The Government's Addiction Expert Says We Like What We Like Because We Like It


I have a theory…

A fawning New York Times profile of Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, repeatedly quotes and seemingly endorses her reductionist view that "addiction is all about the dopamine." Whether the attachment is to chocolate, jogging, alcohol, cocaine, or heroin, the Times explains, its essence can be found in the way such stimuli affect levels of this neurotransmitter in "the small central zone of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, which is thought to be the main reward center." And what determines that? The Times says the leading theory is that "addiction requires two things": 1)  "a genetic vulnerability" and 2) "repeated assaults." In other words, any person who is genetically predisposed to like a particular stimulus will become addicted to it after sufficient exposure.

That's an awfully convenient theory, since it means that anyone who tries, say, methamphetamine but does not become addicted either did not use it enough or was saved by his genes. These explanations can never be disproved, since Volkow does not claim she can identify genetically vulnerable people ahead of time or specify how many doses it will take before they are hooked. And as the Times concedes, "only a minority of novices…will develop the compulsion to keep taking the drug at great personal cost, a behavior that defines addiction." The Times also mentions that "the social milieu of the addicted individual" is important in determining whether he will succeed in quitting. So I guess it's not "all about the dopamine"—a mantra that either explains too much (since every pleasurable activity affects the "reward center") or nothing at all.

Furthermore, although the Times says Volkow herself is addicted to chocolate, jogging, and (especially) "the science of scanning the brain with techniques that expose its workings like a map," it never broaches the question of when addiction qualifies as a problem, let alone one that justifies forcible government intervention. Speaking of which, the profile includes a breathtakingly arrogant quote from Volkow regarding her mission to prevent nonmedical use of prescription drugs: "In the past, when we have addressed the issue of controlled substances…we have been addressing drugs that we could remove from the earth and no one would suffer."

Does Volkow really believe that she can scientifically and infallibly identify the plants and other psychoactive substances that no one would miss, that cannabis, LSD, psilocybin, etc. have no redeeming value because she says so? What gives her the authority to make such determinations? As far as I can tell, nothing more than a government paycheck.

[Thanks to Richard Cowan for the tip.]