Rat Trap

Why Canada’s drug policy won’t check addiction
“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/aids had 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.

Home · Page 1 of 2 · Next

15 comment(s)

Dr. Robert B. CoambsNovember 19, 2007 13:05 EST


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.

AnonymousNovember 30, 2007 07:41 EST

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:

AnonymousDecember 03, 2007 12:49 EST

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.

jim beckJanuary 17, 2008 19:57 EST

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.

martin kayFebruary 06, 2008 23:05 EST

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.

Richard M. Gray, Ph.D.February 08, 2008 20:38 EST

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

Cheryl EtzelSeptember 16, 2009 21:03 EST

A fantastic article and research. Of course it is common sense, but unfortunately the mainstream facts and statistics about addiction are so scewed to frighten people that what is common is fear, not sense.

To S.E. Murphy- Advocating fear of big government seems off the point, and contrary to the message being sent by the research. My understanding is that it isn't government that controls research, but corporations who stand to profit by the results of the research and, thus, frame the way research is carried out. Corporations can either use their power and money to influence goverment agendas, or sponsor their own research to support their goal to profit. Profit-driven research will continue whether or not we have big or little governments.

The solution, as I see it, is not to reduce or grow government. Neither is the solution to squash or grow corporations. Both of these solutions smack of the Skinner Box.

This article inspires a solution to start with ourselves, our families, and create a strong, healthy living environment, an Eden, so that an active, aware and thinking populace can work with government and corporations (big and small), to find healthy, beneficial solutions to social problems, and not fall prey to fear tactics and propaganda.

Aku Cuma Seorang Blogger Yang Cinta SeoJanuary 11, 2010 16:36 EST

Nice article. I was pleasantly surprised to find it when whimsically googling Rat Park. I was a student at SFU back then and a hands on guy with the happy rats in the park and the sad rats in the cages.

Hosting MurahJanuary 11, 2010 20:24 EST

Great work, interested to try this tips...thanks.

Nokia 5800 ThemesJanuary 11, 2010 20:39 EST

Thanks for share your great post with us, i am so glad to be here...

kiramatalishahJanuary 27, 2010 04:35 EST

The Center for Media Research has released a study by Vertical Response that shows just where many of these ‘Main Street’ players are going with their online dollars. The big winners: e-mail and social media. With only 3.8% of small business folks NOT planning on using e-mail marketing and with social media carrying the perception of being free (which they so rudely discover it is far from free) this should make some in the banner and search crowd a little wary.


kiramatalishahJanuary 28, 2010 20:20 EST

Often we forget the little guy, the SMB, in our discussions of the comings and goings of the Internet marketing industry. Sure there are times like this when a report surfaces talking about their issues and concerns but, for the most part, we like to talk about big brands and how they do the Internet marketing thing well or not so well.


davidbaerJanuary 29, 2010 04:07 EST

Dear Friend,
It’s a fact: if you want your website to make you money, generate leads or get subscribers you have to advertise in order to drive traffic to it. Of course this is true for any business, but it is absolutely essential for online business.

AnonymousNovember 15, 2010 22:00 EST

But seriously how does this have to do with inferior goods?or normal goods? Usually it's the middle classes n high classes pple seek drugs
They r cheap but with continuing needing those psychoactive drugs,in a few months or so,depend on how much drugs you intake,ur pretty much brokes n this where it leads to what society is trying to deal with:like pple who need money to buy more drugs start to get money in a illegal ways

Marc LewisAugust 23, 2012 08:50 EST

I think the analogy with "inferior goods" is brilliant. First, it's just a correlation, an empirical finding: the better off you are the less you want or need x (drugs, OR inferior goods). But more than that, the experience of many drugs really is a poor cousin, a stand-in, for direct social experiences that bring us pleasure, joy, love, excitement, soothing, comfort — all that good stuff — so easily and with few deleterious side effects.

I'm not saying this with a moral slant. People use what they can find. As the Rolling Stones put it, You can't always get what you want.... I was a drug addict for years, and recently wrote Memoirs of an Addicted Brain, interleaving neuroscience with a juicy addiction memoir (Doubleday Canada). And I've known about Alexander's work for years and point to it in my book. Ironically, I was actually running rats, as a psych student, when I started stealing morphine from the lab fridge! But more to the point, for me and for other addicts, close, intimate, satisfying connections with other people just weren't happening. I wasn't mature/comfortable/honest enough as a person to make them happen. So I was living on the poor side of town, socioemotionally speaking. I didn't even know exactly what the "real life" rewards felt like. I just knew that drugs were way better than nothing.

If I understand Alexander's present pitch, I'd add one thing to it: It's not "environment" as a static, objectively defined entity that leads to addiction. Rather, it's how you relate to your environment. Maybe just a trivial difference in definition, but sometimes it makes all the difference in the world. And of course lab rats are considered to be pretty similar to each other, so they don't provide a great context for exploring individual differences!

Add a comment

I agree to walrusmagazine.com’s comments policy.

Canada & its place in the world. Published by
the non-profit charitable Walrus Foundation
The Walrus SoapBox
The Walrus Laughs
Walrus TV