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Addict turned expert says mainstream view of addiction needs rethink

The way that North Americans think about drug addiction is "mistaken, nasty, and stupid."

That's the key message of a new book by Dr. Peter Ferentzy, a Toronto-based addiction specialist with over twenty years of experience studying social attitudes surrounding drug use. A self-proclaimed "crackhead" himself who has been "to hell and back," he claims to bring a special kind of expertise to the topic.

This Sunday, Ferentzy will be touting his book and speaking about Canadian drug policy at a lecture in Downtown Vancouver.

In Dealing with Addiction: Why the 20th Century Was Wrong, Ferentzy calls for a radical change in the way that North American society views addiction and for the foment of a political campaign among drug users akin to the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s.

Ferentzy says he started writing his book in November of 2010 after watching two close friends die of overdoses within a few months of one another. Both had been in the process of kicking their respective habits, he says, and both had given up trying after being told by treatment specialists and recovering addicts that absolute abstinence -- going cold turkey, without succumbing to either the occasional fix or the "crutch" of methadone therapy -- was the only legitimate way to quit.

One of the two friends overdosed while staying in his Toronto apartment, paying a visit to her eight-year-old son, Ferentzy explained to The Tyee in a phone conversation yesterday.

"She was on methadone and hardline abstinence pushers were telling her to get off of it," he said. Ferentzy calls this an unrealistic and cruel standard to impose upon any addict and blames this line of thinking for the dramatic relapse, overdose, and death of his friend. "Unfortunately, many people consider dependence of any kind or degree to be a problem. But that is a very moralistic conception of what a human being ought to be."

That moralistic conception lies at the heart of what is wrong with North American notions of addiction, he argues in his book. There is a "punishing attitude," taken for granted among addiction specialists and user support groups, that an addict must suffer the full pains of withdrawal before they can begin to recover.

For example, he argues, going hand-in-hand with the "abstinence only" view of drug addiction is the assumption that addicts must hit their "rock bottom" before they can summon the conviction to get clean.

But imagine a drug addicted prostitute who is not yet ready to kick her habit, he says.

"For this girl, hitting rock bottom will entail beatings and sexual assault. Now we have a culture in place that is crazy enough to suggest that that kind of treatment will render a woman less likely to get high."

In contrast, Ferentzy sites his own recovery from crack cocaine addiction.

Ferentzy, who started smoking crack halfway through his Ph.D. program, says he was only able to overcome the addiction once and for all through incremental reductions in use over a long period of time.

"The 'crash, burn, then see the light' story is best suited for a B-grade film," he says. "In reality, some people will beat their addiction, using off and on for six or seven years, before they finally kick it or use so infrequently that their lives are solid and respectable."

Ferentzy was invited to speak in Vancouver by the Portland Hotel Society, as part of an ongoing lecture series produced by the non-profit. Pointing to Insite, the Downtown Eastside safe injection facility, and the city's well-established network of services for drug users and addicts, he says he looks forward to speaking in "the most enlightened city in North America."

Ferentzy's lecture, Ending Drug Prohibition and Emancipating the Addict, will take place at the SFU Harbour Centre at 6:30 p.m. this Sunday, January 22. An introduction will be given by Dr. Gabor Mate.

Ben Christopher reports for The Tyee.

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