Will science create an army of Dry Drunks?

Many of you may have noticed a story this past week about researchers developing a possible heroin vaccine. The basic idea is this: the vaccine blocks the brain-receptors that respond to heroin, such that users no longer get a euphoric rush from the drug. There’s been corresponding work on a cocaine vaccine, as well as indications that some diet drugs that operate on a similar principle are not only good for decreasing overeating, but may also help with quitting smoking and drug and alcohol addiction.

These developments, and others like them, are the outgrowth of burgeoning research over the past decade into the neurochemistry of addiction and genetics of addiction. Given all of this, it is not absurd, in fact it is overwhelmingly likely, that science is well on its way to delivering the ability to block addiction at the neuro-chemical level. It may take a decade or two, it will no doubt have fits and starts, but a medical “cure” (or more likely, multiple cures) for addiction is on its way.

Given my own experience in recovery, I feel a little cautious about some possible side effects of this. I can absolutely see these vaccines and blocking drugs helping people and saving lives. But I wonder if they may also facilitate the creation of an army of dry drunks.

For those not familiar with the parlance, in recovery lingo a “dry drunk” is a person who is no longer active in their addiction, but is also not undertaking the self-work necessary to transform the psychological and character roots of addiction, and clean up the internal mental toll that active addiction leaves in its wake. Usually you can’t get away with this for too long without returning to using, but some people do for years, even decades. The Minnesota Recovery Center has a good online run-down of what this looks like on the ground.

To give a quick summation, it boils down to this: “dry drunks” are clean and sober, and may remain so their entire lives, but they’re not, to quote the AA Big Book, “happy, joyous and free.” This can be a pretty miserable way to live. It also tends to lead to a lifestyle that can spread misery to family and friends. 

I’m not trying to rain on science’s parade here. As I said above, I can see these medical measures doing a lot of good for a lot of people. But I can also see, especially in our “quick fix”-obsessed society, these treatments increasing the temptation to try to bypass the hard inner work that, in some cases, there may be no substitute for.   


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