What does it mean to be addicted? One definition is an uncontrollable compulsion to repeat a behavior regardless of its negative consequences. More commonly, addiction is connected to a chemical substance and is characterized by well-defined physical symptoms upon withdrawal. Psychologists identify major motives for addictive behavior to be reduction of pain, enhancement of self-esteem and repetition of a comfortably predictable ritual. As I read these symptoms, one word comes to mind: “escape.”

We live in a world of chaos. When a person feels overwhelmed by the chaos of life, they may feel the natural urge to suppress the sensation of excess tension. However this “impulse to elevate” is not bad in and of itself, for it is biologically ordained. Like any other moral or ethical quandary, to determine if an act is permissible, we should look to the other parties affected by the individual’s drive to satisfaction.

[media-credit id=20177 align=”alignleft” width=”154″][/media-credit]I have never heard somebody complain about their friend taking a dollar from their wallet to go hit up McDonald’s for a hamburger. However, I’m familiar with several stories about friends being robbed by other friends to temporarily satisfy an addiction to a drug.

Between the two thefts, which is more reprehensible? If the amount of money is the concern, then the drug theft is worse. If crime under law is the concern, then the drug theft is still worse. However, beyond the paper pillars of public society, these two thefts are morally identical. Scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in Florida recently studied the effects of a junk food diet on the brains of mice, and found that high-calorie food is as addictive as cocaine or heroin.

During the study, eating junk food incessantly wore down the pleasure receptors in the brains of the mice to the point where their risk/reward pathways were too disoriented to understand acceptable behavior. This is the exact same chemical progression of a drug addict, but the drug in question was “food.” When the junk food rats had their junk food replaced by nutritious food, they simply stopped eating — for two weeks. The rats were not consuming food for survival; they were getting their chemical “fix.”

Clearly, if addictive substances are made more available under law, more of them will be consumed: Just look at CHEESEBURGERS! They are all over the place!  Yet perhaps we are misperceiving the situation. Maybe the McDonald’s Corporation just has an efficient business model. To compare eight-balls to burgers, we need a control group — some place where drugs fall under different rules.

In 2001, the government of Portugal eliminated all its legal penalties for drugs, including cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana. The critics of such a maneuver said that the poor, conservative Catholic nation would be overrun by “drug tourists” seeking to exploit their leniency. All such critics have since shut their mouths and closed their case, because Portugal’s new drug laws have succeeded.

In the five years following the decriminalization of drugs in Portugal, every statistic available to monitor drugs in society improved. HIV/AIDS transmission rates from needles went down, illegal teen drug use declined and record numbers of drug users are seeking treatment for their addiction. No legitimate public figure in Portugal now argues for a return to past prohibition because they know that prohibition doesn’t work. The rate for marijuana use in Portugal is the lowest in the European Union at 10%, compared to 40% in the United States. More Americans have tried cocaine than Portuguese have tried marijuana.

For a person to argue that alternatives to prohibition would increase drug use, they must willfully suspend their mind’s rational processes and enter a world of pure fantasy. Yet we allow people living in a fantasy to write laws that real people must follow.

Drugs are often addictive and can be harmful if you don’t define your limits. But here’s a short list of drugs that will do more harm to you than marijuana: television, fast food, patriotism, methamphetamine, organized religion, heroin, alcohol and political parties.