a bonobo humanity?

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

The rat park experiment and the war on drugs

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I’ve always intuitively felt that all drugs should be legal, along with just about everything else. I’m happy with age limits on drinking alcohol and driving cars – in fact I think the age for driving should be raised, based on evidence about youth and car accidents, but since all the evidence says that alcohol, along with tobacco, is one of the most dangerous and destructive of all consumable substances, and yet perfectly legal, why turn dope smokers, or sellers, into criminals?

Smoking tobacco kills 650 out of every hundred thousand people who use it, while using cocaine kills four.

I’d worked out that much as a teenager – it naturally took me a lot longer to work out my views on heroin, cocaine, acid, meth and other drugs I knew about mainly from TV. More recently, the Portuguese drug policy, which has decriminalised usage and invested in harm reduction and drug treatment services, and was introduced due to Portugal’s disastrous death toll due to HIV and other drug-related illnesses, has been held up as an alternative to a take-no-prisoners ‘war on drugs’ strategy which, like the old prohibition on alcohol in the US, has only led to a spike in organised crime and a massive boost for privatised prison systems (worth some $5 billion in the USA alone).

People overdose because [under prohibition] they don’t know if the heroin is 1% or 40%… Just imagine if every time you picked up a bottle of wine, you didn’t know whether it was 8% or 80% [or] if every time you took an aspirin, you didn’t know if it was 5 milligrams or 500 milligrams.”

Johann Hari’s book Chasing the scream: the first and last days of the war on drugs, from which all indented and bolded quotes here are taken, provides, inter alia, countless challenges to the war on drugs strategy. What causes people to become drug addicts? This is a very different question from – What causes people to take drugs? I take drugs all the time, more or less exclusively alcohol and caffeine. I’m not sure if caffeine is even considered a drug. In any case, I don’t think I have any chance of becoming addicted to either of them. Unlike Billie Holiday and many many others who live or have lived with unbearable psychic or physical pain, or a sense of total emptiness, or worthlessness, or loneliness.

And anyone can find themselves in these circumstances. They don’t even have to be human. Scientific studies and trials about the chemical impact of drugs, promoted by anti-drug governments, have often been conducted on rats. The most convincing of these studies, for the war-on-drugs advocates, involved feeding laboratory rats on cocaine or some other powerful drug, and observing the effect, which was predictably negative, and ultimately fatal. The obvious flaw in such a study was that the lab rat, caged, isolated, unstimulated, in just about the most reduced circumstances possible, had no alternative but to accept what was offered, and would have quite rationally preferred, if you can see reason in a rat, the excited state offered by the drug, whatever the consequences, to the death-in-life alternative of her lonely imprisoned situation.

“Only one drug is so addictive, nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it. And use it. And use it. Until dead. It’s called cocaine. And it can do the same thing to you.”

As Hari points out, fatally flawed studies of this sort have been utilised – or weaponised, to use the in-jargon – in the war against drugs, which Trump has recently sought to re-energise to distract from his current woes. The most convincing rat study regarding drugs and addiction points to a very different approach, unsurprisingly. It’s described thoroughly in Kelly Lambert’s book The lab rat chronicles, which is a hymn of praise to ‘the planet’s most successful mammals’. Both Lambert and Hari share a strong sense of surprise and frustration at the failure of this study to be recognised as seminal, not only for drug use and abuse, but for our understanding of depression, anomie, nihilism and the like, or alternatively our understanding of the importance of community, activity and stimulation as a source of well-being.

Bruce Alexander, a psychology professor in Canada, noted, in his research on addicts in the seventies and eighties, that a disproportionate number of them came from dysfunctional backgrounds. This raised questions for him about the ‘hard drugs capture the brain and slowly kill it off’ scenario presented in the anti-drugs ads of the time. He noted that the rats in the experiments the ads were based on appeared to be kept in deprived, unstimulating conditions, so that even when given the choice between drug-laced and drug-free fluids, they preferred the drugs. Even an illusion of freedom was better than no freedom at all.

