Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ph.D.

In The News

Lee Leonard, host of "Jersey's Talking," interviews Jeffrey A. Schaler on June 9, 2000 in Edison, New Jersey

Begin: 8:22 PM

LEE LEONARD: Many of us, and I include myself in that number, are really puzzled by the fact that many people can be, for example, purely social drinkers all of their lives, even dabble with some other drugs when they feel like it, and other people become "addicted." My next guest is Jeffrey Schaler, he's a psychologist, and he says simply, in the title of his book, addiction is a choice. Well, why would anybody choose it?

JEFF SCHALER: Well, there are all kinds of reasons. There's no one single reason why people may use drugs, or engage in any number of kinds of activities that could be constructive or destructive. The reasons are as diverse as the people themselves.

LEONARD: But you have to know, you can't know, up front, whether you are going to become addicted. I mean, I've been drinking all my life, one beer a week sometimes. You know, if I go to a party, a couple of highballs. That's the extent of it. I never became not only not addicted to alcohol, but I never even really liked it very much. It's a purely social function for me. Now, I didn't know that, when I had my first beer or my first glass of wine, that I could have become addicted, that I could have become an alcoholic. Luck of the draw?

SCHALER: . . . Not necessarily. There are probably more life circumstances that are involved in the reasons for why people drink in destructive ways than any kind of physiological or genetic or chemical properties of the drug that make people keep drinking or using drugs in destructive ways. So, people have different life situations, they cope with those life situations differently, and some people, for whatever reason, are more prone to rely on drugs, or engage in certain kinds of activities that are labeled as "addictive," as a way of avoiding dealing with life problems.

SCHALER: . . . No. . . .

LEONARD: . . . . to some degree? I mean the majority, it seems to me, come down on the other side of it, that you're sick, that it's a physical illness, that you can't do anything about it, until you come to me.

SCHALER: Right. . . . I am a member of a growing minority, and I hope people won't discriminate against us because we're a minority. . . . One of the reasons why my book is creating so much controversy right now is because it's exposing the myths about addiction - that it's a disease and that treatment "works." And regardless of what many people say, the scientific research shows that treatment for "addiction" is basically as effective as no treatment at all. So, we have to stick with the scientific findings and can't just build our policies, whether they're legal policies or clinical policies, based on anecdote.

LEONARD: But you know, as well as I do, that there are thousands, maybe tens or hundreds of thousands of people in the United States right now who are saying "I could not function if it wasn't for AA or some other twelve-step program." They were drinkers, they were druggers, they were whatever they were, and they've gotten into these programs and if not cured they are at least sober.

SCHALER: Well, that's a good point, and I certainly support the right of people to go to programs like Alcoholics Anonymous if they find them useful . . .

LEONARD: . . . Yeah . . .

SCHALER: . . . but, it's not the only way, and we shouldn't have an approach to helping people based on one model. Now, the fact of the matter is that Alcoholics Anonymous basically doesn't work as well as many people say it does. Many people drop out of the program. Many people recover from their addiction problems on their own - or they rely on alternative self-help groups that are focused on thinking in secular ways, that are focused on teaching people to drink responsibly. And, also, many people don't like AA because they consider it to be a form of Christian fundamentalism. So, we see court cases coming up where First Amendment rights are at stake. Where people are being ordered into Alcoholics Anonymous and similar programs when they object for the same reason that an atheist might object to going to a religious group.

LEONARD: I can understand that part of it, but, as I said before, there are many people that it has worked for. Now you're saying though that . . . now once you're an addict . . . OK? . . . Say . . . let's talk about an alcoholic, that's something I think a lot of people can put a handle on, because a lot of people have never seen a real drug addict close up . . . But an alcoholic who gets up in the morning and really feels a need to drink. He's an "addict." And he drinks all day. And it ruins his life. And you're saying he can just stop?

SCHALER: Well, I'm saying that the facts are that every single person who got into trouble with alcohol, heroin, tobacco, cocaine, every single person, when they stopped, they stopped because they made a choice to stop using.

LEONARD: Granted. I mean, it has to come from within.


LEONARD: But some people need somebody to help them get to that.

SCHALER: And I think that's fine if they want to do that. And I think that can be very useful. It isn't the ideas in Alcoholics Anonymous that helps people, it's more the community and the support network . . .

LEONARD: . . . Exactly . . .

SCHALER: . . . and there are many different approaches with different ideas. So, in my book, what I'm trying to do is discourage the "one size fits all" approach and encourage people to try different approaches which are spreading around the country at a remarkable rate right now.

