Demon Drug Myths
Rat Park versus The New York Times
Bruce K. Alexander
Rat Park closed forever more than 30 years ago. In its heyday, it was a very large plywood box on the floor of my addiction laboratory at Simon Fraser University. The box was fitted out to serve as a happy home and playground for groups of rats. My colleagues and I found that rats that lived together in this approximation of a natural environment had much less appetite for morphine than rats housed in solitary confinement in the tiny metal cages that were standard in those days.
Who could be surprised by this finding? The only people who acted surprised at the time – and a bit offended – were those addiction researchers who believed that the great appetite for morphine, heroin, and cocaine that earlier experiments had demonstrated in rats housed in the tiny solitary confinement cages proved that these drugs inevitably caused addiction in all mammals, including human beings. I call this idea the “Myth of the Demon Drug.” This myth was the backbone of mainstream theories of addiction in those days.
The results of the Rat Park experiments were duly published in peer-reviewed psychopharmacology journals in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The basic finding was later replicated and extended by other researchers in other laboratories (The first of the replications was by Schenk, S., Lacelle, G., Gorman, K., and Amit, Z. (1987) Neuroscience Letters, 81, 227–231. The most recent extension that I have found was by Solinas, M., Thiriet, N., El Rawas, R., Lardeux, V., and Jaber, M. (2009). Neuropsychopharmacology, 34, 1102–1111.) Subsequent research on human beings has confirmed that basic finding that the great majority of individuals who use the so called "addictive drugs" in reasonably healthy social environments do not become addicted. Our little research group imagined that this line of research would rid the world of the Demon Drug Myth, but life is not that simple.
In popular culture, the Demon Drug Myth has survived almost intact. In its most recent incarnations, it says that all or most people who take one of the demon drugs (including crack cocaine and methamphetamine, as well as heroin and prescription opiates) lose their will power and are converted into hopeless addicts.
The myth has evolved in the professional literature, but only a little. The Official View (as I call it) is now that, although many rats and people are not permanently transformed into addicts by exposure to a demon drug, those who have a “genetic predisposition” are. The ones that are transformed are still said to have been robbed of their will power, as if the drug had “flipped a switch in their brain”. The result is that these transformed rats and people have a “chronic relapsing brain disease” called addiction. “Chronic” in this scenario means incurable, but manageable with perpetual treatment and membership in self-help groups. Decades before this sophisticated biomedical language was introduced, people had expressed almost exactly the same idea by saying “Once an addict always an addict.”
As the Demon Drug Myth kept circulating in mass culture and Official View kept circulating in the professional literature, some critical thinkers outside the professional inner sanctum took up the cause of Rat Park, arguing that it puts the lie to the myth. Stanton Peele described the research in some of his books, beginning with The Meaning of Addiction (1985). Lauren Slater devoted a chapter to Rat Park in her popular book, Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the 20th Century (2004). Stuart Macmillan produced a science comic book about Rat Park and put it on the Internet (www.ratpark.com). And now, Johann Hari has made it the subject of a chapter in his best-selling book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs (2015).
In the hands of these excellent writers, Rat Park became more than a technical experiment that demonstrated that the earlier rat experiments had overlooked the effect of social isolation. It became a kind of a popular parable, which seems to shed light on the deepest nature of addiction.
I think that this parable-like way of thinking about the original experiments is valuable. The Rat Park experiments can draw a thoughtful person into asking a truly important question: If drugs are not the cause of addiction, what is?
I have been fascinated by this question myself for most of the last 30 years. I quit feeding drugs to rats early on, partly because experiments like Rat Park had very little interest to agencies that provide funding for addiction research, but mostly because rats are rats and people are people. I can see no reason to think that anything homologous to addiction, with all its existential, spiritual, and moral depths, ever occurs in rats.
Human research along the lines of Rat Park might seem to be impossible, because we wouldn’t want to experimentally confine people in laboratory cages. However, there have been countless natural experiments in which people have been alienated from their societies in every possible way or had their cultures crushed. Addiction often follows these tragic events. On the other hand it has been shown that the vast majority of people who use the supposed demon drugs in reasonably normal social situations do not become addicted.
These natural experiments suggest ideas about the cause of addiction that go miles beyond the Myth of Demon Drugs and the Official View. I have published my latest findings about the causes of addiction, based on extensive reviews of the historical, sociological, biographical, and clinical literature, in my book The Globalization of Addiction: A Study in Poverty of the Spirit (2008/2010).
The most basic finding is that people use addictions of all sorts, not just addictions to drugs, to adapt to the alienation or dislocation that is built into the modern age. Dislocation and alienation have increased over the centuries and are most prevalent in the countries of that are most closely tied into the neoliberal capitalist agenda. Mass addiction has tracked the spread of mass alienation and dislocation.