Alexander led a team at Simon Fraser University to develop an experiment to test how an enriched environment compares to a deprived environment in dealing with drug use and addiction. Lambert provides the detail:

The habitat they created was about two hundred times larger than the standard rat cage, had walls with colourful murals painted on them, as opposed to wire mesh, and contained lots of objects to interact with and climb on. Also important, rats didn’t occupy the new environment in isolation. Groups of sixteen to twenty rats of both sexes were placed in the environment. The pictures Alexander shared with me are fabulous: The rats interact with their complex environment, hang out with each other, and take naps in hiding places, for example. The researchers dubbed this new  stimulating environment ‘Rat Park’.

The results of this experiment should surprise no-one. The rats in the park were offered the option of two fluids, plain water and water laced with morphine, and a number of tests were designed to test the rats’ willingness to use the drug, including comparing Rat Park rats with those in isolated cages, shifting rats from isolation to Rat Park, and shifting them from Rat Park to isolation. The detailed results are presented in a Wikipedia article dedicated to the subject. The isolated rats went for the morphine pronto, whether or not they’d been moved from Rat Park or had never been there. The Rat Park rats showed a strong preference for the plain water – the females experimented with the morphine more than the males. Rats brought up in isolation and forced to drink only the morphine, chose water when switched to Rat Park and given the choice, and showed only minor withdrawal symptoms.

Alexander’s own conclusions dispel the myth of drug-induced addiction as essentially a one-way street, requiring a total ban on drugs:

The intense appetite of isolated experimental animals for heroin in self-injection experiments tells us nothing about the responsiveness of normal animals and people to these drugs. Normal people can ignore heroin … even when it is plentiful in their environment, and they can use these drugs with little likelihood of addiction … Rats from Rat Park seem to be no less discriminating.

We should be shocked at the way this study was treated, from the get-go. It was submitted to the two most influential science journals on the planet, Science and Nature, but was rejected for reasons unknown. It was finally published in Psychopharmacology, but was largely ignored by the scientific community until recently. Even today it is trashed by apparently vested interests, though its findings are backed up by many observations of human behaviour – for example, high-volume drug use by many American soldiers in Vietnam under conditions of stress and alienation, a usage which dropped off markedly upon return to the US – and by the success of more humane and supportive treatment of drug addicts in programs in Liverpool, England and Vancouver, Canada, and in countries such as Switzerland, Portugal and Uruguay, as reported by Hari.

‘Drug users are criminals first and addicts afterwards’ – Harry Anslinger 

So why was the study so badly treated? Hari points to the funding of much scientific study on drug addiction, which deals with chemical pathways rather than social conditions. Partly it’s because these studies are easier to engage in and are part of ‘hard science’ rather than the ‘soft science’ that explores environment and social connection. Much funding comes from the US government, whose successive iterations have supported the war on drugs approach. Follow-up studies have been done on Alexander’s work, which have more or less backed up his findings, but the best support for it is in the human arena, and it’s a no-brainer. Punishing, demonising and bullying addicts might make some strange people feel good about themselves, but it’s not going to help those addicts to kick their habit, or bring it under greater control. It’s inhumane apart from everything else, but the ‘everything else’ here includes promoting black markets, organised crime and a world of intimidation. Just look at Mexico, which at the behest of the US government and under the urging – or rather bullying – of its FBN (Federal Bureau of Narcotics) chief, the notorious Harry Anslinger, declared war on drugs with catastrophic consequences. Now the whole nation is in the grip of organised crime gangs.

It’s a difficult time to fight against all this. It sometimes seems as if we’re confronting a wave of belligerent, ignorant populism around the world. I myself feel it’s time to push back against this more strongly, and I’m hoping to transform and further promote my blog in that cause. So this may be my last post under the ‘new ussr’ title. It’s time to get a bit more serious.


Kelly Lambert, The lab rat chronicles, 2011

Johann Hari, Chasing the scream, 2015





Written by stewart henderson

March 28, 2018 at 12:58 pm

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  1. […] Yes, it relates to a previous post, a recent one, about Rat Farm and the war on […]

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