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Dr. Gabor Maté: More Compassion, Less Violence Needed in Addressing Drug Addiction

Web ExclusiveJune 06, 2011
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In part two of our interview about a new report declaring the so-called “war on drugs” a failure, Dr. Gabor Maté notes that “where violent suppression of drug activity increases, so does killings and violence related to drug use.” The Canadian physician and author also relates the study’s findings to his own work in a drug addiction treatment clinic in Vancouver. “The causes of the addiction in their life have to be understood and addressed, and they have to be treated with compassion,” says Maté.

Click here to listen to part one of the interview.

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Dr. Gabor Maté, Vancouver-based physician, bestselling author. Among his books, well, his most recent, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction.

Tens of thousands of people have died in the war on drugs. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent in this country and around the world. And yet, the war on drugs is a failure.

Now, as we speak, many are marching in Mexico because of the massive costs, both human and financial, of the war on drugs. And they’ll end up in Ciudad Juárez, where so many have died.

Dr. Maté, if it is such a failure, why does it continue.

DR. GABOR MATÉ: Well, that’s always a very good question. When something is such a demonstrated failure on its own terms, one might then call it an honest mistake. But it’s no longer honest when they keep ignoring the evidence. And you have to ask, is somebody benefiting from this? And maybe it’s not a failure, except not on the stated terms, like other wars, which may have been failing on their publicly stated terms, but they’re very profitable to somebody nevertheless. So this is another war.

If you look at the origins of the phrase “war on drugs,” it was initiated under the Nixon regime in the 1970s and at a time when Vietnam was coming to an end, and terrorists haven’t arrived on the scene yet. And America always needs an enemy. And so, the drug criminal becomes the enemy. And so, dutifully, Hollywood jumps on board, and movie after movie shows these people as deadened criminals, hardened criminals and danger to society. So, the fear factor, which in America always has to be projected on somebody, was then projected onto the drug users. And so, it has that social control aspect of maintaining fear and justifying a heavily security establishment — a heavily supported security establishment, that actually is allowed to intervene very harshly in the life of its own population, number one.

Number two, the security establishment — the police, the courts and so on — this is what keeps them going. I mean, without the drug war, their role in society would be very, very different indeed. So this is what they know how to do, and this is what they get the money for. And then, of course, the private jails and the whole jail system. And not to mention the corruption that inevitably goes along with this. There’s a lot of people making money on this who are not just in the criminal gangs, but who are their supporters and enablers within the legal system in the U.S., as in many other countries. And so, in Latin America, when there was a similar commission, they actually said that the drug war is a threat to the democracy, because of the corruption that it entails and the violence that it causes. So, people are benefiting majorly from this.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the addicts that you treat, the people in Vancouver, for example, what you find is the most effective form of treatment? What works? What doesn’t?

DR. GABOR MATÉ: Well, again, if you look at the literature on addiction, what you find is that the biggest driver of addictive relapse is actually stress. So, whether you take animals or human beings and you infuse them with the stress hormone, cortisol, their consumption of drugs goes up. This is true for rats. It’s true for human beings. Now, there’s no better way to stress people than to criminalize them, marginalize them, and ostracize them, just as this commission points out. So when you’re stressing people, you’re actually promoting their drug use. So if I had to come up with a system to promote drug use, I would come up exactly with the system we have right now. Furthermore, if I had to come up with a system that promoted the profits of the cartels, I would come up exactly with the system we have right now.

So when it comes to treatment, you have to de-stress people. You have to give them less stress. That means you have to treat them humanely. That means you have to understand their histories, which I’ve talked about in previous interviews, about their childhood losses, their trauma, their post-traumatic stress situations. And that has to be addressed. In other words, the causes of the addiction in their life have to be understood and addressed, and they have to be treated with compassion. Then there’s some hope of redeeming large numbers of them. Under the present system, redemption is the exception rather than the rule. And the failure rates of drug programs in this country, as in my own country, are up in the 90, 95 percentile, or percentages.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re saying that if you wanted the systems to continue, you’d do exactly what this war on drugs is all about right now, individually for how addicts are treated. But then also, why does it promote gang warfare and gangs?

