Rat Park

Rat Trap: Why Canada's drug policy won't check addiction

Rat Trap: Why Canada’s drug policy won’t check addiction

by Robert Hercz

Walrus Magaizine, 11 March 2008


“Canada’s anti-drug strategy a failure, study suggests,” read the headline of a brief CBC story that circulated through a handful of news outlets before dying out early this year. The British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDShad just published a paper revealing that almost three-quarters of the $368 million allocated to Canada’s Drug Strategy in 2004–2005 was spent on enforcement initiatives aimed at staunching the supply of drugs. The authors pointed out that despite this war on drugs, the rate of consumption was higher than ever: in 2002, 45 percent of Canadians reported having used illicit drugs in their lives, up from 28.5 percent in 1994.

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.

COMMENTS (7 comments)


Dear editor:
Thank you for your fascinating article about Rat Park. Since Drs. Alexander, Hadaway, Beyerstein, and I did this work, Drs. Hadaway and Beyerstein have since passed away, and it is a nice legacy to see the research discussed here.

Since Rat Park days, I have concluded that the Skinner box has mislead us all. Typically, the hungry rat presses a lever to get a food pellet, and this stimulates parts of the brain, including the nucleus accumbens. This is a key "pleasure centre". Humans have this structure, and it is older than the dinosaurs, present in vertebrate tetrapods for more than 250 million years.

However, humans have complex responses to even simple stimuli. We all know how satisfying a big glass of water is on a hot day, and a good meal when we're hungry. But would you like 22 pieces of chocolate cake after the meal? How about a big glass of cold water when it's freezing outside? Perhaps half a bottle of whisky just before your driving test? Why not?

Suddenly we are far past the Skinner box into the real world, where a piece of chocolate cake is only rewarding if you want it. It can be aversive if you really wanted the crème brûlée instead, or you sense that your date, who is on a diet, will suffer while they watch you eat dessert. In humans, pleasure critically depends upon one's circumstances, and it takes many surprising forms. People are pursuing pleasure when they line up for a roller-coaster ride, paying to be scared half to death and giggling with delight in the midst of a cardiovascular crisis. Others are fans of "The Simpsons", where year after year, cartoon characters subject each other to unending emotional abuse. Some people love to be whipped, and others welcome water-boarding.

Most people don't like morphine. If grandma is in cancer treatment, and she has to put up with morphine shots, she will. However, she is glad to stop the shots and go through withdrawal to be back to normal as soon as she can. Morphine addiction in patients with no substance abuse history is so rare that they are difficult or impossible to find. In chronic pain treatment we have great challenges in getting patients to take enough morphine for long enough to control their symptoms and get better. Most of them would rather not, and since pain can cause exhaustion and degrade immune system functions, this can be a serious treatment problem. Even many ex-heroin addicted pain patients use insufficient pain medication. They have given up the drug and they don't want it anymore.

Morphine probably stimulates the nucleus accumbens no matter what mood people are in. However, other parts of the brain seem to channel the signals coming from the nucleus accumbens and they change the signal, modify it, or even block it, depending upon other concurrent brain activities. Frustratingly for brain researchers, human pleasure responses depend upon myriad circumstances that are difficult or impossible to control in the lab. Rat Park just changed one variable (social housing), and the whole morphine-brain-pleasure model fell apart.

Perhaps we could have predicted the outcome. Rat Park created new difficulties and complexities for brain researchers. This apparently blocked stimulation of their pleasure centres.

Dr. Robert B. Coambs
President and CEO,
Health Promotion Research, Inc.November 19, 2007 13:05 EST

Anonymous: The findings of Drs. Alexander, Hadaway, Beyerstein, and Coambs are directly reflected in the philosophy behind the success of addiction treatment in San Patrignano:

A similar treatment centre here in Canada has been put forth by BC MLA Lorne Mayencourt, and has been consistently ignored (if not outright condemned) by just about everyone:
http://www.lornemayencourtmla.bc.ca/media/LM~SanPatrignanospeech.pdfNovember 30, 2007 07:41 EST

