presentation will have a wide appeal because it relates not only to science but history, sociology and economic policy.

"The really interesting thing about the talk is that it spans a lot of disciplines," said Schwartz. "People can see how these ideas propagate through to policy."

Schaler, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C., says the college environment is the perfect place for a discussion of ideas such as alcohol and drug use.

"A lot of time the college environment is dictated by political correctness," says Schaler. "College is a place where you should challenge your professor and look at things from all different angles ... not be told what to believe."