LEONARD: Well, God bless them all . . . I mean, whatever works, I'm all for that.

SCHALER: We're in agreement.

LEONARD: But, on the other side of the coin, though, I have seen people who, to use the street language, are "strung out" on heroin.


LEONARD: Now these people are in physical pain if they don't have heroin periodically, the heroin that they need periodically. They can't think about quitting. All they can think about is getting high. How do we get them from "Box A" to "Box B?"

SCHALER: Well, we can't coerce them. We can't coerce them. We have to look at the scientific research that tells us the best predictors and the best explanations for heroin use. And I rely, in my book, on a very famous study that was done in 1973 of Vietnam Veterans, the largest study of confirmed heroin users ever conducted. It was done by the Department of Defense . . .

LEONARD: . . . . Because they were really there . . .

SCHALER: . . . they were in Southeast Asia. They were using heroin regularly. And what they found -- because they were commissioned by the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs to prepare for their return . . . they had to provide treatment facilities for all these people .-what they found was a remarkable thing, Lee. What they found was that 87 percent of all these confirmed heroin users gave up heroin as soon as they came back to this country. No treatment whatsoever.

LEONARD: Total change of behavior.

SCHALER: They came home . . . but that was a change in environment. It was a change in environment. And when they interviewed these people and they asked them "how did you give up heroin? . . . Did you use it in Vietnam because it was so available and cheap and we have drug prohibition here and that's why you didn't use it?" And they said "no, we could get heroin if we wanted to. We used heroin in Vietnam to cope with the horrors of our environment . . . "

LEONARD: . . . War . . .

SCHALER: . . . Exactly . . . "We came back home and we didn't need to do it anymore." But you see, if they had a "physical dependency," it shouldn't have made any difference if they changed environments.

LEONARD: But some guys came home and went from one hell to another . . .

SCHALER: . . . right, and many of those . . .

LEONARD: . . . And still to this day, twenty years later . . . twenty five years later . . . they still can't get over that experience because they're still in a bad place . . . .

SCHALER: . . . That's right, and that may be a very difficult problem to fix, but those are "life problems," those aren't medical diseases.

LEONARD: We're going to take a little break. We'll be right back with Jeffrey Schaler about addiction to talk more about addiction. . . . . I'm talking with Jeffrey Schaler, whose book is called "Addiction Is a Choice." And that's something, just that title, I'm sure shocks a lot of people because they think addiction is something that just comes on you.

SCHALER: Right. You know, not taking responsibility for your behavior is a popular notion today. And so, what I assert is that because addiction is a choice, you, ultimately, are the person who is responsible for what you do. v

LEONARD: How about peer pressure involved, say, in a person smoking marijuana. All his friends are smoking marijuana, he decides he's going to try to smoke marijuana. They all put it down and walk away from it . . . he all of a sudden says "gee I really want more of this" and then he progresses on to other drugs.

SCHALER: . . . Right . . .

LEONARD: . . . which is a horror story we've heard since day one . . . He didn't choose to be an addict. He just chose to be "one of the guys." It just happened to happen to him.

SCHALER: Well, that's not entirely true, Lee. First of all, the word "addict" is a label that we apply to someone. OK? So it isn't that someone chooses to be an "addict." What he chooses to do is use marijuana for any number of reasons. And he may do that in ways that end up ultimately to be destructive. And many people use - and I'm not encouraging the use of marijuana but the fact is many people use - marijuana and they don't go on to others drugs and they use marijuana and they are perfectly fine . . .

LEONARD: . . . . And it's a much more benign drug than alcohol, which is legal . . .

SCHALER: . . . It may be . . .

LEONARD: . . . I think . . .

SCHALER: . . . Yeah . . .

LEONARD: You know, what I was getting at is when you have that first drink, when you have that first marijuana cigarette, when you sniff that first cocaine, everybody starts out even. Nobody has ever had that in their system before. Some people develop a real craving for it . . . .

SCHALER: . . . Sure . . .

LEONARD: . . . and their life circumstances may be . . . . mine might be very similar to a guy who says all of a sudden he has to have it more and more and more and more. He may be fairly well-to-do. He may be, I don't know whether happy or unhappy is a good word to use. But he may not be in a desperate life situation. And yet he does become -- and I will use the word-- "addicted"-- because it's the only one I have.

