What do Queen Silvia of Sweden, Pope Francis, and the first director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) have in common? They all share a deep and sobering commitment to fighting the global disease of addiction.
Robert L. DuPont, MD, has written a beautiful and surprisingly spiritual guide into the American addiction epidemic. He is the author of “The Selfish Brain: Learning From Addiction” (Center City, Minn.: Hazelden, 2000) and with his newest publication, “Chemical Slavery: Understanding Addiction and Stopping the Drug Epidemic” (Institute for Behavior and Health, 2018), he writes a clear-eyed tome detailing the history of drug and alcohol use within the United States and the current state of America’s drug epidemic.
is well known within the American addiction community as NIDA’s first director and as the second drug czar, under two presidents, Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford. His breadth of experience, spanning 50-plus years, dates from his early career with the District of Columbia Department of Corrections, into his work in public policy on drugs and alcohol. This experience infuses his book with the hard science of addiction and the common-sense compassion required to shepherd people into recovery. One of us has worked with and been influenced by him since the 1970s. The other, also an addiction psychiatrist, finished this book both invigorated and compelled to say thank you to Dr. DuPont and his life’s work! He remains relevant, insightful, and always optimistic about the future of addiction treatment.
Harm reduction explored
The book begins with a cogent history of drug and alcohol use in America. Dr. DuPont details this as well as the public policies that have evolved to address them. He weaves into our national history reasoning behind why, as a “mass consumer” culture, we are more prone to addiction than ever before. The loss of cultural and societal pressures has a role to play in the rise along with genetics and environmental stress. The adolescent brain is prominently discussed throughout this first section as a highly vulnerable organ that can lead to lifelong addiction if primed early by addictive chemicals.
Dr. DuPont addresses the biology of addiction, delving into both the biological mechanisms within the brain, making those details accessible and understandable – to a practicing physician as well as a family member or patient struggling with addiction.
He also addresses harm reduction, a fairly new concept within the field. Harm reduction has taken on more prominence with localities across the country providing people with addictions with safe places and clean needles to continue their substance use without risks of serious or life-threatening diseases and crime. He challenges the idea that harm reduction is active recovery from substance addiction. Instead, he opines that harm reduction must be tethered to and must lead to real recovery work or it risks becoming an organizational enabling of the addict’s behavior.
Dr. DuPont pulls no punches with his language. He uses words such as “fatal,” “addict,” and “alcoholic.” He addresses the concerns by some in the field that those kinds of words are harsh, derogatory, and prejudicial by calling out addiction as a disease hallmarked primarily by loss of control and by dishonesty. To shun those words is to perpetuate the disease, delaying life-saving treatment.
Compassion is a theme throughout. He says we must stigmatize the addiction but not the addict. He advocates for real consequences to addictive behaviors as a key to getting addicted physicians and others with this disease into recovery. Treatment works, but we also have studied specific approaches that work and why.1 His writing conveys a genuine empathy for his patients and argues that treatment is delayed when serious and negative consequences for patients are removed.