Bruce Alexander's Rat Park: a ratty paradise that challenges our assumptions about addiction

This article from Garry Tan reminded me of the tremendous work of Bruce K Alexander, a psychology professor who retired from teaching at Simon Fraser University in 2005. I read Alexander's first book, Peaceful Measures: Canada's Way Out of the 'War on Drugs' when it was published in 1990, and it had a profound effect on my outlook and critical thinking about drugs and the way that drug addiction is reported and discussed.

Alexander is well known for his Rat Park experiment, which hypothesized that heroin-addicted lab rats were being driven to drugs by the emisseration of life in a tiny cage, tethered to a heroin-dispensing injection machine. Other experimenters had caged rats with heroin-injecting apparatus and concluded that the rats' compulsive use of the drug proved that their brains had been rewired by addiction ("A rat addicted to heroin is not rebelling against society, is not a victim of socioeconomic circumstances, is not a product of a dysfunctional family, and is not a criminal. The rat's behavior is simply controlled by the action of heroin (actually morphine, to which heroin is converted in the body) on its brain.").

Alexander's Rat Park was a rat's paradise -- spacious, with plenty of intellectual stimulus and other rats to play with. He moved heroin-addicted rats into the park and found that the compulsive behavior abated to the point of disappearance -- in other words, whatever "rewiring" had taken place could be unwired by the improvement of their living conditions.

Alexander's work appears in Drugs Without the Hot Air, one of the best books on drug policy I've ever read, written by former UK drugs czar David Nutt. Both men are scientists who make the case that the our drug policy is more the product of political grandstanding than scientific evidence.

The main conclusions of his experimental and historical research since 1985 can be summarized as follows:

1. Drug addiction is only a small corner of the addiction problem. Most serious addictions do not involve either drugs or alcohol[9]

2. Addiction is more a social problem than an individual problem. When socially integrated societies are fragmented by internal or external forces, addiction of all sorts increases dramatically, becoming almost universal in extremely fragmented societies.[10]

3. Addiction arises in fragmented societies because people use it as a way of adapting to extreme social dislocation. As a form of adaptation, addiction is neither a disease that can be cured nor a moral error that can be corrected by punishment and education.[11]

Therefore, the current NIDA Model of addiction, which Alexander refers to as the official view, is untenable.[12] Contemporary world society can only overcome mass dislocation (and addiction) by restoring psychosocial integration on a political and social level. This requires major social change.[4]

Alexander’s controversial conclusions have been celebrated by some mainstream sources outside the United States. Alexander received a 2007 Sterling Prize for Controversy in Canada, a 2009 high commendation from the British Medical Association, and an invitation to present at the Royal Society of Arts and Manufactures in London in 2011. Although all mainstream American sources have ignored Alexander’s work, it has acquired considerable recognition in outsider sources.[5]

Bruce K. Alexander [Wikipedia]