Hi Lam, when things began to open up after the pandemic, I started to notice  a lot of young guys looking high on the streets at night and am wondering what’s going on. Also, a few years ago, I visited the US and saw so many homeless addicts. It seems like the entire world is turning to substance abuse. Does Lam have any ideas why this is occurring and how we can prevent drug addiction from getting worse. Is rehab treatment the best solution or tougher jail sentencing? I’d be interested to know Lams’s thoughts on the matter.

SP, Thimphu

Well, many youth turn to drugs as a coping mechanism. Of course, teens like to push boundaries and so breaking rules is part of a rite of passage for many adolescents, but I’m not discussing the guys who just try drugs once or twice, but those who are compulsive users. 

Yes, drug abuse is rampant in many parts of the planet, but as the percentage of abusers varies significantly depending on the country, we can consider the situation in two countries with similar laws but vastly different drug situations – the UK and Taiwan – to offer insights into the root causes.   

Now, in the UK drug abuse is a major problem and, like in the US, there are many addicts living on the streets. In contrast, Taiwan’s drug issues are minor and it would be very unusual to see even one homeless addict in a major city there. So, as the laws are similar, there can only be two reasons for this difference – UK babies have greater genetic propensities towards addiction than their Taiwanese counterparts, or the environment in the European country is more conducive to producing addicts than in the East Asian nation. Now, as it is impossible that UK babies are more genetically predisposed towards addiction that those in Taiwan, we can reasonably conclude that the environment is the major cause of youth turning to drugs.  

In agricultural terms, we can put it this way. If seeds from the same sack are scattered in a field, but in some areas the plants flourish, while in others they are stunted or weak, there can only be one reason for the differences – the environment. Basically, some areas have sufficient nutrition, sunlight, and moisture, while others lack these components.

Now, what is insufficient nutrition, sunlight, and moisture is terms of a child’s development? Well, according to the respected psychologist Erikson, it is lack of love and care, together with an insecure family situation. The addiction specialist Dr Gabor Mate concurs with this conclusion but goes further and specifically identifies trauma as the root of all addictions (Youtube – FightMediocrity: ‘The Best Explanation of Addiction I’ve Ever Heard – Dr. Gabor Maté’). 

Here, trauma does not imply something startling, like being hit by a vehicle, but a sense of neglect and abandonment, along with a lack of a nurturing environment. Take a child who grows up with alcoholic parents or a hostile step-parent as an example. Now, when a young child is disturbed he will cry, and this triggers a response in the parent, who will nurse him until he calms down. However, if the parent continuously ignores the cries or, worse, shouts at the child or beats him, this bond of trust is severely damaged. Of course, an adult would note that the problem lies with the mother or father, but a baby or young child will not conclude that there is something wrong with their parents, but instead feel that something is lacking in them. As a teen, this belief will very likely translate into a sense of insecurity and a feeling that they are unworthy to be loved, which, in turn, can lead to depression, low self-esteem, and despondency. A teen faced with these issues is prone to indulge in risky behaviour and/or drug abuse. Basically, substance abuse is a coping mechanism. It is way to escape mental pain and confusion. 

So, to return to the earlier analysis, from my personal experience, I would say that the family and community structures in the UK are far more dysfunctional than those in Taiwan, where generally three generations still live together and family and social bonds are strong. And this, I believe, is the main reason why the UK has a much greater drug problem than Taiwan. 

You asked which is more effective as a means to address drug abuse issues – jail or rehab. Well, while jail sentences may act as a deterrent for a small number of youth, I personally feel it is the least constructive option. Basically, it is a lazy way to clean up the streets and keep addicts temporarily out of sight. Furthermore, research shows that jail is not only totally ineffective in reducing the number of drug abusers, but actually exacerbates the situation. As we have noted, many youth step on the slippery slope to addiction as a means to cope with a chaotic and painful life. In this respect, they need help and support, not punishment. If they receive the latter, then they are likely to become even more disturbed, which increases the sense of hopelessness, keeping them locked in the cycle of drugs and jail. Furthermore, in rehab, an addict will develop positive friendships with others who are committed to quitting drugs, whereas in jail they will be in the company of career criminals, who will likely influence them in a negative way.  Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche has spoken on this point: “When placed on a piece of cloth, a crystal takes on the colour of that cloth, whether white, yellow, red or black. In the same way, the friends with whom you keep company the most often, whether suitable or unsuitable, will greatly influence the direction your life and practice take.”

So, how do we prevent drug abuse from spiraling out of control? Well, we need to deal both with the symptoms and the causes. For the symptoms, rehab treatment is the most effective. Is there any proof that this is more successful than jail? Yes, two countries, Taiwan and Portugal, offer drug abusers rehab treatment instead of jail, and this policy has helped Taiwan maintain its low drug-abuse rates, while Portugal has substantially reduced its case numbers. Basically, rehab and counselling offer the best means for the addict to address their mental demons and quit drugs. Still, it is not an easy path, but with support and care, even hardcore addicts do regain their lives, and, as a result, become productive members of their families and society. 

For the root causes, we need to consider why children lack the love and care they need to develop into healthy and well-adjusted adults. These are some questions we can perhaps ask: Are there too many unwanted pregnancies, are parents who remarry rejecting the children from their earlier marriage, are parents leaving their children to go and work or study overseas, and finally is there provision to help children who are living with alcoholic parents? While it is impossible to immediately transform entrenched family and social structures, countries can at least plant the seeds of change by  developing an education system that aims to turn out disciplined and caring adults with a sense of social responsibility, rather than ones merely suited to keep the wheels of commerce turning.