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Maia Szalavitz Says “Addiction is a Learning Disorder”

Maia Szalavitz Says “Addiction is a Learning Disorder”

By Russ Belville - April 17, 2016

ARLINGTON, Virginia – Delivering the keynote address to the 2016 Students for Sensible Drug Policy Conference, author Maia Szalavitz questioned the long-held disease model of drug addiction by explaining her view that addiction is a learning disorder.

Szalavitz, whose latest book is titled “Unbroken Brain” (order here), told the students, “If you went to doctor and he said the treatment for your disease was meetings and prayer,” referring to the Twelve Step model of addiction recovery, “you’d think he was a quack.”

Szalavitz doesn’t deny the physiological craving that some drugs may impart. It’s that reaction to the craving that causes Szalavitz to say, “addiction is a learning disorder.” She describes babies being born dependent on substances, but that “you don’t see babies crawling off to go find the drug dealer.”

She went on to explain how addiction is the brain inappropriately assigning feelings of connection to the drug use where human connection may be lacking. “In addiction,” she says, “you fall in love with the substance instead of a person.”

Szalavitz also criticized the commonly-held view of people dealing with addiction in their lives. Part of this she attributes to a selection bias, where the only people we know of as drug users are the ones who get caught up by the criminal justice system or those who are dealing with mental illness. “Of the 15 percent or so who get addicted to drugs,” she explains, “about two-thirds are dealing with some sort of trauma or abuse, another 15 percent of them are suffering from mental illness,” and the rest are otherwise disconnected from society.

The idea that someone can have an “addictive personality” is also a belief Szalavitz questions as being “deeply tied up in the racism of drug stereotyping.”

Szalavitz concluded by rebuking the ways we think of and prosecute the war on drugs. “Banning drugs to stop addiction is like banning hand soap to stop [obsessive compulsive disorder] hand washing,” she quipped. She called on the students to have compassion for people dealing with addiction. “Hitting bottom is not what addicted people need,” she said, “They need hope and love.”


Following Szalavitz’s opening keynote address, we caught up with two longtime drug reformers to get their take on the war on drugs. Eric Sterling is the director of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation and Kris Krane is an SSDP alumnus, former Executive Director, and currently with 4Front  Advisors.


We also spoke with student Ismail Ali from the UC Berkeley School of Law.


Among the many exhibitors tabling at the conference, we spoke with Steve from FlexYourRights about their new project, Open Police Complaints, an app to crowd-source a database of police misconduct in the United States.