Caroline Ridout Stewart, MA, MSW, LCSW

muffins on plate

Our children are dying en masse of opioid overdoses and the federal government is going back in a time machine arguing that marijuana is a gate-way drug. As they would say on Saturday Night Live: What’s up with that? As the mother of a son who has been battling with heroin addiction for many years, I find that the anxiety about marijuana use is sadly misguided. Frankly, my son’s “gateway drug” is much more likely sugar. Yes, sugar. From a very young age, he has been addicted to anything and everything that is sweet. Ironically, I would argue most of the American populace is similarly addicted. Did you know that sugar has one of the shortest half-lives of all drugs? That is, that sugar passes so quickly through the brain-blood barrier and is so quickly received by the waiting brain in the form of high reward and gratification that there is almost no time to answer the question: Do I really want or need this? I don’t think a single person would argue that the primate psyche does not absolutely, unquestionably “LOVE” sugar. I always say that sugar and meth-amphetamine have the shortest half-life of any two drugs on the planet. Marijuana…not so much.

I taught Human Biology for ten years and enjoyed teaching my students about the banana box experience of Jane Goodall who studied the Gombe Stream Game Reserve chimpanzee population in Tanganyika. Ms. Goodall, attempting to do observational studies of the chimps, found that she was having a very difficult time collecting data about the chimps because they stayed much of the day high up in the forest canopy. She came up with a truly brilliant idea. She created a locked mesh box in which she placed dozens of fresh bananas and situated the box in her anthropology encampment. Now you might think that the Gombe chimpanzees had ready daily access to bananas but think again. The Gombe Reserve chimps had never before eaten bananas and they had never before eaten anything with such high sugar content as was present in the bananas. Having constructed the box, Ms. Goodall then gifted the chimps with the precious food at a given time each day to draw the chimps out of the trees onto the forest floor where Ms Goodall and her students could observe the primates relating to one another. The bananas were a huge success or rather a huge draw for the chimps. The chimps literally stormed her encampment. They crowded the door to get immediate access to the box. They became irritable when thwarted. They even fought one another to have access to the bananas. The chimps had become “addicted” to sugar.

Which takes me back to my son’s sugar addiction. I am not aware that I gave my son more sugar than the average American mother. He had the odd cookie and treats but from where his powerful craving for all things sugared? I and the American populace was entirely duped. The US government began to subsidize corn farmers with massive financial subsidies to keep the farmers financially viable. This began as early as 1930 but was magnified in 1980 with “crop insurance.” Today, over half of the 300 million acres planted with food in the United States is corn (with some soy). The outcome was an understandable glut of corn. Much of it was routed to the production of cattle feed and gasoline but much was left over for consumption. Alas, someone came up with the glorious idea of creating corn syrup which could then be added at low cost to any and all complex food items such as salad dressings, soups and mass-produced bakery goods. Sadly, there was a two-fold goal: one, to subsidize the corn farmers and two, to infuse otherwise benign foods with hidden sugars that would set up innocent addiction pathways. Don’t even get me started about how angry and sad I feel when I see that those who are already marginalized (people of color and people living in poverty) have limited access to healthy foods, their neighborhood corner stores brimming over with processed foods with high sugar content.

I am certain that few people are old enough to remember a time in the US when the consumption of sugar was a rare treat. I, for example, recall in the early 50’s that my father, when coming home from a long week at the office, would purchase one Pepsi cola for me and one for my brother. The Pepsi was the only formal sugar that we received each week. It truly was a grand pleasure. As far as I recall, we developed no entitlement for sugar. We had a cake for our birthday and the occasional cake to celebrate a holiday but otherwise had remarkably sugar-free diets. I also know that our processed foods were not infused with large quantities of corn syrup.

My son is currently sober from heroin on a stable methadone regimen. That being said, I am noting that his sugar addiction is sky-rocketing. He often eats complex sugared foods as his main course. Spurning a dinner of pasta and salad, he prepares “shakes” with large quantities of ice cream and milk. Sadly, though never one who likes alcohol, his father and I have noted that he has been adding sugared “beers” into his daily intake. I strongly suspect that what he craves is not the high from the alcohol but the immediate reward of the sugar.

None of this is funny to me. I, too, struggle with an affinity for sugar. I know better but the powerful urge lures me into engagement. I can truly relate to my son’s struggle to remain sober from opioids when I drive each morning past our local Donut Star. I told my son that I have not stepped foot into the Donut Star for ten years and yet there is not a single morning that I drive by this store, that I do not look into the shop and think about how wonderful a maple bar would be. I understand….I really do.

Many people who suffer from addictive illness are wired in such a way that they require immediate gratification. They did not ask for such a brain. They have very low tolerance for frustration and a limited capacity to wait for future reward. These folks have brains on high alert for sugar. So be careful when you target marijuana as the original gate-way drug.

Caroline Ridout Stewart recently retired from the UCSD Department of Psychiatry where she was a Clinical Instructor and Psychotherapist for over twenty years specializing in the treatment of anxiety and addictive illness. Caroline continues to be a harm reduction provider in her private practice where she enjoys working with those struggling with opioid misuse. She is the mother of a son who suffers from a co-occurring disorder and leads the local NAMI Co-Occurring Support Group for Family Members whose children suffer from both mental and addictive illness. Caroline has been the President of the board of A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment and Healing) for 17 years promoting community Naloxone distribution. She is an artist and essayist.