The Myth of the Demon Drug

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The Myth of the Demon Drug

By Dr. Bruce Alexander 03/24/15

How findings from a big plywood box shaped our understanding of addiction.

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One of the most polarizing issues in addiction theory has a ‘Chicken vs. Egg’ flavor to it : Does the process of addiction have personal and environmental roots that are operating long before a person begins to use drugs? Or is it better understood as a disorder in which overwhelmingly powerful substances kick start, in a necessary and sufficient way, the inexorable process of addiction? Bruce Alexander’s early research in ‘Rat Park’ is of great historical interest in the debate, and its conclusions continue to serve as critical food for thought, most recently in a controversial book by Johann Hari….Richard Juman

Rat Park closed forever more than 30 years ago. In its heyday, it was a big plywood box that was furnished to serve as a happy home for rats in my laboratory at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. My research associates and I used Rat Park to demonstrate that rats living in reasonably normal social housing had much less appetite for morphine than rats living in solitary confinement in tiny wire cages, which most laboratory rats then occupied. In short, we demonstrated that an individual’s life and circumstances have a huge impact on their tendency to develop addiction.

Who could be surprised by this finding? Well, the only people who expressed surprised—and seemed a bit offended—were those addiction theorists who argued that the great appetite for morphine, heroin, and cocaine in rats housed in tiny cages and Skinner Boxes that had been demonstrated by earlier researchers proved that these drugs were irresistible to all mammals, including people. 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 reproduced and extended with other rats in other laboratories (Schenk et al., 1987; Solinas et al., 2009). Our research group had hoped that our discovery would rid the world of the demon drug mythology, but life is not that simple.

In popular culture, unfortunately, the "Demon Drug Myth" has survived almost intact. In its most recent incarnation it says that all or most people who take one of the demon drugs (most recently crack cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine) lose their will power and are converted into hopeless addicts.

The myth has changed in the professional literature, but only a little. The "Official View" (as I call it) is now this: Although most rats and people are not transformed into addicts by using a demon drug, some 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 addicted rats and people have a “chronic relapsing brain disease.” Decades before this brain jargon was invented, people had expressed the same idea by saying, “Once an addict always an addict.” 

As the Demon Drug Myth kept reverberating through mass and professional culture, critical thinkers took up the Rat Park experiments, arguing that they put the lie to the myth. Stanton Peele described the research in some of his books. Lauren Slater devoted a chapter to Rat Park in her popular book entitled, Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the 20th Century. Hannah Pickard explained the significance of Rat Park in the psychopharmacology literature. Stuart McMillen 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 a 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 exposed a confounded variable in earlier rat experiments; it became a popular parable that seemed to shed light on the deepest nature of addiction.

I think that this parable-like way of using the original experiments is valuable. Rat Park can bring a thoughtful person into asking a truly important question: If drugs are not the cause of addiction, what is?

I have been pursuing this question for most of the last 30 years. I quit rat research early on, partly because experiments like Rat Park had very little interest to agencies that fund addiction research, which is generally designed to explore some aspect of the the Official View, 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. 

Of course, human research along the lines of Rat Park is impossible, because we wouldn’t want to experimentally confine human beings in laboratory cages. However, there have been countless natural experiments in which people have have been alienated from their society in every possible way or had their cultures crushed. Addiction often follows.

All of these natural experiments shed light on the cause of addiction that goes miles beyond the Myth of Demon Drugs and the Official View of addiction. I have published my latest conclusions about the causes of addiction, based on extensive reviews of the historical, sociological, biographical, and clinical literature, in The Globalization of Addiction: A Study in Poverty of the Spirit. (Oxford Univ. Press, 2008/2010). Curt Shelton and I have generalized some of these conclusions further still, to the broader discipline of psycholology, in a more recent book (A History of Psychology in Western CivilizationAlexander, B.K. & Shelton, C.P. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014).

In the meantime, the latest rediscovery of Rat Park in a best-selling book has generated a backlash, and more may be expected. Seth Mnookin, a professor of science writing, in his New York Times Book review of Johann Hari’s recent book undertook a character assassination of Johann that focussed on his journalistic ethics, 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 us all, and why did the New York Times publish this kind of stuff? Here is my letter of protest, printed along with one from Gabor Mate.

I think the Times published Mnookin’s nasty, incorrect review because the Myth of Demon Drugs touches a major nerve in many people. For example, the people I’ve met over the decades who cling most rigidly to the Myth of Demon Drugs were the parents of heroin-addicted children whom I worked with as a family therapist. If the drug (or some other external cause) didn’t cause their son’s or daughter’s addiction, then, many of them felt, they themselves must have caused it. If there is no external cause for my child’s downfall, the next logical hypothesis is that the home and neighborhood that I have tried so hard to provide was such a dismal failure that my child has turned to heroin for solace. As a parent myself, I can think of no more excruciating nightmare than this. It would be much easier to believe 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 include 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, with occasional relapses and re-recoveries. It is, of course, comforting for them to believe that they are victims of an inexorable brain process, rather than sharing the responsibility for their plight with the fragmented society that makes it so difficult to put together a satisfying existence without addictions. Again, their logic is easy to understand in a sympathetic way, but the larger number of people who have recovered from their addictions know from their own experience that the myth of addiction as a chronic, and therefore, incurable disease is false from their own lived experience.

It is fairly easy to imagine that elected officials and law enforcement personnel who participate in the War on Drugs, and others who profit from the political and economic status quo, might find it very easy to believe in the Demon Drug Myth for the very same reasons as parents and despairing addicts do. If they did not believe the myth, they might have to contemplate their own degree of responsibility for the rising tide of addiction. 

For these reasons, the Demon Drug Myth may continue to survive without any real evidence or justification, and Rat Park may continue to be periodically rediscovered, long after I am moldering in the grave.

Dr. Bruce Alexander has counseled heroin and cocaine addicts in Vancouver; advocated for methadone and stimulant maintenance treatment; conducted psychopharmacological research (the Rat Park experiments); written on Canadian drug law, drug policy, and the temperance movement; documented the behavioral addictions of university students; conducted field research on cocaine use for the World Health Organization; and studied native issues at Kwadacha and other reserves. His most recent book (with co-author Curtis Shelton) is A History of Psychology in Western Civilization (Cambridge University Press, 2015). 

www.brucekalexander.com

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