At the core of this debate is a question about personal responsibility. It is perhaps telling that Mr Hitchens often employs quasi-religious notions of free will when discussing such issues. It is no secret and of no particular interest that he is a devout Christian, occupying some place on the conservative right, except that these notions are at the very centre of his world view and as such inform, colour and I would argue cloud his understanding of it. For Mr Hitchen’s the idea that one can abdicate responsibility in any form is in an affront to his religious ideals and the proposition that personal control might be physiologically or psychologically hijacked offends his sense of self. After all, how can one enter autonomously into a relationship with the God of his religion if the very mechanism by which one chooses to do so is compromised?
It would seem that he is either misguided, selective or simply uniformed. Whilst it is true that there are individuals who experience success giving up drugs there are an equal or greater number for whom often death is the only way out of the cycle. A quick search of YouTube and addiction will yield numerous wretched social documents of unspeakable brutality and squalor. The Krokadil user who continues to use as the drug rots her body from the inside out…necrosis eating the skin and exposing the bones of her feet as she now injects into her thigh. The crack addict that misses a vein, develops an abscess and loses a leg only go out and score as soon as he is mobile again. The mother who sells her twelve year old child for sex to earn cash to fill her syringe. If this is ‘fantasy’ I can only imagine what reality would look like.
There is, contained in Mr Hitchen’s rhetoric, the implication that we all begin on a level playing field, but this is not the case, either socially or physiologically. I’m no expert, but I can appreciate that nuances and subtle differences in brain structures exist from one individual to the next. The same goes for all the other biological , chemical and hormonal bits and bobs. They are measurably distinct. We are not identical. Consider, for example, the internal picture of the psychopath and the divergences in the limbic system or the empathic areas of the brain. Are these forces a simple question of will? Is it such a stretch that someone is primed to need or crave greater stimulation in the opiate receptors of the brain? Might differences in the mechanisms involved account for the extent or nature of any one experience of addiction? Perhaps, you might say that this sounds convenient but consider for a moment Prader-Willi syndrome, a rare genetic disorder in which the sufferer, amongst other things, is driven by a chronic and insatiable hunger. One afflicted by this disorder will literally eat him or herself to death. Can we say that the choices he makes are free? I’m not a neuroscientist, but it seems that if the brain can compel someone to do one thing, contrary to their safety and well being, then why is addiction discounted so easily? And what of the interplay between physiology and environment. Addicts do not exist in a vacuum. Mr Hitchens does not address the powerful forces of social deprivation, abuse or a thousand other factors that drives the user. Drugs in all forms represent the desire to escape, to detach oneself from the tethers that bind us to our lives. For some this is temporary for others it is all consuming. Mr Hitchens’ affluent background is perhaps not the best vantage point to appreciate the plight of these people.
I should perhaps take a moment to safeguard myself from the charge of liberalism. Mr Hitchens is right in one respect. There is a fine line between personal responsibility and an abdication of all responsibility. There must be some recognition that the individual is ultimately responsible. This exists as a legal principle and necessarily so. Mr Hitchen’s notion, however, that more draconian measures against drug users will work as a deterrent to future users is niave. Deterrents don’t work. The death penalty exists in 32 states in the USA and yet those committing capital crimes continue to fill the cells. Hitting something with a large stick is unlikely to produce any meaningful effect in the long term. The solution to this country’s drug problem does not lie solely within the legal system. We have to find a middle ground. Any thoughts?