Should I Be Afraid of Drug Addicts?


The characteristic that first comes to mind with “drug addict” is one of desperation – a need which overwhelms all moral sense or honorable intent.

The junkie of movies and television is a shaking, grasping ball of Loser. Gollum, at his most vile, was willing to ruin all in pursuit of his “precious.”

The real face of addiction is more complex and more human.

Addiction comes in many forms

The “junk” in junkie refers to heroin, and that’s the addiction many have in mind when they picture a violent criminal who will attack, rob and even kill to get their “fix.” We never see someone addicted to gambling, alcohol or tobacco portrayed this way, though the addictions can be just as difficult to kick.

Another stereotype we’ve been fed is that addiction is solely a matter for the inner city poor - the hustler on the mean streets who will tell all to the cops for a couple of bucks - money you know they are going to spend on more drugs.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), poverty is a risk factor, along with two other risks that may be more prevalent in big cities: availability of drugs and use of drugs among peers. Other risk factors are broader, including an early propensity for violence, poor social skills and a lack of parental supervision.

The true face of addiction is hard to see because so much is hidden. One study, sponsored by NIDA, looked at inner city addiction (cocaine and heroin) and found the average addict was 39 years old, male, unemployed and living in a private home, not on the street. About a third of the addicts were women.

What about violence and addiction?

We don’t have to look far to see news about gangs who sell drugs and the violence associated with gangs. Mexican drug cartels have gained a justified reputation of being ruthless killers. The question is whether or not the violence is the result of drug addiction or comes from the business of dealing drugs.

Opponents of the drug war argue that the majority of drug-related violence would fall away if drugs were legalized. They point to the lack of any other enforcement mechanism or way to gain “market share.” For example, if a drug deal goes bad, it won’t do any good to hire a lawyer and sue.

As individuals, there is a clear association between drugs and violent behavior. According to an article in the Psychiatric Times, up to 75 percent of those seeking addiction treatment report having engaged in violent behavior, including physical assault, mugging and attacking others with a weapon.

One hypothesis is that this population has difficulty controlling their anger and that they have problems with impulsive behavior. This same pool of violent addicts was also more than twice as likely to have attempted suicide.

Early aggressive behavior is listed as a risk factor for addiction – not that addiction causes violence, but that the violent are more prone to becoming addicted.

Should I fear my addicted partner?

Violence in the home is associated with substance abuse problems. The classic picture is of an alcoholic, abusive father or husband who comes home drunk and beats everyone up. But according to information from the University of Minnesota on domestic violence:

A prevailing myth about domestic violence is that alcohol and drugs are the major causes of domestic abuse. In reality, some abusers rely on substance use (and abuse) as an excuse for becoming violent.

This is an important distinction to make – addiction doesn’t cause domestic violence, but someone who is violent is more likely to be a substance abuser.

The victims of addiction

In all cases, whether there is violence or not, the victim of addiction will be the addict themselves. We do not fear someone who smokes tobacco, at least no more than anyone else. Marijuana users actually have a positive reputation, perhaps a legacy of the peaceful hippie. Methamphetamine, crack and heroin addiction generate the most fear, but even with these it’s worthwhile to see the human being underneath the label.

Even the hardcore, drug-seeking addict isn’t necessarily driven to violence in pursuit of their drug. They would prefer a low-risk property crime, the “smash and grab” over a mugging or armed robbery. For this group, an arrest means withdrawal. Judgment is certainly impaired by addiction, and desperation is also a key feature. They only know one treatment for their disease that works 100 percent of the time: get more drugs.

Should we fear addicts? No more than we fear a dozen other categories of people. Violence as a means to an end is unfortunately all too common in the US. What is uncommon, however, are reports of mass shootings where the perpetrator was killing because of an addiction. And when crime is directly associated with addiction, like a pharmacy break-in or robbery, the purpose is not to harm, but to steal.

Fear for the addict is more rational than fear of the addict.


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