SCHALER: Sure. Well, that's a good point, but we have to look at the scientific research. And in my book what I do is I present the research on cocaine, and research on alcoholics, and on marijuana, and on tobacco, and on heroin use, and what we find consistently - and this is information that's generally hidden from the public - what we find consistently is that these people can moderate their use of these drugs. Say, for example, a person that you may label as an "alcoholic, who, theoretically, can't stop at just one or two drinks. There are many studies that show that when you trick these people into thinking that they're drinking alcohol when they are not, they drink more of that substance, and at the same time . . .

LEONARD: . . . You mean like a placebo? . . .

SCHALER: . . . A placebo effect . . . . And when you trick them into thinking they're not drinking alcohol when they really are drinking alcohol . . . they don't drink very much of that. The thing is, it's not the substance, and it's not some genetic or physiological change, it's the mindset of the person and the environment that are the best explanations for why people may continue to use drugs or moderate them.

LEONARD: But people aren't going to play those tricks on themselves. In other words, they have to be looking for help in the first place to even get into a program where they can be tricked the way you just described.

SCHALER: But that's not the only approach: Many people mature out of drug use.


SCHALER: It's a fact . . . Many people, when they get bad news, and they've been smokers for a long time, they get a "wake-up call," and they stop. Clearly, their bodies have adapted to nicotine, or to some chemical that they've been taking. And if we call addiction, in that sense, a physiological response, well then, yes, there is such a thing as "addiction." But, does that mean the person can't control his or her behavior? No. People do stop smoking. People do moderate their use of cocaine. People do stop drinking or just have one or two drinks. You know, in other countries, they have a much more intelligent attitude about helping people with chronic drinking problems. Instead of teaching them that abstinence is the only way to solve their problems, they teach them to moderate their drinking. And many of these people that in America we call "alcoholics," -- who "can't control" their behavior -- these are the same people, in other countries, that are learning to moderate their behavior.

LEONARD: Another thing Jeffrey is that in this country, until the nineteen teens, most of the drugs that are now illegal were not illegal. You could go down to the corner drugstore and buy all kinds of morphine based things. I don't believe marijuana was illegal until World War I, until we got involved in World War I. It seems to me, just from reading about it, there were less "addicts" then. Would legalization help? Would taking that onus of "you are a criminal" off it, would that help, do you think?

SCHALER: Yes I do. I think we should repeal drug prohibition in its entirety. It's a problem masquerading as a solution. The problems that we see with drugs are very much a part of the persecution of people, by the criminal justice system, that we label as "addicts." Now, I don't think the answer is to push them all into treatment, which is what President Clinton wants to do, what Janet Reno want to do with all these "drug courts." We need to hold people accountable for their behaviors when they harm someone else and leave them alone when they don't harm anyone else. If they want help, there are plenty of self-help groups available. They are free and many people find them very useful, just like Alcoholics Anonymous.

LEONARD: Now, if the drugs were all decriminalized, do they become legal? I mean do you go to a store to buy them?

SCHALER: Sure. I think we should have them available on the free market just the way we have alcohol and tobacco. People, if they want to use heroin, if they want to use cocaine, if they want to use marijuana, should be allowed to purchase it. Drugs are property. The Constitution guarantees our right to property. That isn't the same thing as endorsing or condoning their use. There are many, many problems associated with drug prohibition. I see these people, and families, ruined by these drug enforcement agents, by narcotics agents, by the laws against these people when they haven't harmed anyone but themselves.

LEONARD: Most people see the principle problem with the drug laws that we have today is that it encourages criminality. And the drug business is a criminal enterprise. And it's a huge profit-making criminal enterprise for those that are in that enterprise. And it does prey on people who are psychologically or whatever the reason is in need of what it is they are selling.

SCHALER: Right, but you know Lee, there's another side to it: The prison builders are dependent economically on drug prohibition. The Drug Enforcement Agency is dependent on drug prohibition. The economic gain . . . who benefits? - "cui bono?" - who benefits? - well people on both sides benefit. It isn't just the illegal drug dealer.

LEONARD: You have an up-hill fight, you know that?

Schaler. Yes.

LEONARD: You know that very, very, very much, I'm sure.


SCHALER: That's the best kind of fight.


LEONARD: OK. June 21 you'll be at the Barnes and Nobel store in Princeton, New Jersey?


LEONARD: If you folks want to get into a good discussion about this, which is a problem - drug use is a major problem in the United State -- whether you call it drug addiction or whatever I don't care what you call it, but people who use drugs, and it is a problem. And if you want to talk to Jeffrey about it face to face you meet him at Barnes and Noble in Princeton on the 21 of June. OK?

SCHALER: And they can visit me at

LEONARD: . . . a lot of people are getting addicted to the 'net.


SCHALER: . . . but it's not a disease, Lee . . .


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