…and the truth the government hopes you’ll never learn
I’ve been helping people who become addicted to drugs (heroin, cocaine, marijuana, alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, etc,) for more than forty years. There is a myth that heroin, cocaine, and marijuana are dangerous drugs, while alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine are mainstream, and therefore, safe (i.e. safe for mainstream business interests.) Our continuous “war on drugs” does nothing to help people and undermines our laws and our lives. By the time I started writing about our failed drug policies, our government’s efforts to eliminate drugs used by people they didn’t like had been going on for 100 years.
The first anti-opium laws in the 1870s were directed at Chinese immigrants. The first anti-cocaine laws, in the South in the early 1900s, were directed at Black men. The first anti-marijuana laws, in the Midwest and the Southwest in the 1910s and 1920s, were directed at Mexican migrants and Mexican Americans. Today, Latino and especially Black communities are still subject to hugely disproportionate drug enforcement and sentencing practices.
In a 1973 article, “Our Anti-Drug Abuse Programs, Pathologies of Defense,” I detailed the way I saw the then current war on drugs:
“The drug problem in his country continues to get worse, and the programs that we have developed to combat the problem are actually adding fuel to the fire. The laws that have been developed over the past 100 years have done nothing to discourage the use of drugs. Their effect has caused the criminalization of millions of otherwise law abiding citizens. Legal restrictions on mind altering drugs have produced a new industry that has proven extremely profitable to legal drug manufacturers and salesmen as well as the illegal drug entrepreneurs. The huge profits to be made in the drug business have caused corruption in large segments of society.”
Those in power don’t want to admit that the purpose of the drug wars has little to do with drugs and a lot to do with people, often minorities, who threaten the monetary interests of those in power. Rather they would have us believe that drugs are so dangerous, once hooked they will highjack our brain and destroy our mind (Remember the ads, “This is your brain on drugs?”)
This belief is reflected in such familiar phrases as “crack cocaine is instantly addictive” or “heroin is so good, don’t even try it once.” It suggests that drugs will not only quickly hook us, but that they will kill us as well. These beliefs were bolstered by scientific studies in the 1960s and 1970s that showed that rats, mice, monkeys, and other captive mammals will self-inject large doses of heroin, cocaine, amphetamines, and a number of other drugs. They would do so rather than eat or have sex, and would even continue until death. The dangers of drugs seemed clear. Case closed.
Bruce Alexander and His Rat Park Studies Provided a More Accurate Understanding
A number of researchers in the 1970s found evidence that ingesting drugs by caged laboratory animals could be understood as a way that the animals cope with the stress of social and sensory isolation. Dr. Bruce Alexander and colleagues at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia designed a series of studies in the late 1970s to further test these ideas.
These studies were eventually dubbed, the “Rat Park” experiments. Alexander describes the conditions under which laboratory rats were given drugs:
“When I was an experimental psychologist, between about 1960 and 1980, white laboratory rats had to live in solitary confinement cellblocks like this…
Although the rats lived in close proximity, they could neither see nor touch each other, because the sides of their cages were made of sheet metal. The only visual stimulation they got was seeing the people who brought food and water and cleaned the metal pans under their cages every few days. Unlike human prisoners, the rats did not even get an exercise period outside their cramped cages.”
Picture yourself living under these conditions: Locked in prison and isolated from contact. Might you use drugs to get you through the days and nights?
Alexander and his colleagues decided to test the hypothesis that under normal conditions the rats wouldn’t use drugs in destructive ways.
“We compared the drug intake of rats housed in a reasonably normal environment 24 hours a day with rats kept in isolation in the solitary confinement cages that were standard in those days. This required building a great big plywood box on the floor of our laboratory, filling it with things that rats like, such as platforms for climbing, tin cans for hiding in, wood chips for strewing around, and running wheels for exercise. Naturally we included lots of rats of both sexes, and naturally the place soon was teeming with babies. The rats loved it and we loved it too, so we called it “Rat Park.”
The Truth About Drugs: It’s The Environment, Not The Drugs, That Cause Addiction
Here were the results that Alexander and his group found:
“We ran several experiments comparing the drug consumption of rats in Rat Park with rats in solitary confinement in regular laboratory cages,” says Alexander. “In virtually every experiment, the rats in solitary confinement consumed more drug solution, by every measure we could devise. And not just a little more. A lot more.”
You might think that these results would be heralded around the world and bring about changes in our drug policies and practices. But that was not the case. The program lost its funding and the doors were closed.
“I was ready for a ticker tape parade,” says Alexander. “That evidence like this can be so completely disregarded—it’s amazing.”
I know how he feels. I still feel the pain of my own work being ignored more than forty years ago. But now we know why. Our conclusions did not fit the official view of what causes addiction. In his book The Globalization of Addiction: A Study in Poverty of the Spirit and on his website Alexander says:
“Global society is drowning in addiction to drug use and a thousand other habits. This is because people around the world, rich and poor alike, are being torn from the close ties to family, culture, and traditional spirituality that constituted the normal fabric of life in pre-modern times. This kind of global society subjects people to unrelenting pressures towards individualism and competition, dislocating them from social life. People adapt to this dislocation by concocting the best substitutes that they can for a sustaining social, cultural and spiritual wholeness, and addiction provides this substitute for more and more of us.”
These are not ideas the government wants to hear and the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), with its billion dollar budget controls 85% of all the scientific research in the world, not just in the United States. And their reach continues to expand. But the times are changing.
In his excellent, and well-researched, book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, journalist Johann Hari says,
“One hundred years after drugs were first banned, support for waging war on drugs is collapsing.”
He offers a number of organizations that you can get involved with including Transform, one of the most authoritative and effective organizations in the world working for healthy change.
According to Ruth Dreifuss, former president of Switzerland and member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy,
“Transform has been at the cutting edge of drug policy analysis for almost twenty years and is an NGO that is increasingly recognized as one of the motivating forces for global reform.”
If these issues resonate with you, I encourage you to learn more and get involved.
Photo Credit: Getty Images