What if I told you that everything you thought you knew about addiction is not true?

Drugs were first banned about 100 years ago. That’s a century of waging war on drugs, backed by the story of addiction as it has been dished out to us by teachers, governments, media and society in general. Very few of us question this story of addiction because it seems manifestly true.

If I asked 100 people what they thought started a drug addiction, I am sure most of them would look at me like I am mad and say “Drugs, of course!”

It’s easy to explain. Imagine if you and I and a few friends take a really potent drug for 20 days.

Drugs contain a very strong chemical hook so if we then stopped taking our drug on day 21, our bodies would already be needing the chemical. Craving it ferociously, in fact. We would be hooked, and that’s what addiction means.

This theory was first investigated many years ago through rat experiments. The setup is very simple. A rat is placed in a cage with two water bottles – in one, plain water. In the other, also water but this time laced with either cocaine or heroin. Time and time again, experiment after experiment, the rat will keep coming back to the drugged water until it eventually kills itself.

This definition of addiction was readily adopted and so we all assumed we knew what addiction meant.

It was in the 1970’s however, that an American professor of Psychology called Bruce Alexander looked beyond what seemed to be such a simple theory and noticed that in all the experiments, the rat was always placed in the cage alone. There was nothing else but the two water bottles in the cage, and without any other recreational stimulation available, the rat had nothing to do but drink from either bottle. The Professor wondered what would happen if things were done differently.

Professor Alexander then embarked on a project called Rat Park. It was a luxurious cage with toys aplenty, from coloured balls to tunnels. The rats had friends to interact with, and ate the best rat food on the market. The Rat Park had everything a rat could want. It also contained the two bottles of water, one plain, and one laced with either the cocaine or heroin. What then would be the outcome, the Professor wondered?

The rats tried water from both bottles as they obviously did not know what the bottles contained, but what happened after they sampled the water took the Professor by surprise. The rats wanted nothing to do with the drugged water and did not return to drink from that bottle again. They shunned it, and in total, drank less than a quarter of what the isolated rats did. None died, because they weren’t overdosing on the drugged water. All the rats who had been kept alone became heavy users, which ultimately led to their deaths, but the rats living a comfortable life in a happy environment showed no further interest in the drugged water after first tasting it.

Professor Alexander at first thought that this was behaviour specific to rats only, but then discovered that at the same time he was conducing his experiments with the Rat Park, the human equivalent was taking place – the Vietnam War.

Time Magazine reported that during the war, using heroin was “as common as chewing gum” amongst US soldiers. This claim was backed up by a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, which confirmed that at least 20% of US soldiers became addicted to heroin during the Vietnam War.

This understandably caused great concern amongst many people in the US. They were terrified that once the war ended, a huge number of addicts would be heading home, taking up residence in neighbourhoods and continuing with their heroin addictions.

But surprisingly, according to the same study, at least 95% of those soldiers simply stopped taking heroin once they returned home. In fact, very few even entered rehab. Their environment had changed and they no longer needed the drug.

The Professor argues that this discovery is a direct challenge, firstly to the right-wing view that addiction is merely a character flaw, or a moral failing due to a hedonistic lifestyle, and then secondly, the liberal view that addiction is really just a disease caused by a chemical hijacking of the brain. The Professor’s theory is that addiction is an adaptation to your surroundings. He likens this to the rat experiment and says it is not the person but rather they cage they are in.

After the first experimental phase of Rat Park, Professor Alexander decided to test his theory further. He once again placed lone rats in cages with just the two water bottles – one filled with plain water and one laced with cocaine or heroin. This time, however, he let the experiment run for a total of fifty seven days. Fifty seven days, after which the rats were well and truly hooked on the drugs.

He then removed the rats from isolation and placed them in the Rat Park where they could run free, play and interact with their own kind. What he wanted to find out was whether the brain could recover from such a severe state of addiction if it was exposed to a new and positive environment.

Once again, he was surprised at the results. The rats of course went through a period of withdrawal, made evident by some twitching, but they soon stopped using the drugged water which was still available in the Rat Park, and reverted back to happy, normal rats.

This new theory is an assault on everything we have been led to believe about addiction.

Let’s put it to the test with another example. Should you fall and break your hip, it is likely that in hospital you will be given diamorphine, the medical name for heroin. In the hospital, you would probably be surrounded by numerous other people also receiving diamorphine, some long term, for pain relief.

This form of heroin administered by doctors will be of the highest purity and potency, as opposed to the street drug which has been adulterated by the dealers who sell it. So if the old addiction theory is correct, that it is the drugs themselves which fuel addiction and cause your body to crave the chemicals, then it should follow that many people will leave hospital as addicts, looking to continue their dependency on the drug.

Yet this rarely happens. There is enough medical evidence available to show that despite many months of use as pain relief, medical users just stop. The very drug which turns street users into desperate addicts leaves medical users mostly unaffected. But how can that be?

If addiction is based purely on the chemical hooks, then this theory does not make much sense. If you believe Professor Alexander’s theory, however, then the picture becomes clearer. Like the rats in the first cage, the street addict is in an environment where there is only one source of solace. The medical user is like the rats in the Rat Park. The drug is still the same but the environment is different.

 

It may then be suggested that human beings have a need to bond and form a connection. We derive satisfaction from our connection to other human beings, but when that is absent, we then connect to other substances which meet that need. Be it a needle or a roulette wheel or another mouthful of food.

“So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.” 

KP