DR BRUCE ALEXANDER: THE RAT PACK IN RAT PARK

In the essay I wrote called NOAM CHOMSKY ON DRUGS, I only mentioned Bruce Alexander once, in the footnotes, quoting him at length:

The idea of immigrants and dislocation of peoples in general brings to mind the work of Dr Bruce Alexander, professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University in Canada. In an article entitled What Causes Alcohol Abuse, Alexander writes:

…social problems and excessive alcohol [and drug] use characterize not only geographically dislocated people, but also people “dislocated” in a more general sense including the unemployed, victims of family and community disintegration, and ghetto blacks cut off from mainstream society.

Obviously, excessive alcohol use is not confined to the poor and its existence among the affluent seems to have similar roots. Dislocation, in a broad sense, is now the norm for rich and poor. Jobs disappear on short notice; communities are weak and unstable; people routinely change spouses, technical skills and fundamental beliefs as they progress; the continued habitability of the earth itself is in question.

For rich and poor alike, dislocation plays havoc with the delicate interpenetrations of people, society, and the physical world that are necessary for an existence that is tolerable without chemical crutches.

This view of history leads to an understanding of alcohol and society that contradicts the assumptions of the temperance framework that are listed above. Most fundamentally, alcohol abuse is not a significant cause of society’s problems.

Instead, alcohol abuse is aresult of the same dislocating forces that cause other social problems. In this view, pursuing abstinence from alcohol is, at best, a roundabout route to personal and social improvement. Reduction of social problems will require direct attention to the causes of dislocation and helping people adapt to those forms of dislocation that are truly inevitable.?

OF WALRUSES AND RATS

Alexander’s views on drug addiction are vital to the debate. I keep reading him, and in fact I just read a short, interesting article on him in Walrus Magazine (December 2007) by Robert Hercz called The Rat Trap: Why Canada’s Drug Policy Won’t Check Addiction.

Alexander’s views appear radical, until you think about them, about history and consider the data. His Rat Park experiments are fascinating.

“REPENT, S(K)INNER!”

I just said that for the fun of the play on words. I don’t mean to be so hard.

In the 50s and 60s, though, BF Skinner (whose blank slate/behaviourist theories were, for many, shredded by Chomsky in 1959) had conducted what were called the Skinner Box experiments.

Lab animals were hooked up to a drug supply that they could self-administer. Trials showed that with this access, these animals quickly became hopelessly addicted to drugs including heroin, cocaine and amphetamines.

In other words, drugs are “irresistable.” Case closed.

Well, not quite.

As Hercz writes:

The problem with the Skinner box experiments, Alexander and his co-researchers [Barry Beyerstein] suspected, was the box itself.

Alexander built an Eden for rats.

Actually, it was more of a Compost of Eden than a Garden of Eden (I don’t actually know if that’s true).

The comfortable confines were called Rat Park—freedom of movement, access to food, privacy for mating—and in the experiments, unlike in the cramped and miserable lab rat settings of Skinner’s experiments, the:

“…denizens of Rat Park overwhelmingly preferred plain water to morphine (the test produced statistical confidence levels of over 99.9 percent)…

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.”

The findings have been deeply and largely ignored.

But oh how I wish, over three or four stiff and legal martinis, Stephen Harper, Tony Clement and Stockwell Day would read a few peer-reviewed journals, really consider what happened in Rat Park, read the disastrous, war-supporting, hypocritical, racist history of the War on Drugs, and most of all, show a little true political courage (an oxymoron) and reconsider the road less traveled (or in the case of the War On Drugs, the road traveled way too much).

From the article:

But if biology alone explained addiction, [addiction] rates wouldn’t change. A certain fraction of any population would fall predictably into the jaws of addiction, as predestined by flaws in their molecules.

Instead, Alexander’s research reveals that addiction rates are low when societies are stable, and they rise at times of social disruption.

“The extreme case is the aboriginal people,” he says. “You don’t have anything identifiable as addiction until you screw up their culture, and then alcoholism becomes a major problem. In extreme cases, addiction rates can go from zero to close t 100 percent.”

