By Cory Doctorow. A ratty paradise that challenges our assumptions about addiction
Originally published on Boingboing.nett at 7:34 pm Mon, Sep 16, 2013
Bruce Alexander’s Rat Park
[excerpt] 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.