America: The Land of Hungry Ghosts

Gabor Mate is an author, physician, and social critic. His most recent book is In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction.


HARRIS: There seems to be two underlying realities to the issue of drugs in our society. One is the world of recreational and abusive illegal drug use and the global drug trade, the War on Drugs, and the prison-industrial complex. The other is the world of deregulated drug monopolies, PHARMA, industry control over health policy, mass marketing of pharmaceuticals, a corrupt medical establishment, and skyrocketing rates of prescription drug use. What’s happened in these two worlds in the past 40 years? 


MATE: On the one hand, a relentless persecution of drug users has been mounted in the past several decades, with the result that the U.S. has the highest per capita—and even absolute numbers—of incarcerated citizens of any country in the world. Lives are blighted, families destroyed, prisons overcrowded, the apparatus of repression empowered and emboldened. All this, while programs are not developed and supported that could effectively prevent and reduce drug use, reduce harm from drug use, and rehabilitate people.


In the meantime, the pharmacological industry—the big-time drug pushers—dominate research and medical practice, sell billions of dollars worth of drugs that feed addiction. They also, with impunity, market drugs that often harm people, without in any way having to prove efficacy—see for example the shameless purveying of anti-psychotic drugs for use in controlling children’s behavior, a completely untested indication with often severe side effects. So great harm is being caused both by the useless attempts to control addiction by legal means and, on the other hand, by the lack of government control over the actions of the pharmaceutical companies.


What’s the historical significance of the emergence of the War on Drugs in 1971? What has been its fundamental social function over the past four decades?


The elite that dominates U.S. policy, foreign and domestic, always needs an enemy as a way of marshaling popular support for the military-police-industrial complex and as a way of diverting people’s anxieties away from the real sources of their problems. The “junkie” and the “dealer” are the domestic versions of the “Communist” and the “terrorist.” The so-called War on Drugs justifies the apparatus of repression, especially against minority populations.


Should we really be thinking of the War on Drugs in terms of a “failure?” Is it really accurate to say that the War on Drugs is a policy mistake? By framing it this way, don’t we obscure the causes of the problem (and therefore possible solutions) by ignoring the overlapping interests that benefit from what is a disaster for everyone else?


First, let’s be clear that there is no “War on Drugs.” You cannot make war on inanimate objects, only on people. What we are witnessing is a war on drug users, particularly poor and minority drug users. This so-called war is a failure only if one accepts it on its own terms—that is, if one believes that its real purpose is to interdict the supply of illegal substances and to prevent drug use. On that level, it’s a colossal failure of historic proportions. However, from the perspective of justifying repression, of justifying the continued funding of highly armed police forces, of validating the existence of the legal machinery of what is called the “justice” system, and of channeling profits into the owners of private prisons and the many industries that supply prisons—the war is a major success. To which benefits we can add the political value of fearmongering and offering to be “tough on crime” to political opportunists vying for the support of a frightened, credulous and uninformed public.


What would be the role of America’s criminal justice system—the DEA, police, courts, prisons, etc—if the War on Drugs ended? How would these institutions be affected by progressive drug policy?


What would happen to McDonald’s if people stopped eating junk food? Either it would have to provide real value or go out of business.


Today high-profile critiques of the War on Drugs are becoming more commonplace. Is the tide of elite opinion beginning to turn? What’s the significance of the recent report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCOP)?


Many people are now recognizing the futility of the War on Drugs and the damage wrought by it. Such a perspective is increasingly articulated by people in high places, such as the recent report from the GCDP. However, as with the report, these evidence-based opinions are often stated by people after they have left their powerful positions in policy-making circles. They dared not speak it while still in a position to make an immediate difference and, for all we know, there are many in positions of influence now who still dare not speak out. Nevertheless, it’s heartening to see the truth being spoken by former presidents of countries, leaders of the financial world, and cultural heavyweights.


What is the relationship between the economic, political, and cultural crises of American society and the radical proliferation of preventable disease, mental health problems, and prescription drug use? 


The research on addiction clearly shows that stress is one of the major causes of addictive substance use. As I show in my book, When The Body Says No, stress is also the major contributing factor to the onset of all manner of chronic disease—from cancer to autoimmune conditions to neurological illness. Stress, specifically childhood trauma, is also the leading cause of mental illness. Since human beings are very much affected by their psychological and social environment, we cannot understand addiction, mental illness, or physical disease without looking at the broader social and economic and cultural landscape.


Can you talk about the social origins of addiction or mental health problems? Does it let us off the hook as a society to say that addiction or mental illness is rooted in biology?


Precisely because illness, mental and physical, is rooted in people’s life experience—and, hence, also in social, economic and cultural circumstances—it is useful, from the perspective of the status quo, to promulgate an ideology that takes attention off such factors and focuses, instead, on so-called genetic causation.


What would you recommend for finding a way out?


Only when people seek and glimpse the truth can they find their own way out of the morass. People need to question and re- question the assumptions which govern their lives, the nostrums offered by political leaders and the mainstream media, and by the scientific “truths” uttered by experts who, though highly educated and highly adept in ways unimaginable not too long ago, are operating within the limits of narrow ideology that serves mostly to maintain a system that serves the few and deprives the many. 


Collin Harris is a freelance writer and activist based in Oregon.