Granted, there are countless confusing variables in the world of addiction (or addiction, so-called). And people have loosely criticized the experiments’ methodology. But, as any fool could see (except maybe if they were on drugs or addicted to their ideology), we push aside Alexander’s research and conclusions at our own peril—and at our own arrogance, expense, civil liberties and compassion.

And here’s a paper Alexander delivered to the Canadian Senate in January of 2001, called The Myth of Drug-Induced Addiction.

For a detailed look at the Rat Park experiments, press here.

Alexander once humbly said:

“It was of course tremendously exciting to see all the commonly held notions about addiction so challenged by the rats. I’ve had only one good idea in my life and that was it. But one good idea, who can complain about that?”

May you live in fields of creativity and freedom, in an increasingly undislocated community, and get high on that,

Pete

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8 Responses to “DR BRUCE ALEXANDER: THE RAT PACK IN RAT PARK”

  1. Mary Ballon says:

    I am most impressed by Bruce Alexander’s work. Other than just reading about it, is there any way to encourage and support him?
    I agree that community is what we are all missing. In a way our use of the internet and blogs like this gives us a feeling of being in a community but it is false.
    I do not have neighbours to visit, friends to invite to the house, friends to just appear at the door and I know that the challenge of creating this community is my goal. But it sure seems scary!
    I contemplate moving to a smaller town, not sure if that is the answer or not.

  2. Karen says:

    Hi Pete,

    By the ‘70s, environmental and social stressors were already integrated into addiction-treatment plans. Dr. Alexander’s studies seem to me to have provided some empirical proof for accepted belief—which was great—but perhaps not enough to further alter treatment protocols. But it’s a good idea to revisit his concepts again because attempts to treat addiction with evidence-based medicine seem to have pushed the environmental and social confounding factors into the background again. Without a sense of community and a support system, no amount of medical intervention can save an addict.

    First, I do not use any “additives? except OTC vitamins, and I frequently go months without even thinking about indulging in alcohol.

    With the possible exception of marijuana, I don’t think legalizing drugs is an answer. I can’t remember a time when alcohol addiction didn’t affect my family; multiple members, over many generations, including a sibling, as well as a relative with a drug addiction. If I might, I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on how this addiction-rehabilitation thing works. I’ve seen firsthand what alcohol addiction does to a person and their family. I’ve seen the effects of drug addiction also. Neither is agreeable in any way and both usually eventually result in repeated violence.

    If we know the statistics on the percentage of people exposed to alcohol who become addicted and the amount of damage those addicted inflict on themselves and their families, why would we want to make substances that can duplicate those statistics, or worse, more readily available?

    (Ha, I swear to you “Hopelessly Addicted? by the Corrs just came up in my shuffle. Anyway…)

    Dr. Alexander’s work notwithstanding, don’t be seduced by the “peer-reviewed? article; they are what I do. Peer-reviewed basically means the article has met the criteria for scientific rigor, ethical standards, and design, and that a journal editor believes a paper is in some way thought provoking, worthy of further study, or an intriguing idea. It doesn’t mean it carries any real weight.

    As an aside, my son would like to know if you could please answer a question. He’d like to know if growing marijuana for personal use is legal in Canada. Several of his friends claim it is, he’s skeptical and hoped maybe you would know. Can you shed any light on that?

    Finally, funny you closed with “May you live in fields of creativity and freedom, in an increasingly undislocated community, and get high on that.? My alcoholic sib is an intelligent, gentle, loving, free-spirited, artistic soul whose creativity and rich social life has been all but obliterated by addiction. But we continue to love, support, and hope.

    Hope all is well.

  3. Dear lovely Karen,

    Thanks for the great comments (by the way, I couldn’t open the email you sent me, for some reason).

    Your points are so well taken, and all the more poignant by your direct familial relationship with illicit drugs and alcohol. I think alcohol, personally, is a brutal drug that lowers what I believe to be consciousness, can enhance all kinds of potential violence, and can cause both mild and profound havoc in families and communities.

    For the record, I do not drink—and do not even have an affection for it (ie we had such a good time getting drunk, or a few drinks for intimacy purposes—deeply undesirable to my way of thinking…). I would imagine peyote and a few other drugs, taken for “undislocated” reasons, for truly spiritual quest and observation reasons, could be awareness enhancing (but I have no prooof, nor have I done it).

