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Addiction, Depression, and the Opioid Epidemic


The drug war’s systemic failures have become so glaring and tragic that even as that war rages on globally, many of the world’s most mainstream voices now advocate what was, until very recently, regarded as fringe and radical: the legalization, or at least decriminalization, of all drugs, not just marijuana. But while these macro-policy debates have finally become more rational and honest when it comes to data and policy outcomes, there is still far too little media attention paid to the human aspects of these debates: What are the underlying causes of addiction and why is it worsening? What is responsible for the skyrocketing rates of depression around the world and suicide in the U.S.? And why are communities ravaged by economic deprivation so vulnerable to the opioid epidemic and the pharmaceutical industry that exploits it?

The answers to these questions are not just psychological, spiritual, and medical, but also political — very political. It is extremely difficult to devise effective policy solutions to a problem when one does not understand its underlying causes; in this case, among the leading causes of many of these pathologies are policy choices in economics, the penal system, and resource distribution. Moreover, disturbing trends in addiction, mental health problems, and the opioid crisis reveal crucial signals — warning signs — about human trends that explain many of the most consequential political changes and thus, would be dangerous to continue to ignore.

Two of the most innovative and provocative books on these topics over the last several years have been written by the British author Johann Hari: “Chasing the Scream,” which argued that “everything you know about addiction is wrong,” and produced one of the most viral and fascinating TED Talks in the history that medium, and “Lost Connections,” about how modern political developments, including internet culture, are increasing rates of human depression while also exacerbating its individual and societal harms.

Hari was in Brazil this month in connection with the Portuguese-language release of “Chasing the Scream,” a perfectly timed tour given that the country just elected as president an authoritarian extremist, Jair Bolsonaro, who has vowed to wage a bloody and violent war against drug dealers as his principal solution the country’s crime epidemic. I spoke last week with Hari for 45 minutes about all of these topics and regard it as one of the most interesting and thought-provoking discussions I’ve had as a journalist reporting on these matters. The full discussion can be seen below:

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