Conventional wisdom says that drug or alcohol addicts can only kick their habits by abstaining from ever consuming their drug of choice again. It seems that addiction counselors aren’t getting that memo. Alan Davis and Harold Rosenberg of Bowling Green State University interviewed 913 members of the National Association of Alcoholism and Drug Addiction Counselors, and found that roughly half of them would feel comfortable telling some of their clients that it’s okay to imbibe now and then.
First, it’s important to note that the counselors distinguished between levels of addiction. For example, there’s a distinction between ‘abuse’ and ‘dependence’. People who abuse drugs may get into trouble with their bosses or loved ones, but they usually don’t suffer from withdrawal symptoms like dependent people. Second, the counselors took into consideration which particular drug or drugs were being abused.
Overall, about half the counselors were somewhat or completely comfortable telling at least some of their clients that strict abstinence was not necessary. The percentage depended on the degree of addiction, the drug or drugs of choice and whether the continued drug use was to be considered temporary or permanent. About 15% of counselors felt that even drug-dependent people could safely view non-abstinence as a final goal.
One important caveat is that this study did not evaluate outcomes. In other words, we don’t know from these results whether the counselors were right or wrong in allowing their clients to continue to use their substances. On the other hand, the authors suggest that telling drug addicts that they may not have to completely abstain from drug usage could make treatment more palatable. Just getting more people into treatment programs may be a net benefit even if some people relapse.