    For me, I believe we are on this planet to evolve, actually, so I have my own beliefs that will never make peer-reviewed journals! I believe that consciousness gave rise to matter, not the other way around—try getting that published. I smile just writing that line to you.

    But in short, with me you are not simply preaching to the choir, we’re in the choir, singing together. The point is, for me, is that the situation is so complicated.

    But I just naturally believe more intelligent, undogmatic, creative dialogue about what to do, is needed. And I deeply believe less incarceration is defintiely needed. The prsion population doubled (from 1 to 2 million) while Clinton was in power. That is painful. Incarceration for CERTAIN drug use is largely a hypocritical disaster.

    I also truly believe a vice is not a crime. It lacks criminal intent. That, right away, pushes me towards other approaches.

    Alcohol does not have any values that I personally see as useful, though some would say it loosens people up in social situations.

    And to try and further clarify what is not even clear for me, it’s not that I am pro-legalization per se. I’m actually pro-conversation and anti-excessive incarceration. And much more than pro-legalization, a word that can be deeply distorted, I am pro a decriminilization process (not putting users in jail for drug using and not making them break into your or my house to get money for drugs because they are illegal), and pro the political freedom to be able to converse about the process of regulation that increases dialogue, conversation and greater humanization within the process.

    I am anti the hypocrisy of alcohol and tobacco being legal, but am not necessarily pro criminilization despite all the damage they cause, because I am pro personal freedom, so the whole thing is very, very difficult. I also don;’t believe that drug addiction can be eradicated. I only believe that harm reduction is vital and human and increases compassion.

    harm reduction is so important. Whatever stops the spread of HIV by needles is so important. Discovering what this is takes time, flexiblility, conversation and experiment (and the dreaded peer-reviewed papers that follow).

    But alcohol and cigarettes should not, in my opinion, be clebrates, be considered means for pleasure, necessary for parties to have a good time, or for sex or whatever. Why even sell them at events: hockey games, pubs, dinner etc? But we do. Have them for home use. I’m just guessing with these ideas by the way.

    But for me they are vices with different names—a variation on the means of coping with the world like “regualted” anti-depressants are, or anything else of that nature.

    But people say, even doctors: how could giving someone a drug help them get off drugs? Well, that’s what a nicotine patch is used for.

    Also, I am dead set against the War On Drugs that allows certain people to get very rich on the criminal aspect of drugs, costs billions of dollars to the taxpayer, has not reduced drug use or increased the safety of neighbourhoods, marginalizes certain minority cultures as a rule, funds covert/proxy/counterinsurgency wars and increases the level of non-transparency in society.

    I believe, and I could be wrong, that the War On Drugs serves other processes (black ops, Iran Contra, mujahideen funding, and now the Taliban are funded by it), and this is, ironically, criminal!

    And people are very hypocritical. With no war, the Talibam would probably cut off heads for drug use or trafficking. But if they need it to fund their war…different matter. This is how I see, in varyinbg degrees, all power seeking war-like groups. An dhistory has shown this to be true.

    Incidentally, I belive instinctually but without evidence, that alcohol is the most brutal dislocation reinforcement in indigenous societies because it deadens a sensitivity to nature, and our relationship to nature, which is one of the essences of most indiginous cultures, for better and for worse.

    This serves the “end-game” philosophical instincts of immediate maximized profit, the fossil fuel paradigm of unsustainable diminishing resources and so on.

    As for legalization, or regulation, or decriminilization, like with cigarettes, increased education appears to be dropping the percentage of smokers. Smoking is an economic disaster and way worse on the body than regulated heroin use (according to, say, my father, who works in a methadone clinic).

    I, of course, think using either is deeply unfortunate.

    The whole process is so intensel complex, but I deeply appreciate the conversation, and particularly given the closeness you have to the situation. I really am not endlessly seduced by the peer-reviewed (science is so often a double edge sword—and conclusions, my brother has taught me so well, can be and are manipulated), but ideas should be studied.

