Homeless in Vancouver: Treating meth addicts like pariahs for fun and profit

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      Rehabs.com’s “Your Face on Meth” allows anyone to upload a jpg image of someone’s face and almost instantly see a supposed simulation of how a crystal methamphetamine addiction would ravage that person’s looks in five time increments over a five-year period.

      This rather crass feature begins with a windy justification:

      “The goal of this project is to demonstrate dramatically the immense toll that drugs like Meth can have on one’s appearance and the seriousness of addiction. This extreme physical deterioration is often representative of further destruction taking place within an addict’s personal, family and social life.

      Use these representative images to remind yourself and your loved one(s) of just how bad things can become, and know that drug abuse is an absolutely serious matter. The physical transformation that prolonged drug abuse can cause is just the tip of the iceberg, merely an immediate and dramatic representation of the life-altering destruction that addiction can create.”

      If that isn’t enough to prove Rehab.com’s pure intentions, it’s followed by a multiple-choice questionnaire that poses what I believe a lawyer would call leading questions, such as:

      1. Does seeing the physical effects of severe drug addiction make you feel more or less compassion for these addicts?
      2. Does seeing the physical effects of severe drug addiction make you less likely to abuse drugs?

      Then it’s on to the “fun”. The website prompts the user to either upload an image from their hard drive or to take a photo using their computer’s webcam.

      Chosen images load quickly and the user is presented with an original version of their image on the left side of the screen. Over this, they are asked to position movable orientation markers—on the eyes, nose, mouth, and around the face.

      On the right side of the screen is a version of the image showing the real-time results of  dragging around the markers, with five versions to choose from: “3 months”, “6 months”, “12 months”, and “5 years”.

      Clicking “Next” runs up a nice little postcard of all five views, which you can download and, I dunno, ponder over.

      It certainly made me think.

      Selling private drug treatment one scare at a time

      Christ! He looks terrible, doesn't he?

      The first thing I thought was “wow, this is hokey.” Then, after I’d run a few faces through, I thought that none of them looked anything like the long-time meth users that I know. This made me wonder.

      Canadians sometimes get  lighter and sweeter versions of U.S. food products, like Crystal Pepsi—might the same be true of our crystal methamphetamine?

      Mostly, however, I was left scratching my head and asking what the hell it was about?

      Turns out that, sanctimonious justifications aside, it’s all about the high-pressure marketing of private U.S. drug treatment clinics.

      Rehabs.com isn’t itself in the business of addiction treatment. It’s in the business of steering addicts toward private addiction treatment options in the U.S. How it exactly makes money doing this is a bit vague.

      The ownership of the Rehabs.com domain appears to be hidden behind a proxy but the domain has been identified as one of several owned and operated by a 2012 startup called Recovery Brands. It has a business model built around promoting private drug treatment in general and specifically connecting addicted consumers to the private treatment centre that’s right for them.

      Recovery Brands was sued in 2014 for allegedly steering consumers away from one treatment centre and toward another. The suit was dismissed in 2015 but the practices it alleged are said to be common in the marketing of addiction treatment.

      Recovery Brands has been accused of shrouding its identity behind fictitious groups and various web domains—including one formerly used by a U.S. government-sponsored National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign.

      A feature like “Your Face on Meth” is a very hardnosed tactic.

      By painting drug addicts, for all to see, as the 21st century’s lepers and pariahs, Recovery Brands is leveraging fear to motivate drug addicts to open their wallets wide and choose private treatment.

      I think it’s dehumanizing and ugly but Recovery Brands’ sharp business tactics are apparently mild when compared to the amount of outright deception and trickery commonly used to market U.S. addiction recovery centres.

      In 2013, a psychologist followed up a suspicious email that looked, at first glance, like unbiased addiction treatment information from the U.S. government but turned out to be advertising for a private treatment clinic. The information was disguised using a “dot net” address that closely spoofed the well-known domain of a federal agency.

      The psychologist characterized a good deal of the unsolicited offers received from treatment and rehab centres as increasingly “subtle and duplicitous”.

      Disaster capitalism at work

      You can tell a lot about the current state of free-market thinking by the fallacies that it embraces.

      At the end the 19th century and into the beginning of the 20th century, Darwinian Natural Selection was twisted around to create a spurious “survival of the fittest” justification for monopoly capitalism.

      Since the 1960s, neoliberal free marketeers have tellingly been fond of  pointing to the Chinese word for “crisis” and rather simplistically saying that it’s composed of two character that respectively mean “danger” and “opportunity”.

      And so it is that south of the border, social problems are seen through a free-market lens as business opportunities, first and foremost. Crime and punishment, homelessness and housing, drug addiction and treatment—all growth industries.

      If you came up with an instant cure to do away with both harmful street drugs and the resulting life-sucking addictions they cause, I’m sure that Americans would not only beat a hasty path to your door, they would also stick you in a sack weighted down with lead shot and dump you in the nearest deep body of water. Really, I believe they would!

      Putting aside the whole lucrative business of getting people hooked on drugs in the first place, let’s just say that the drug trade in all its forms—both legal and illegal–is creating huge opportunities for addiction treatment.

      Consider that in the United States, drug, alcohol, and other addiction treatment was estimated in 2014, to be a US$35 billion industry, with at least 14,000 private-sector addiction treatment facilities treating 2.5 million Americans a year. This came at an average cost, in 2011, of $25,166 per person.

      The majority of programs offered by U.S. addiction treatment clinics appear to be of the short, 30-day variety. There appears to be no empirical evidence that they work, so far as curing addictions is concerned.

      Some experts cite as a “success” figure, that 30 percent of people that go through rehab abstain for a year. Meanwhile according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 40 to 60 percent of people relapse after such drug treatment. Reports of people repeatedly failing treatment are common.

      Treating a thing is so much more lucrative than actually curing it.

      Rehab.com’s “Your Face on Meth” may be inspired by the scary amount of publicity garnered two years ago by the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office in Tennessee, USA, which, on August 8, 2014, included an edited image of Kim Kardashian as a meth addict, in a “scared straight” gallery on the department’s website.

      Apparently though, it wasn’t the kind of publicity that the sheriff’s office was looking for because the gallery was yanked after only a few hours.

      Stanley Q. Woodvine is a homeless resident of Vancouver who has worked in the past as an illustrator, graphic designer, and writer. Follow Stanley on Twitter at @sqwabb.