In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction by Gabor Maté. Alfred A. Knopf Canada 2008.
Maté’s title springs from the Buddhist Wheel of Life, which revolves through six realms, each of which represents aspects of human existence. In the Hungry Ghost Realm, inhabitants are depicted as emaciated, scrawny characters. It is the realm of those constantly seeking something outside of themselves to curb an insatiable yearning for relief. But their emptiness will never be relieved because the sought-after objects are not what they really need. Such, Maté explains, is the world of the addict.
Dr. Gabor Maté works in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, home to a large population of addicted men and women. In Hungry Ghosts, Maté introduces some of his patients and details their life stories. Virtually one hundred percent of his patients have suffered through miserable life experiences that were beyond their control, most from early childhood. But in Hungry Ghosts, Maté doesn’t just consider drug use. Rather, he looks at the dynamics of addiction in its many manifestations, including overeating and workaholicism. He details how addiction changes the chemistry of the brain and looks at the social causes, costs and consequences of addiction.
I picked up Hungry Ghosts after hearing that Supervised Injection Sites, modelled after Vancouver’s Insite, were being recommended for Ottawa and Toronto. Predictably, opposition to SISs was immediate, in spite of evidence supporting their value. Probably the opponents think along the same lines as those who believe ignoring prostitution will make it go away and withholding contraceptive information from teens will prevent them from having sex, the “Head in the Sand” approach.
In Hungry Ghosts, Maté outlines what enlightened drug policies might look like. He doesn’t hold out any hope for these policies being put in place however, noting:
In a culture that projects its darkest features onto the addict and makes addicted people into scapegoats for its shortcomings, insight and knowledge are almost entirely absent from public discourse concerning drug policies. Moralizing displaces compassion and prejudice substitutes for inquiry. The evidence accumulated by decades of scientific research into the psychology of addiction, brain development, child rearing and the social origins of addictive drives rarely enters into the discussion of how to tackle the persisting problem of drug addiction. Indeed, as this book goes to press, the Globe and Mail reports that Canada’s assault on drug addicts is about to escalate. According to the Globe, “the federal Conservative government [is preparing] to unveil a strategy that cracks down on illicit drug users,” with harsher penalties for users of illicit substances. The mountain of evidence showing the worthlessness of this get-tough approach is, once more, ignored.
Certainly nothing has improved since Maté wrote those words a few years ago. Indeed, the Conservative government has devoted itself zealously to minimizing informed scientific input into decision-making on every possible front, conducting what amounts to a “War on Science”.
Maté further notes that the “War on Drugs” has been a total failure. All that the crackdown on illegal drugs has succeeded in doing is making an incredibly profitable market for organized crime. “The major reason why our society is awash in illicit drugs is the unbelievable profits that can be realized in their being manufactured and sold.” writes Judge James P. Grey of the California Superior Court. It is the same in Canada. Maté argues convincingly that decriminalizing drug use is a first necessary step in coming to grips with drug use.
Hungry Ghosts is impressively complete in its consideration of addictions and their costs. Maté is deeply humane and sensitive and his thorough knowledge of addiction, both as experienced on the front-lines and through research and study makes Hungry Ghosts a compelling read.