    In the end, I don’t know. I just prefer more transparency, and think it vital to a democracy. I think double standards for legal and illegal drugs, and similarly double standards in incarceration, from white to black, suburbs to ghettos, drug to drug, is a bad sign, and a sign of social unconsciousness (which is also a symptom, in my opinion, of alcohol).

    Please no I deeply respect what you’re saying, and do not claim to know the answer. I also do not belive drug use can be eradicated. Hopefully it can be diminished, and harm reduction can be increased.

    It’s a difficult world, and difficult being human. Feel free to add more, and even ask for further clarifications if you think them to be necessary.

    As for marijuana in Canada, I believe your son to be correct, that it is illegal, but not heavy-handedly enforced. I think there is some allowance of marijuana growing for medicinal purposes.

    From Wikipedia, for what it’s worth:

    “The cultivation and possession of cannabis is currently illegal in Canada, with exceptions only for medical usage. However, the use of cannabis by the general public is broadly tolerated,[1] and a vigorous campaign to legalize cannabis is underway nation-wide.

    In 2001, the Globe and Mail reported that a poll found that 47% of Canadians agreed with the statement, “The use of marijuana should be legalized” in 2000, compared to 26% in 1975. [2] A more recent poll found that more than half of Canadians supported legalization.

    A decision in R. v. Long on July 13, 2007 in Ontario’s provincial court struck down the cannabis possession laws in Ontario, and for the time being possession laws in the province cannot be enforced, [citation needed] essentially making cannabis legal. Appeals have yet to be made.”

    That’s about all I know. I’ve never smoked it, or inhaled, or slept with Monica Lewinski, because I’m not surewhich are illegal.

    Sending you and yours lots and lots of love—and appreciate the tenderness and emotion of this subject, and hate the thought of sisters and brothers being incarcerated for a vice (and again, don’t claim to have the answers), and so wish those in your world who suffer, less suffering.

    Pete xox

  4. Dear mary,

    Thanks for the letter. I found Bruce’s work really interesting too. I also believe one has to be careful upon hearing it because 1) how does one change society enough to stop people feeling dislocated, being that it has evolved to this way over, say, hundreds of thousands of years.

    That said, we still must try to make it more beautiful. Therein lie your wonderful desires for increased community. I just keep trying, even here in the city, to say hello to enough people—all I can—and engage in conversation, so I sense more community. It actually works.

    Try not to be too scared—but, yes, it can be scary, in some ways. The key is to decide what part of that fear is real and which part is unnecessary. Never easy. As for the move to a smaller city. people need more love and kindness everywhere.

    I think the internet community idea is a bit false, too, and yet one can write kind, sloidarity inducing things, and try to reach out. But life is holistic, and eyes are beautiful things, so face-to-face kindness is really, for me, the most beautiful.

    As for Bruce, I’d bet he has an SFU email. Just drop him a line and thank him for his work. I know when I get a kind letter, it means a a lot. Mark Twain said he could live a couple of months off a good compliment.

    How you keep finding and deepening community, and don;t let the minor setbacks bring you down. Being the material world, they are inevitable. But love is a wondrous antidote to fear and loneliness. And bigger love with bigger emotions, it seems to me, can be an even better antidote.

    Thanks for the note. Lots of love to you,

    pete

  5. Karen says:

    Hi Pete,

    My son asked me to thank you for your answer. His friends are a little disappointed, but such is life.

    As I said, I don’t use alcohol very often and I never use marijuana, but in the name of full disclosure, I was “I’m not sure I remember last night? drunk once in college. I also discovered that if you have chronic hypoglycemia marijuana makes you sick. Both vices quickly got filed in the “not worth it? bin. However, I did smoke cigarettes for ten years. The scary part—I quit when I was 21. I can also tell you that when my son lights up, I would so love a drag. Two decades and the desire is still there, so I understand addiction well.

    I absolutely agree with you about alcohol. Since you broached the subject first; yeah, I will never understand combining alcohol and intimacy. Alcohol is Narcan to intimacy, isn’t it?

    The earliest settlers on both North American coasts quickly learned to use alcohol to control Native Americans and have been doing it since.