Curt Shelton and I have broadened the historical approach further still, relating it to psychology as a whole, in our recent book (Alexander, B.K. & Shelton, C.P. A History of Psychology in Western Civilization, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014).
In the meantime, the recent re-discovery of the original Rat Park research in a best-selling book has started to generate a backlash. Seth Mnookin, in the New York Times Book Review of Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream (Sunday Book Review, February 13, 2015) undertook a character assassination of Johann Hari, and said some pretty nasty – and false – things about three of Hari’s key professional informants, Gabor Maté, John Marks, and myself. Why did he bother to insult all of us, and why would the New York Times publish a serial character assassination?
I would speculate that the Times thought it appropriate to publish this review because the Myth of Demon Drugs serves an emotional function that is important for many of its readers in today’s world. For example, the people who have clung most rigidly to the Myth of Demon Drugs in my experience include some (not all) of the parents of heroin addicted young men and women who I worked with as a family therapist early in my career. If the drug, or some other external cause, didn’t cause their son’s or daughter’s addiction, then, it could seem to logically follow that the home and neighbourhood that they worked so hard to provide was such a dismal place that their child may have turned to heroin addiction for solace. As a parent myself, I can think of no more terrifying nightmare than this. It is easy to understand how a parent tormented by this kind of fear might turn to a simplistic Demon Drug Myth, without examining the evidence too closely.
The other people who I have found clinging tightly to the Demon Drug Myth are some recovering people who are aware that their drug addiction has not been really overcome, even though they stay clean and sober, one day at a time, perhaps with occasional slips or relapses. It is comforting for them to believe that they are victims of an inexorable brain process, rather worrying about how much they have to share responsibility with their fragmented society for their continuing vulnerability to self-destructive behaviour. Again, their protective thinking is easy to understand in a sympathetic way. However, the larger number of people who have recovered completely from addictions to drug and other habits know from their own lived experience that the incurable brain disease of Demon Drug Myth and the Official View do not exist.
It is easy for me to imagine that high government officials who maintain the addictogenic neoliberal status quo might find it very easy to support some version of the Demon Drug Myth for the same reasons as guilt-ridden parents of addicted offspring. I also imagine that the mega-corporation executives whose relentlessly addictive profit-seeking is wrecking the earth’s environment might support an automatized view of addiction, like the Demon Drug mythology, as a way of softening their understanding of their own destructive addictions. Likewise, habitual consumers of the products of these megacorporations, might prefer to feel that their addictive consumption is a results of their brains spinning out of control as a result of all the advertising to which they have been subjected. For these reasons, I fear the Demon Drug Myth may survive for quite a while longer as a preferred way of explaining addiction, even in The New York Times. It is possible that Rat Park may be periodically rediscovered to argue against it, long after I lie mouldering in the grave.
As if to confirm my fear, the New York Times rejected the original version of this article, which I submitted as an Op-Ed column (although they did publish my letter correcting some false statements about my career as a researcher that were published in Mnookin’s review).
My correction letter appeared in the Times Sunday Review on March 8, 2015. This is presumably the day that my Op-Ed would have appeared if the Times had accepted it. On this same day an article did appear in the Times which extends the Myth of Demon Drugs into fresh new territory. Dr. Richard A. Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry published an “Opinion” article under the headline : “The Feel-Good Gene: Those of us who don’t have this natural bliss are more likely to be anxious and to self-medicate”.
It is Dr. Friedman’s opinion that brand new neuroscientific discoveries show that 20% of human beings are gifted with a gene that manufactures a molecule makes them naturally upbeat and blissful. The rest of us, the somber and anxious 80%, do not naturally produce enough of the “bliss molecule,” (anandamide). We are inclined to use addictive drugs because we feel anxious for no good reason. The cure lies in medicating the brain of the anxious 80% of humanity so that we feel the bliss without the need for illegal drugs. Already there is a way of implanting the feel-good gene in mice, who are then less fearful and who unlearn acquired fears more quickly. Presumably these brain-modified mice will not become addicted.
This high-tech biomedical thinking is a further evolved form of the Myth of Demon Drugs: Marijuana is such a demonically good anxiety reliever that normal, somber people (80% of the human species) may find it irresistible if we are not given a substitute for it in the form of a drug that reduces anxiety or, possibly, an implanted gene that enhances our ability to produce the bliss molecule, or to compensate for its absence. At least this seems to be Dr. Friedman’s opinion.
Like a creature in a gothic horror story, the Myth of the Demon Drug continues to evolve into new and ever more insidious forms. I am hoping that Rat Park, may continue to prove useful to those who will eventually drive this creature out of popular culture and The New York Times and back into the 19th century, where it belongs.