The war on drugs has been an abject
failure, concludes Dr Gabor Mat� brusquely. For almost
a decade he has witnessed the consequences of the government's
battle against illicit substances in his work with hardcore
addicts in Canada's most notorious skid row, Vancouver's
The things he has seen and heard
are sometimes funny, sometimes touching, but more often
horrific. The current federal government's hard line
on illicit drug use demonizes addicts many of
whom are victims of sexual abuse, neglect and violence
and places them on the losing side of the social
scale, disdained by society and battered by the law.
In his new book In the Realm
of Hungry Ghosts: Close encounters with addiction,
Dr Mat� lays out a rich exploration of addiction inspired
by his east side patients. After three years spent researching
and writing the book, he's come to a pretty radical
Dr Mat�'s patients
Carl is a 36-six-year-old native man who was "banished
from one foster home after another, had dishwashing
liquid poured down his throat at age five for
using foul language and was tied to a chair in
a dark room in attempts to control his hyperactivity."
Dr Mat� relates that when Carl becomes angry with
himself for using drugs he gouges his own foot
with a knife as punishment.
Dr Mat� keeps a birth diary for Celia, an addicted
and HIV positive patient who became pregnant and
longs to escape the downtown east side. She hopes
to leave behind her life of abuse and create a
home for her child and partner Rick. Yet she keeps
using. "The less dope I'm doing, the more stuff
from the past surfaces," she says. Celia's stepfather
started sexually abusing her including
a horrific spitting ritual when she was
five years old. Dr Mat� urges her into an addiction
recovery home, but she can't follow through and
gravitates back to drugs.
"I would decriminalize drugs,"
he says without hesitation, "and provide them for people
under supervised programs and use that as a way of connecting
them with healthcare. I would provide a centralized
system of recovery facilities for people in various
stages of addiction."
Every day, Dr Mat� encounters the casualties of the
drug war in his office at the Portland Hotel, an east
side domicile where addicts are invited to live, in
an attempt to keep them off the streets. The Portland
houses North America's first supervised injection site
as well as a clinic where Dr Mat� treats a client base
of 700 residents who abuse multiple substances and carry
deep psychological wounds.
He used to have a successful family
practice of his own in Vancouver, but about seven years
ago Dr Mat� came to a point in his career where he felt
he needed to move on to another challenge.
Something about those living in
the Downtown Eastside had always resonated with him.
"I recognize myself in them very much," he acknowledges.
Like many who work with disenfranchised
people, Dr Mat� has experienced his own share of hardships.
As an infant during World War II he lived under Nazi
occupation in Budapest's Jewish ghetto. He and his parents
survived and emigrated to Canada in 1957, but his grandparents
perished at Auschwitz.
He's got other problems, too, which
he explores openly in his books. His struggles with
ADHD and obsessive music-buying he once dropped
$8,000 in a week give him, he says, a certain
kinship with his patients.
In Hungry Ghosts Dr Mat� delineates his proposal
for treating his patients by first delving into the
world of Vancouver's addicts, telling their stories
in the book's opening chapters (meet two of them above).
Throughout Hungry Ghosts
Dr Mat� compares his own workaholic tendencies and his
compulsive purchasing of classical music CDs to the
addictions of his patients. Although he admits his own
compulsions wear "dainty white gloves" next to those
of his drug-addicted patients, they bear a resemblance.
In the book, Dr Mat� writes about the time he forgot
his 11-year-old son in a comic-book shop for nearly
an hour. He just intented to pop over to the music store
across the street for 15 minutes, but when he couldn't
find the disc he wanted, Dr Mat� hopped in his car and
drove downtown to another shop to find the record.
Through tales like these he invites
readers to examine their own lives for addictive patterns.
Addiction is a repeated behaviour that a person keeps
engaging in, even though they know it harms themselves
or others. It's just that some of these behaviours are
more socially accepted than others.
"There's absolutely an internet
addiction, a work addiction, a food addiction, a gambling
addiction," Dr Mat� says. "When you look at the brain
scans of people engaged in any addictive relationship
or behaviour it's the same parts of the brain that are
involved." When you scan the brains of shopaholics,
he says, "it's the same parts that light up as those
in drug addicts. The more expensive the product, the
more the brain lights up."
His observations seek common ground
between those on the street, workaholic doctors and
compulsive gamblers. And although each finds themselves
on a different point on the spectrum of addiction, each
deserves compassion and treatment rather than vilification.
"There's no 'war on drugs,' there's
a war on drug addicts," Dr Mat� says emphatically. "When
you ostracize people and you demonize them and force
them into the shadows of an illegal world, which many
of these people come from, it drives their behaviour