Monday, February 24, 2014

Corrupting the Word

I was raised in a medical family;  my father and uncle had a clinic attached to the house, my mother was their first assistant/secretary, and most of their friends were doctors or dentists or nurses.  I grew up reading medical journals and medical texts, and learned quite a bit thereby.  I might have gone into medicine myself if I hadn't been so bad at mathematics.  One thing that came to annoy me considerably was the misuse of medical terms, ignorant or otherwise.

I am very tired of people misusing the word "addiction".  "Addiction" is a precise medical term describing a specific physical phenomenon -- namely, the body's adjustment to regular doses of a foreign substance, to the point where removal of the substance causes a painful readjustment back to normal.  In other words, there is no such thing as a "mental addiction", regardless of what ambitious politicians and their flacks may say.  You can become addicted to morphine, cocaine, alcohol, and even caffeine;  you can not become addicted to marijuana, sex, or video-games.  The mental phenomenon whereby people lust madly after such items or actions is properly called "obsession".  Yes, obsession can also be joined to addiction, which is what really makes the addiction hard to break;  there are countless cases of non-obsessed patients walking away from addictions without a backward glance, but any doctor can tell you the difficulty of weaning a patient away from an obsession.

So why has the term "addiction" been used so sloppily?  My guess is that the accurate term, "obsession", implies that the problem is all in the patient's mind -- which is true -- and that s/he could free themself from it if they really wanted to (which is also true).  In other words, a person with an obsession is responsible, while a person with an addiction is a victim.  Everyone knows that responsible people get sued, while victims get to do the suing.  In our present lawsuit-mad society, this is a serious consideration.

But more to the point, an obsession is a personal problem while an addiction can be manipulated into a social problem -- and from there into a political one.  You can stump up more than money by declaring war on an addiction than an obsession, and the more addictions to raise hysteria about the better.  You can get yourself a political reputation as a great moral crusader by going after a so-called addiction, and ride that hobby-horse into high political office.  Or you can ruin a businessman's product, or a whole industry, by calling it "addictive", thus clearing the market for your own -- or your cronies' -- product (for which the cronies will be grateful at election time).  This is exactly what happened to marijuana, originally called hemp, which was a major industry prior to 1932.

This is why corrupting language is so useful to politicians, big businessmen, and their assorted minions.  Hitler and Stalin were far from the first practitioners of this trick, and our current crop of VIPs will certainly not be the last.      


Carolyn said...

Why isn't marijuana addictive if the other substances like caffeine and alcohol are?

Leslie Fish said...

Hi, Carolyn. 'Tis something to do with biochemistry (and I flunked basic chemistry, so I have no idea what the specific mechanism is), which explains why nobody gets addicted to beets or apples, either. There are plenty of things you can ingest that don't get you addicted, and marijuana is just one of them. Peyote is another, so it's not just getting high that causes addiction.

Prof. Godel Fishbreath, Otter said...

MJ addictive?
"Although not medically serious, cannabis withdrawal symptoms can occur in one half of patients in treatment for cannabis use disorders. These symptoms include dysphoric mood (anxiety, irritability, depressed mood, restlessness), disturbed sleep, gastrointestinal symptoms, and decreased appetite. Most symptoms begin during the first week of abstinence and resolve after a few weeks"

Which IIRC does fit the test for physical addiction.

"Research has shown the overall addiction potential for cannabis to be less than for caffeine, tobacco, alcohol, cocaine or heroin, but slightly higher than that for psilocybin, mescaline, or LSD.[medical citation needed]"

I am in favor of MJ decriminalization, but do not expect the no hassle scenarios of some MJ advocates.

Antongarou said...

that s/he could free themself from it if they really wanted to (which is also true).

This implies it's as easy as, say, deciding to move from one bank to another. Even when the person really really wants the obsession gone and is actively suffering from it, and with professional help, this is *hard*(check the prognosis on OCD as an example).

Add in that a lot of time people who use drugs use as self medication for other problems(mental,physical or social) and thus have less then good amount of mental energy to fight the obsession that the drug creates(essentially a Pavlovian pleasure learning response), and you can see that without a social support system they have very little chance getting out of the drug circle(get money to get drugs, get drugs to get high, get down from high, get money to get drugs).

As to "addiction" vs. "Obsession" - I suspect it started with the venerable soundbite. "addiction" as a catch-all is easier to use "addictive" as a catch-all term for "strongly habit forming" rather than start describing the difference between "obsession" and "addiction". And the moment the public knows a catch-phrase, it is easier to use one then to coing your own.

Leslie Fish said...