DR. GABOR MATÉ: Well, the studies presented by this commission actually show that where violent suppression of drug activity increases, so does killings and violence related to drug use. So if you look at Mexico, they’ve spent something like $3 or $4 billion over the last four years with this U.S.-backed and U.S.-inspired crackdown on drug traffic. The result has been 40,000 deaths in four years in Mexico. That’s 10,000 people a year. That’s many more — that’s eight times as many as American soldiers died in the entire Iraq war. And so that the more you increase the stress on people and the more you made difficult and the more you press these people, the more violent they’re going to be with each other and with the general population.

But it’s not the drug use itself that causes the criminality. It’s the criminalization that causes the criminality. There would be no benefit to the drug cartels if the drugs were to be decriminalized. In fact, it would knock most of their business out of their hands right away.

AMY GOODMAN: And then you have the people who are criminalized. There’s no greater use of drugs in the black and Latino community, yet they are in prison in by far greater numbers proportionately.

DR. GABOR MATÉ: Absolutely, in California, which, you know, you probably carried this story a few ago, that the Supreme Court ruled California jails cruel and unusual punishment, because of the overcrowding. In California, actually, 34 percent of people in jail are Latino, and 30 percent are blacks, and 29 percent are Caucasians — quite out of proportion with their actual representation in the population. So the drug laws — and in New York state, which jails more people for marijuana possession than any other state, I think, at least percentage-wise, it’s disproportionately black youth who are incarcerated as a result.

AMY GOODMAN: Is it possible — let’s see, just some facts and figures. The estimated annual revenue that California would raise if it taxed and regulated the sale of marijuana is $1.4 billion.

DR. GABOR MATÉ: Not to mention the money they would save by not jailing people anymore and putting them through the court system. So, there’s no argument to be made against the commission’s report. There’s nothing scientifically or evidence-wise that in any way would counter anything that they recommended.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, talk about the environmental devastation of the war on drugs.

DR. GABOR MATÉ: Well, again, the commission report points out that most people involved in the growing of marijuana and the growing of opium, coca plants and so on, are actually small farmers, very often in countries where other crops have been if not destroyed, then somehow made to be not so profitable anymore because of economic policies. And so, these people turn to these illicit drugs as a way of supporting their families. And then some local militia or army helicopters, usually provided by the United States, as in Colombia, comes in, and they poison spray the crops, causing tremendous environmental damage and the risk of illness to the population, and without in any way diminishing the volume of drugs being grown or sold.

AMY GOODMAN: You have been working with police chiefs and others as you write your books, do your research. What do they say is the effectiveness of catching people who are transporting drugs, selling drugs?

DR. GABOR MATÉ: Well, unfortunately, there are two kinds of police chiefs: those that are still serving, and then they keep their mouths shut, and those that are retired, who no longer have the power. But so many, though, of the retired ones are — very many of them are very vocal in their opposition to the war on drugs. I was speaking to the head of the narcotics department of a major American city about half a year ago, and he said that around the world police efforts interdict maybe 10, at the very most 15, percent of traffic, of drug traffic, of drugs being moved. And of course, he says, if he was a large corporation with a multi-hundred-million-dollar business, he would gladly give up that percentage, write it down as a lost liter, so that the police efforts, for all the deaths and all the destruction of families and for all the wastage of human lives that it involves, they don’t make — they hardly make a minuscule dent in the international drug trade. And they can’t, because as long as there’s a desire, there’s always going to be a demand. As an American judge said, you can no more repeal the law of supply and demand than you can repeal the law of direct gravity.

AMY GOODMAN: So you have this international esteemed drug panel —


AMY GOODMAN: — that’s talking about decriminalization, that’s talking about the war on drugs as a failure. The U.S., the White House, is saying, “No, it’s succeeding well,” and they’re listing all of these facts and figures. Do you have the sense that the attitude has shifted with the weight of the facts? You have all these conservative Mexican presidents who are saying, “Decriminalize.”

DR. GABOR MATÉ: Yeah. The weight of intellectual opinion has shifted. And those people that are no longer — unfortunately, for the most part, it’s people who are no longer constrained by political considerations. They have openly now come out against policies that they were either silent about or were behind when they were in power. The problem is that within circles that still have the power there’s very little evidence of anything shifting. In fact, what you have is the case of Barack Obama, who before he gets into power is very vocal in his opposition to the war on drugs and points out its failure, and once he’s in power he supports it and furthers it. So, that shift hasn’t happened yet. But at least it’s highly encouraging that the conversation is taking place at such a high international level.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Gabor Maté, Vancouver-based physician. Among his books, his most recent, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. Thanks for joining us.

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