    At its most benign, drunk equals dulled. So unfortunate that people think they are at their wittiest under the influence. At its most malignant, lives are shattered. My family situation aside, my grandparents owned a bar and grill so I’ve seen drunk in most every incarnation.

    I hope I didn’t give the impression my opinion about legalizing drugs is unmovable. Discussion is vital, especially now. My fear is that legalization might occur before the social and medical infrastructure is ready to support those who need it.

    I believe marijuana should be decriminalized as opposed to legalized. I’ve never seen anyone become violent under the influence of marijuana alone so it’s perhaps even less dangerous than alcohol. Decriminalization would reduce incarceration rates, prevent relatively upstanding citizens from having criminal records, and help clear the court dockets. But by keeping some aspects of marijuana use under the legal system, as drunk driving is, people would have access to drug court rehabilitation programs, which have the lowest relapse and recidivism rates of all types of rehabilitation programs. Studies point to the court’s coercive power as the force behind the lower rates, but I have to wonder if the data aren’t skewed by the inclusion of casual users caught up in the legal system who, following a brush with the law, are more likely to remain sober.

    We both know it’s through honest and open discourse that problems get solved. I believe in honesty and transparency on all levels but especially one-to-one. The more honest we are with each other the more opportunities we have to learn from each other and to realize we all have so much in common. Then barriers, both real and perceived, start to come down and we become less fearful of stepping up and helping each other.

    To Mary’s excellent point, where did our sense of community go? I can’t believe it’s all about rural vs urban living. Something else happened that has to be undone, and it can only be undone by talking to each other. It’s not hopeless though. During my run today I exchanged passing hellos with about a dozen people along the way. It’s a start!

    Keep loving.

  6. Brent Taylor says:

    In your very interesting piece entitled Noam Chomsky on Drugs you makes a small mistake. I quote it:

    From the VANDU Website, which is a coalition of users, ex-users and allies:
    “We believe that drugs users are the strongest voice for the needs of drugs users. We are dying from the criminalization, marginalization, and mpoverishment we face on a daily basis due to the ignorant, oppressive and absurd attitudes and policies of the current status quo in Canada. We are sick and tired of being the scapegoats for problems that are rooted in the very fabric of society.?

    While I have no doubt that virtually every VANDU member would whole-heartedly agree with that statement, I just wish to clarify that it is not taken from the VANDU website, but it actually comes from the UNDUN website. Like VAMDI, UNDUN (Unified Networkers of Drug Users Nationally) is also a “drug user group” and in fact, describes itself one its website as a “coalition of users, ex-users and allies”.

    You will find the above quoted section at http://www.undun.mammajamma.org/who.htm

    I really like the overall Noam Chomsky on Drugs article.

    In fact, it has motivated me to ask (many of those in the harm reduction field):

    Shall we begin suggesting “drug use is a vice, not a crime”? I like that better than “drug use is a disease, not a crime”.

    Much thanks. And solidarity.

  7. Dear Brent,

    Thanks so much for the wonderfully kind note and the correction (and the loving way you pointed it out). I’ll try to fix it as soon as possible.

    Yeah, isn’t that a remarkable comment about vice and crime, and how one barely even thinks that way until it’s pointed out by some fella writing in 1875.

    Crazy.

    Thanks again. Lots of love and solidarity to you and yours, too, on this sometimes tricky navigation we call life,

    Pete

  8. Bruna Livasy says:

    Here is a statement from the one presidential candidate who actively supports the legalization of medical marijuana nationwide! “ACP urges review of marijuana’s status as a schedule I controlled substance and its reclassification into a more appropriate schedule, given the scientific evidence regarding marijuana’s safety and efficacy in some clinical conditions… ACP strongly supports exemption from federal criminal prosecution; civil liability; or professional sanctioning, such as loss of licensure or credentialing, for physicians who prescribe or dispense medical marijuana in accordance with state law. Similarly, ACP strongly urges protection from criminal or civil penalties for patients who use medical marijuana as permitted under state laws.”You can read more and support her campaign on her site http://denisebedio.com/marijuana. Join us and together, we can create a true land of the free.

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