Hi, Prof. Where did that statement come from? I've known a *lot* of people who regularly enjoyed pot and then had to go without it for awhile, and I've *never* heard of any of them having symptoms like that. Hmmmm, and just what is a "cannabis use disorder", anyway? This sounds suspiciously like voodoo science. Note that fatal footnote: "citation needed".

Hi, Anton. You'd be surprised how hard it can be to change banks these days! But anyway, nobody said that getting rid of an obsession was easy. Point is, it's a mental condition, and getting rid of it can be done if the victim really wants to get free -- much as with any neurosis. In the case of self-medication for other problems (chronic pain is a classic cause), obviously one has to get rid of the other problem first. I personally know of three such cases -- including me. No, I think the cause of misusing the term is a little more sinister than a simple soundbite convenience; when you count all the players (detox-clinics, prisons, asset-forfeiture-hunting cops, et al), the War On Drugs business is bigger than the illegal drug business itself. There certainly is financial motive for declaring everything and its uncle "addictive", and therefore part of the game.

Anonymous said...

Another term that's been corrupted is "Phobia." Finding, e.g., homosexuals distasteful or disapproving of their behavior doth not a phobia make.

Trust me on this. I have a Real Live Phobia, and it's nothing I could be scolded or reasoned out of. I know that almost all spiders are harmless little creatures and probably far more frightened of me than the reverse, but if one gets on me, I'm all "OMG OMG SPAZCON ONE KILL IT KILL IT KILL IT WITH FIRE!!!

Prof. Godel Fishbreath, Otter said...

Words were from Wiki:
So we have good words that it is on one level or another addictive, but it needs a citation for how addictive it is.

Anyway my source, my citation:

And wiki can be depended on if the subject is not controversial.

Leslie Fish said...

Hi, Prof. "Cannabis dependence" is another questionable phrase whose origins I have to wonder about. I never met anyone with anything that could be called a "cannabis dependency" who didn't do if for purely psychological reasons, most often: "This is one of the few things in my miserable life that makes me feel good, and besides, it makes my nasty parents/teachers/preachers/etc. freak out".

Ah, and yes, the harmlessness and medical usefulness of cannabis certainly is controversial! There is solid experimental evidence, going back to 1957, that cannabidiol (the 2nd most active ingredient in pot, after tetra-hyrdo-cannabinol) *shrinks cancerous tumors* down to nothing. Think of the uproar if *that* information became common knowledge, let alone the fact that such knowledge has been suppressed for more than half a century!

Hi, Raven. Indeed, I know about the difference between 'dislike' and 'phobia'! Up until I was in the 2nd grade, I had a phobia about snakes. The boys in my school had great fun with this, picking up garter snakes and shoving them in my face to enjoy my reaction. My outrage at that treatment finally led me to fight the phobia. The next time I saw a garter snake sunning itself on a tree stump, I forced myself to tiptoe up to it and touch it. Simultaneously, two things happened: 1) I discovered, much to my surprise, that snakes were not cold and slimy and squishy as I'd expected, but air-temperature and dry and firm; 2) the snake took off like a shot, diving for the nearest safe hole, obviously terrified of *me*. That killed the phobia for good, and I never feared snakes again. Indeed, if you read my book "Offensive As Hell" (available on, plug, plug), you'll come across a couple of funny stories in which I made good use of wearing a python.

I'll wager that you could defeat your phobia too if you could bring yourself to pet a tarantula (pet with the direction of the fur). Contrary to popular myth, tarantulas are very laid-back and easygoing creatures -- much like big dogs -- because nothing in Nature is likely to come bothering them.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I love snakes! My mom once took me up to the local junior college to introduce me to a snake they had there, and laughed and laughed to see it coiling around me. She said it was like a snake-charmer act. And at a con a couple of years ago, some people brought in snakes, and I was cooing over them to the point that some women were grumbling about "all that affection wasted on a bunch of dumb reptiles."

And I know I could overcome my arachnophobia if I had a compelling reason to. I seldom encounter spiders, though, and it's a very minor inconvenience at best.

I did read your book (and, IIRC, reviewed it on Amazon!) I wouldn't mind meeting "Snakey" myself. "Who's a love, then? Who's Daddy's favorite snake, then?"

I have a theory about why our Beloved Leaders fear cannibis, and hemp, so much. They have nightmares where hemp is the last thing they feel in this world...around their worthless necks, as they're hoisted into the air while thousands cheer.

Leslie Fish said...

Hi, Raven. Heheheheh. That would indeed make fear of cannabis an irrational phobia, since most ropes these days are made out of nylon. They'd do better to develop a healthy fear of tar, feathers and rails.