Rat Trap: Why Canada’s drug policy won’t check addiction
by Robert Hercz
Walrus Magaizine, 11 March 2008
The study advocated that money be directed toward cost-effective, evidence-based prevention, treatment, and harm-reduction programs — the other three pillars of Canada’s drug policy. But to Bruce Alexander, a psychologist who recently retired after thirty-five years at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, the policy debate is just a distraction. “There’s no drug policy that will have much effect on addiction,” he says from his home in Vancouver. “I think that’s one of our diversions: ‘If we could just get the drug policy right, we’d solve our addiction problem.’ I don’t think that would touch it. The only way we’ll ever touch the problem of addiction is by developing and fostering viable culture.”
Alexander has been delivering this message since the late 1970s, when he ran a series of elegant experiments he calls Rat Park, which led him to conclude that drugs — even such hard drugs as heroin and cocaine — do not cause addiction; the user’s environment does. It was a stunning result, one that should have had a seismic effect on drug policy. But, like the report on Canada’s failed drug strategy, Alexander’s research was largely ignored.
When Richard Nixon launched the War on Drugs in the early 1970s, it was generally believed, as it is today, that drugs cause addiction as surely as lightning causes thunder. At that time, Bruce Alexander was counselling addicts in Vancouver’s infamous Downtown Eastside, and he wasn’t so sure. “Junkies say things like ‘I can go through the withdrawal, and I can stop, but I don’t want to stop,’” Alexander says. “We’re not supposed to believe it; we’re supposed to say they’re denying that they’re in the grip of this drug, but they’re not, really. I believed them.”
His suspicions carried little weight in the classroom, however, where students were armed with a powerful trump card: the famous Skinner box experiments of the 1950s and ’60s. A Skinner box is a cage equipped to condition an animal’s behaviour through reward or punishment. In a typical drug test, a surgically implanted catheter is hooked up to a drug supply that the animal self-administers by pressing a lever. Hundreds of trials showed that lab animals readily became slaves to such drugs as heroin, cocaine, and amphetamines. “They were said to prove that these kinds of dope are irresistible, and that’s it, that’s the end of the addiction story right there,” Alexander says. After one particularly fruitless seminar in 1976, he decided to run his own tests.
The problem with the Skinner box experiments, Alexander and his co-researchers suspected, was the box itself. To test that hypothesis, Alexander built an Eden for rats. Rat Park was a plywood enclosure the size of 200 standard cages. There were cedar shavings, boxes, tin cans for hiding and nesting, poles for climbing, and plenty of food. Most important, because rats live in colonies, Rat Park housed sixteen to twenty animals of both sexes.
Rats in Rat Park and control animals in standard laboratory cages had access to two water bottles, one filled with plain water and the other with morphine-laced water. The denizens of Rat Park overwhelmingly preferred plain water to morphine (the test produced statistical confidence levels of over 99.9 percent). Even when Alexander tried to seduce his rats by sweetening the morphine, the ones in Rat Park drank far less than the ones in cages. Only when he added naloxone, which eliminates morphine’s narcotic effects, did the rats in Rat Park start drinking from the water-sugar-morphine bottle. They wanted the sweet water, but not if it made them high.
In a variation he calls “Kicking the Habit,” Alexander gave rats in both environments nothing but morphine-laced water for fifty-seven days, until they were physically dependent on the drug. But as soon as they had a choice between plain water and morphine, the animals in Rat Park switched to plain water more often than the caged rats did, voluntarily putting themselves through the discomfort of withdrawal to do so.
Rat Park showed that a rat’s environment, not the availability of drugs, leads to dependence. In a normal setting, a narcotic is an impediment to what rats typically do: fight, play, forage, mate. But a caged rat can’t do those things. It’s no surprise that a distressed animal with access to narcotics would use them to seek relief.
Rat Park overtrumped the Skinner box trump card. “You could no longer say with a straight face that rats find certain drugs irresistible,” Alexander says. He was disappointed, then, when, his work was rejected by both Science and Nature, two of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals (even though both reject over 90 percent of submissions). Peer reviewers didn’t fault the methodology; their objection, recalled study co-author Barry Beyerstein, amounted to “I can’t put my finger on what’s wrong, but I know it’s got to be wrong.” Ultimately, the Rat Park papers were published in reputable psychopharmacology journals, “but not ones that reached the public,” Alexander says.