Oh how fun it is to watch politicians self-destruct, and it’s all the better when sex and drugs are involved. Even by recent low standards—Anthony Weiner, Mark Sanford—Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s extended flameout is irresistible in its sordidness, replete with crack-smoking, booze black-outs, outrageous sexual harassment and vulgarity, and prostitution. Ford is, said Jay Leno, “God’s gift to comedy.” John Stewart played a video of Ford in a press conference held this week during which the mayor said he “absolutely” stood by an earlier statement that he has “zero tolerance for drugs, guns, and gangs” and quipped that the mayor may actually have meant that he has “Jim Morrison-like high tolerance for drugs.” In a skit on Saturday Night Live, a crack dealer makes a delivery in the middle of a Ford press conference.
The pile-on would merely be good, if slightly sordid, entertainment if it wasn’t completely overlooking the explanation of Ford’s outrageous behavior. Mayor Ford has said that he isn’t an addict, but his actions suggest otherwise. Markers of addiction include driving under the influence (Ford admitted he did), risky activities when high (he’s admitted to a number of them), and using drugs to the point that they harm your relationships and career (I mean, come on). And then there’s the denial.
Ridiculing Ford is easy. What’s harder is to look at his destructive behavior, to stop attributing it to him being “out of control” and instead look at the cause. Addicts’ actions defy all logic, but are explained by the impact of drugs on the human brain and the fact that not all brains react the same way. Addicts’ brains become hijacked by drugs. Brain regions associated with judgment, cognition, restraint and moderation are as good as dismantled, causing impulsivity, an unrestrained desire for pleasure, and cloudy thinking to dominate. In the meantime, the addicted brain, deprived of a healthy amount of the essential neurotransmitter dopamine, intensely craves drugs. Addicts have described a need for drugs that feels like the need for oxygen—deprived of it, humans would kick, scratch, and claw for a breath of air. Because of a broken dopamine system, addicts can feel as if they’re fighting for their lives, and they may be. They’ll lie, cheat, and steal for more, even while their actions become more and more reprehensible.
When I first heard Ford described as “the crack-smoking mayor,” I chuckled. But then I thought about the reality of smoking crack. When as a teenager my son became addicted to many drugs, including methamphetamine and heroin—he also used crack—I initially thought he was just a selfish, hedonist teenager choosing to party, no matter the hurt he caused. But eventually I learned that he wasn’t having a good time. He was in pain, and using drugs in spite of a desire to stop.
In the past few days, Ford has seemed crazier in successive press conferences. As the Toronto City Council stripped the mayor of most of his power, he remained defiant, refusing to step down and attacking his attackers, declaring an “outright war.” In his current state, Ford is unfit to be running a city. But what he needs isn’t censure. Nor does he need to be the brunt of our snickering. He needs treatment.