Anonymous: As being addicted to cocaine in a relationship that wasnt in anyway healthy, the worst it got the more I seeked to use. Not only was my addiction in cocaine high but my alcohol limits were never met. Prior to this I had no addiction issues and believe did my environment cause this? I have now been out of that environment for some time and have no urges/craving for either. The alcohol/cocaine is like it never existed in my life due to my present social surroundings. One of the problems today is I believe addicts knowing they can go from doctor to doctor and munipilate the system to get what they need for medication. There should be a data base system that everyone that seeks medical attention is placed in just as we are for our driving license. One this will stop repeat offenders from getting medication they dont need and warning doctors of abusers of the system as well as them selves.December 03, 2007 12:49 EST

S.E. Murphy: This is an excellent, thought provoking article, which is atypical in the Drug War hysteria and neo-puritanism that exists these days. I grew up during the "just say no" 80s, when so many of the myths still recounted today reached a fever pitch. I was one of the "true believers" in the drug war, and the addiction fears, and never tried any illicit substances.

I served in counter-drug operations while in the military. After witnessing the waste, the abuse of civil liberties, and the futility, I quit and started examining the economic, social, and political (liberty oriented) arguments against the drug war. They were compelling. Also, I noted that the vast majority of "users" that I grew up with, despite the dire predictions, did not become addicts, went on to and through college, got good jobs, and got on with their lives. A few here and there do still use drugs, but occassionally, not compulsively.

As fate would have it, I suffered crippling injuries in the course of my career. My health deteriorated, and I was left with a chronic pain condition necessitating daily morphine use. It is the oral morphine method of pain relief that offers the best combination of pain relief and minor/no side effects, unlike many other narcotics.

As a pain patient, I notice that I don't get high when taking morphine...ever. I don't have urges, apparent dependency, and even don't mind skipping doses. My pain level fluctuates, and when it is relatively low, I do NOT take any medication, whether on schedule or not. It is interesting to note that despite having been prescribed narcotics off and on for eight years, and daily morphine for the last three, I have no cravings, addictions, etc.

There is all kinds of evidence, as submitted by Dr. Alexander, that demonstrates that social context (stresses, etc.) are powerful determinants of human behavior and addiction tendencies. Where the environment and options are limited, hopeless, and difficult, there is the tendency toward addiction. Whether it is as a soldier in an unpopular and unwinnable war (Vietnam), life as an inmate in a prison, stuck in a dull institution like a public school (for many kids), looking to mentally escape the despair of the slums, or (as this article mentioned) spiritually adrift as has become epidemic in the West, drug taking becomes an escape mechanism.

It is unfortunate that there is a long established tendency of human institutions to eschew unpopular truths or avenues of research. This is a phenomenon easily noticed by looking at the treatment Galileo experienced at the hands of the Inquisition and Catholic Church.

It should be noted that due to the enormous growth of government, which takes unprecedented amounts of wealth via taxation and inflation, and which now is intimately involved in so much via legislation and regulation, that the same tendencies exist, if not more so. The Catholic Church, and governments of the past, rarely could claim more than four or five percent of national outputs, which severely hampered their reach and control. Governments, even in the so called free nations, typically now control over 40% of the national economies. Given the growth of economy, this puts unprecedented levels of power and funding at the hands of government, and it allows unprecedented control and intrusion.

Government is force, and government is politics, so what government is involved in is the product of force, and determined by politics over truth.

So many research grants, university budgets, student tuition fees, etc. as the direct result of government, it is unsurprising that research should be biased in favor of what is politically palatable, and contrary views be spiked through pressure and funding withdrawal.

Many controversial ideas have sound premises, but with so much wealth diverted toward government, and with the entire atmosphere of research and science tainted by government approval issues, huge walls against progress are the result.

It is a truism that change and progress are often pushed from outside of institutions, because those inside institutions are typically vested in defending the status quo. With government manning the walls, it is sometimes harder than ever to investigate new ideas.

It also makes you wonder. Looking at the explosion of research and invention that occured from about 1850-1910, the inertia it created that carried it through the massive growth in government that started as a result of WW1 (and increased as time went on), would many of those advances in science, technology, and industry have occured if government taxed and regulated so much, and was the dispenser of funds and approval of so much research? I don't think so.

