Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ph.D.

Schaler: 'Addiction is a choice'

Professor advocates personal freedoms, drug legalization


Eagle Contributing Writer

The Eagle (American University) February 14, 2000

Addiction: A condition in which individuals deliberately, and consciously engage in an activity that they are physically unable to stop themselves from pursuing. Is this a reasonable definition? Not according to adjunct School of Public Affairs professor Jeffrey Schaler.

In his new book "Addiction Is a Choice," Schaler contends that addiction is an oxymoron, since a "deliberate and conscious act" is controllable.

"We have this dominating belief that once you start using drugs, you can't stop," Schaler, a justice, law and society professor said. "Convention implies that people can't control their own behavior. An accurate definition just means you're devoted to a particular activity, good or bad. We're all addicted to things, like school, work or even love."

"Addiction Is a Choice" is a culmination of research that Schaler began 18 years ago as a member of the Montgomery County Drug Abuse Advisory Council. As Chairman, he was able to wield considerable power to influence county and state drug policy. He received his doctoral degree for studying addiction theories from the University of Maryland - College Park. He has since attempted to change the way that people perceive the idea of drug addiction.

The notion of addiction as an uncontrollable activity is so pervasive in society that people are being conditioned to think that they cannot help themselves, he said.

"Common sense, or what I refer to as self-efficacy, dictates that the more you believe you can do something, the more likely you will be able to do it," he said. "We should be teaching people that they can control themselves."

Schaler said he believes First Amendment rights are being limited because government policy dictates that drug users be forced into treatment such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

"People are being coerced into adopting religious-like principles in these classes, a clear violation of the First Amendment," he said.

Schaler also said he supports the total repeal of government drug regulation. "The fact is, many people use drugs and are oka," he said. "We allow all kinds of risky activities and value sports in which people are harmed. The notion that you can accept the consequences in one area but not another [such as drugs] is hypocritical - freedom should be extended to all areas."

He is careful to point out that he opposes the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes because it implies that marijuana should be regulated.

"The medicalization of drugs is simply a euphemism for government regulation."

"You do not have a right to harm others," he said. "It's irrelevant whether drugs or alcohol are involved in my infringement on another's personal freedoms - my right to swing my fist ends precisely at my neighbor's nose."

Schaler's believes have caused controversy in several different circles, even before "Addiction Is a Choice" was published. Chestnut Hill College, located near Philadelphia, did not renew his contract due to student [and faculty] protests over his teachings. Schaler also received a call from the White House's Office of Drug Control Policy in the fall of 1998.

"They basically asked me 'What in the world are you teaching your students?' and wanted to set up a meeting with me. Fortunately, nothing ever came of it," he said.

The incident is a prime example of the popular tendency to misconstrue Schaler's teachings. He maintains that he is "very much opposed" to drug usage. "People most commonly use drugs to put aside other things in their lives that they don't want to deal with," he said. "But they should be able to make that choice themselves, and as upsetting as it is, be allowed to destroy themselves."

Such controversy has generated media attention. "Addiction Is a Choice," was named "Freedom Book of the Month, [an interview appeared in], and Schaler has been a guest on several radio and television shows, including the Public Broadcasting Service series "Beyond Computers." He frequently debates his beliefs on televised programs and has "become somewhat of a regular" to assure a controversial viewpoint.

Schaler is a psychologist and consultant on addiction and social policy at his private practice in Silver Spring, Md. He teaches psychology at Johns Hopkins University and has edited two other books: Drugs: Should We Legalize, Decriminalize, or Deregulate?" and "Smoking: Who Has the Right?" An AU faculty member for the past 10 years, he currently teaches Drugs, Consciousness and Human Fulfillment.

"Everyone at American has always been very protective and supportive of my academic freedom," Schaler said. "College is about learning from different perspectives and taking in opposing viewpoints, something that should never be restricted."