The Forgotten Study

The War on Drugs has lasted decades, and many attempts to curb addiction have been tried, but few have seen significant success. Rehabilitation programs focused on ending user dependencies, and inventions like the nicotine patch seemingly sound ideas under a disease model of addiction have seen surprisingly low success rates, in the case of the patch just 17%. It is a question that remains at the heart of the War on Drugs: why isn’t this working? What most people may not know is that the answer to that question was found decades ago.

In the 1980’s a young psychologist named Bruce K. Alexander wanted to know just how applicable addiction studies on rats were, as until then they were done in small, empty cages conditions that were stressful and depressing to social and energetic rats. So he created what was dubbed the Rat Park; a large space with plenty of toys, activities, and rats that would create a more natural environment, and hopefully more natural data. The only thing it had in common with the previous experiment set ups was the presence of two water bottles, one with water, and one with a solution of water and morphine. After several repetitions, the result was The Rat Park Study.

Its conclusions went strongly against the grain of research at the time. Rather than the drug itself being the cause of addiction, it was the conditions of the addicts that would drive them to seek the relief of addiction. Unfortunately, while historical research and several other experiments would eventually support its conclusions, the initial study fell to bad luck, and bad timing. The political climate at the time was entirely in support of The War on Drugs, and few people in government were willing to listen to other possibilities, a frame of mind that extended to the scientists dependent on their funds to continue their work. Combined with an initial repetition that failed to reproduce statistically relevant results, and its fate was sealed. It was banished to obscurity, left forgotten until for almost two decades. In that time The War on Drugs continued, imprisoning millions of people and thus creating an environment that let addiction proliferate, and rehabilitation programs set up to help addicts continued to see high recidivism rates despite their best efforts.

Of course, these results don’t mean that all the work is done and that the problem is solved. Indeed, oversimplification is the last thing we need. The fact that the previous solutions worked at all shows that biology remains an important factor governing addiction, and its been known for years now that genetics plays a key role in determining how susceptible someone is to addiction. To completely ignore these factors is to repeat the mistakes of the past. This information doesn’t give us the full answer, and it won’t end addiction, but it does light the path ahead. The way to continue combating addiction and to reduce its damage is in front of us, we just have to be willing to follow it.