We are currently reaping numerous bitter harvests, and the failed drug policies are just some of them, from letting government control so much of the national treasure, and letting government regulate, fund, and frame the debates and the sciences.

We need more researchers like this Dr. Alexander, and we need an environment that accepts and explores controversial ideas without regard to what the government considers acceptable. Such an environment is unlikely to ever be realized in the Western "Democracies" until the scale and scope of government is seriously reduced. Unfortunately for science and progress, at least in the West, the tendency is toward greater growth of government, control of the economy, and removal of vast areas of private economic and social life into the realm of government involvement.

In what might seem a supreme irony, drug taking seems worst the greater the involvement of government. It is the biggest problem in goverment created or run institutions, from public schools to prisons, to welfare slums to armies in losing wars. As society surrenders more of its wealth, power, and authority to government, traditional and voluntary social organizations wither (like churches), society becomes spiritually adrift, and the impetus for recreational and addictive drug taking increases. It may or may not be causal, but there does seem to be a correlation in the social phenomena.January 17, 2008 08:28 EST

jim beck: I find the study rather superfluous(sp?).I don't think you have to be a brain surgeon to realize that when you live in a less then ideal environment you may resort to whatever it takes to cope.If we as a society have to resort to animal studies to observe what happens to organisms under stressful living conditions apparently we're not paying much attention to whats going on in our poor depressed communities.Maybe we should be more attentive to our own species.Obviously there are exceptions to this specificaly with those individuals that have not been raised in a depressed and restricted environment yet resort to abusive chemical behavior,however,I would venture to say an individual is more likely to use chemicals in an abusive manner if his living conditions were highly stressful and depressed.Certain genetic traits may predispose individuals to particular behaviors under a given environmental condition as compared to indivduals that are exposed to the same conditions but don't share the same genetic trait.We need to be more in tune with human behavior,and god knows with nearly 6 billion people in this world we don't need to observe a few mice to tell us what might be wrong.January 17, 2008 19:57 EST

martin kay: I fully agree with this article.
Drug addictions should be regarded as bad habit spending or spending on inferior goods. Inferior goods is the term used by economists to describe goods that are bought more by poor people than by rich people. Most "normal" goods are consumed more often as income rises. Inferior goods are consumed less as income rises.
Despite the fact that economists have coined the term "inferior goods", they appear to have done very little research into inferior goods. Look through any textbook on economics and you find that they all have the same standard page about them and, generally, half that page is occupied by a graph so that, in effect, only one paragraph is actually written about inferior goods.
These textbooks, used in university economics courses, are so similar when it comes to inferior goods that universities might want to investigate their writers for plagiarism!!
Notice how the behavior of inferior good consumption mimics that of drug consumption: as the quality of life improved, both types of consumption decreased.
Keep in mind the fact that there are other things besides money and income that determine quality of life. It is those things that create the appearance of drug abuse of being the result of poor mental health.February 06, 2008 23:05 EST

Richard M. Gray, Ph.D.: In the mid 90s, as a US Probation Officer, I was given a drug treatment caseload with little training in the field and no conceptual framework beyond the classic skinner box perspective and a ham-handed law enforcement orientation.
In order to prepare myself for the task, I began to read as much as possible about addiction in the scientific journals. I quickly came across the Rat Park study and the studies by Robins illustrating the influence of context on addicted Viet Nam veterans. Inspired by these studies, and armed with a view of human growth rooted in Jungian and Maslowian concepts, I developed a drug treatment program that focused on changing the internal environment of the clients while virtually ignoring the drugs themselves. Using tools from Neuro-Linguistic Programming to implement the program, we treated more than 300 clients and attained abstinence rates of 30% after one year. All this came at the cost of two hours per week of training to develop access to positive resource states and learning to envision personally relevant future outcomes. There was no medical model, no humiliation and no drug focus.

From personal experience and objective results, I can affirm the continuing validity of the Rat Park perspective.

The following link provides further information on the program. http://www.nlpco.com/articles/AddictionsGray.html

Thank you,

Richard M. Gray, Ph.D.
School of Criminal Justice
Fairleigh Dickinson University

February 08, 2008 20:38 EST

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