Why Everything we Know About Addiction Might be Wrong
100 years ago, drugs were banned in the United States, yet this ban hasn’t done anything to reduce or eradicate addiction. How did that happen?
In recent weeks, an animated video, adapted from Johann Hari’s Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, has been making its rounds on the internet. The video (and Hari’s book) claims that the war on drugs has failed because it is focused on the wrong thing – punishing users – rather than understanding why addicts struggle with abuse in the first place.
In the late 1970s, psychologist Bruce Alexander created “Rat Park”. With previous experiments ‘proving’ that if rats were given a choice between regular water and heroin-laced water, they would continue to chose the latter until they died, Alexander’s experiment showed something quite different. Rats in his experiment were placed in an environment with plentiful access to food, play, and most importantly, interaction with other rats – along with both regular and drug-laced water. The end result? The rats lived without becoming addicted to drugs, and not one of them overdosed. The main difference was that rats in Alexander’s experiment were not alone in a cage. Overdose rates went from almost 100% when they were isolated down to 0% when they had happy and connected lives.
So, how does this apply to us?
According to Hari, the most effective way to address addiction is not with jail time or isolation from others. In fact, this only worsens the problem. Instead, we should provide addicts with support, a healthy environment in which to thrive and social interaction as a means to helping them on the road to recovery.
Consider anyone who has been in an accident and taken to the hospital. The first thing a hospital administers is diamorphine, which is pure heroin. Theoretically, all ER patients or those undergoing surgery should become addicts, if what we know about addiction is correct. But we see that once these patients are released, they are perfectly fine – and NOT addicted.
The Vietnam War is yet another perfect example, where 20% of American troops were using heroin. Once they returned to the USA, 95% of them stopped cold-turkey. Given what we know about addiction, how is this possible? Well, according to Alexander’s theory, these folks were living in horrible conditions and their only respite was heroin. Once they returned to their home and loved ones, the need disappeared, and so did their drug abuse.
It seems that addiction is not actually about the chemicals; it’s about the cage we’re in. Humans have an innate need to bond and connect. When we’re happy and healthy, we’ll bond with the people around us. But when we’re not, we’ll bond with something that gives us some sense of relief, be it phones, porn, video games, or gambling. The only solution to addiction? Healthy bonds.
In Hari’s Ted talk in London, he hammers the message home. We need to change the way we communicate with addicts and support them rather than casting them away from society. “For 100 years now, we’ve been singing war songs about addicts. I think all along we should have been singing love songs to them because the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.”