Monday, October 29, 2012


Beware, keep your distance lest ye be infected too!

    I generally like zombie movies, Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later, Zombieland, they're all good.  I like The Walking Dead TV show and comic book.  The story of a small group of people surviving in a post-apocalyptic world is a theme used over and over in countless stories.  Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is on my to read list.
   Aside from being entertaining the metaphor is actually applicable to the plight of illicit drug users.  The underlying theme behind every zombie movie is xenophobia, defined by Webster's as "fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign."  Zombies represent the metaphorical "other," a definition that is the first step in stigmatizing and discriminating a group that is perceived as strange and foreign.  Opiate users, especially heroin users, are often portrayed as former humans who have been infected with the "disease" of addiction transforming them into "walking corpses" with a single-minded hunger for drugs (brains).    Because they are less than human and may "infect" otherwise innocent Americans (especially children) by "pushing" drugs extreme measures are necessary.  This includes quarantine of suspected infected persons, search for a medical cure, and of course the murder of those gone to far to be saved.
    In 1962 the US Supreme Court heard the case Robinson v. California, in response to a California law that made it a crime to be a narcotics addict.  In this particular case Robinson was arrested for having track marks on his arm and sentenced to 90 days in jail.  The court ruled in favor of Robinson arguing that addiction is a disease and thus civil commitment was a violation of the 8th amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.  One might think that if narcotic addiction is a disease characterized by the consumption of narcotics then addicts should not be incarcerated for possession of narcotics, but the courts have not gone on to this logical conclusion.  Reflecting the schizophrenic nature of criminal justice viewing addiction as alternatively a disease and crime, merely being an addict is not a crime.  However the major behavioral symptom of this disease, the consumption of narcotics, is a crime.
    What is interesting, and telling about the popular conception of a heroin addict, was the statements made by Justice Douglas:

"To be a confirmed drug addict is to be one of the walking dead.... The teeth have rotted out; the appetite is lost and the stomach and intestines don't function properly. The gall bladder becomes inflamed; eyes and skin turn a bilious yellow. In some cases membranes of the nose turn a flaming red; the partition separating the nostrils is eaten away — breathing is difficult. Oxygen in the blood decreases; bronchitis and tuberculosis develop. Good traits of character disappear and bad ones emerge. Sex organs become affected. Veins collapse and livid purplish scars remain.

Boils and abscesses plague the skin; gnawing pain racks the body. Nerves snap; vicious twitching develops. Imaginary and fantastic fears blight the mind and sometimes complete insanity results. Often times, too, death comes much too early in life.... Such is the plague of being one of the walking dead." [1]

    This caricature of a heroin addict is repeated endlessly in the media and in the minds of most Americans.  Heroin is a "plague" and addicts are the "walking dead."  This is especially ironic given that heroin is far less toxic than two of our most popular legal drugs: alcohol and tobacco [2].  It is widely assumed that the "progressive" notion that opiate users are sick and in need of (usually coerced) treatment is an enlightened view of opiate addiction.  The notion that opiate users are in control of their intellectual faculties and making a rational choice to use a drug to improve their lives is not even entertained.

    For those of us who care about drug reform emphasizing that narcotics addiction is a disease based on the "NIDA paradigm" is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand anything that moves away from the criminal justice approach to drug prohibition is welcomed, but we should not be quick to embrace a policy that relies on compulsory treatment and continues the stigmatization of opiate users.  The "hijacked brain" meme implicitly supports drug prohibition and the view of opiate addicts as one of the walking dead.

[1] Quoted from Images of Death and Destruction in Drug Law Cases by Steven Wisotsky [Link]

[2] Dr. Arnold Trebach informs us in The Heroin Solution that "putting aside the problem of addiction, the chemical heroin seems almost a neutral or benign substance. Taken in stable, moderate doses, it does not seem to cause organic injury, as does alcoholism over time."

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