Like many people, I have a wide variety of life-destroying addictions in my family tree, from gambling to alcoholism to drug-induced violent schizophrenia. So this new look at the potential causes of addition is… interesting.

Tl;dr, there’s evidence that seems to suggest substance abuse is, at least in part, exacerbated by stressful, isolating, and/or unstimulating environments. Essentially, if people can’t get connection and solace from any other means, they can get it from drugs. This works both ways: people in isolating environments are more likely to turn to drugs in the first place, but similarly drug users who are brought into more positive, connected environments are more likely to go clean. Think of anyone you’ve ever known who’s been in some kind of serious accident, and who’s been given diamorphine, a.k.a. heroin, by their doctors for pain-relief. This is a common prescription, and yet it’s extremely rare for patients to go on to abusing street heroin after their recovery, even after long periods on “medical heroin”. Well, there’s a reason for that, and it has to do with the circumstances most people find themselves in when they emerge from hospital after said accident (supporting family/friends, ongoing care by medical specialists, and the social expectation that they will “return to health”).

Obviously, the picture isn’t as simple as “hugs and good feels cure substance abuse”. But the research is… interesting. And it also has an interesting corollary for drug policy, which is essentially that our current “War on Drugs” bullshit actually exacerbates substance abuse, by creating more of exactly the circumstances needed for addictions to really hook into the human psyche: mass incarceration, for example, and the subsequent social shunning people with criminal records often receive after their release. Meanwhile, countries that have tried radically different policies to combat substance abuse, ones that focus on fostering decriminalisation and rehabilitation, have seen their rates of use plummet.

Substance abuse is a serious and complex social problem, and it requires serious and complex assessment of how to appropriately respond. And our current simplistic, moralising “tough love” approaches aren’t it.