The Points Interview–Michael Reznicek

Editor’s Note: Today’s twenty-sixth installment of our author interview feature offers some compelling reporting from the trenches of the drug war, by Michael Reznicek.  Here, he discusses his recently published book, Blowing Smoke: Rethinking the War on Drugs Without Prohibition and Rehab (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012). Though Blowing Smoke obviously focuses attention on contemporary policy regimes and alternatives, Reznicek takes the historical roots of these regimes seriously–the first four chapters are dedicated to a broad history of prohibitionist and disease models in American history.

Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.

This is a report from the trenches in the war on drugs where things are not going well.Cover of Michael Reznicek's Blowing Smoke Blowing Smoke is a criticism of the disease model of substance abuse, which I believe lies at the heart of all drug war efforts. Drug warriors are not moral scolds; they are concerned about public health. Punitive sanctions more often than not are used to force people into rehab, and prohibition laws are an important extension of the disease model: if drug abuse is a brain disease, then drugs are pathogens that need to be banned. Prohibition laws didn’t start out that way, but I think that is how they are popularly understood today.

I’m a clinical psychiatrist who has worked with substance abusers for over 27 years. I currently work in a state prison system where about ninety percent of inmates have had extensive drug problems. Blowing Smoke reviews the history and science behind the disease model and argues that the model misjudges the problem of addiction and that it leads to important unintended consequences. Essentially, I believe the disease model enables the problem. I offer a competing model—the habit model—that I believe more accurately captures addictive behavior. The habit model also leads to dramatically different responses.

My criticism of the disease model is not limited to the “NIDA paradigm” but to all models that view substance abusers as passive agents who are merely responding to forces within or around them. That is not how substance abusers view themselves while they’re using drugs, and not how they recount their experiences years later.

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