The Parable of Rat Park

The Parable

This is a cautionary tale about bad science and false interpretations.  

It begins in the 1960’s when scientists began experimenting on animals in an attempt to understand drug addiction in human beings. Study upon study conducted with caged rats seemed to demonstrate the irresistible properties of certain drugs. By the close of the eighties, more than 500 papers had been published describing the propensity of these animals to self-administer cocaine, sometimes to the point of death, and sometimes to the exclusion of food and other basic evolutionary drives. The implications for users of these drugs was surely dire.

This fit very neatly with what we ‘knew’ about addiction. We had seen, had we not, similar behaviour in humans – a tendency to disregard life for drugs. The danger of these drugs, we could only conclude, had been reaffirmed in a very big way.

Eventually, cracks begin appearing in this narrative. New facts began pointing to a new hypothesis, and a profoundly simple one at that – the conditions of the subjects had an enormous impact on the results of the experiments. For example, when fed adequately, rats tended to self-administer cocaine less; when starved or fed inadequately, as they often were, they tended to self-administer more. Rats reared in groups are less likely to self-administer than rats reared in isolation. And so on.

The incredible flaw in these experiments is that these conditions had no relation to their natural environment. It’s as though we’d bred and reared children, in isolation and darkness, poorly fed, far from loved, and discovered to our dismay that they developed mental illnesses. Who could have guessed? It’s as though we imprisoned and imposed great suffering on adults, then offered them heroin (nothing else, mind; no freedom, no source of entertainment, little food; just heroin) and were shocked to learn this powerful physical and emotional anaesthetic held an appeal to our outrageously mistreated subjects. Dr. Bruce Alexander has articulately explained that all these studies actually showed us is that self-administration of drugs is one way that caged animals “cope with the stress of social and sensory isolation.” That we can induce animals to abuse drugs by mistreating them. Now there is an insight we can run with. Dr. Gabor Mate adds that “emotional isolation, powerlessness, and stress are exactly the conditions that promote the neurobiology of addiction in human beings as well.”

It was based on these observations that Dr. Alexander’s ‘Rat Park’ came into being. He and his colleagues “built the most natural environment for rats that [they] could contrive in the laboratory.” It was “airy, spacious, with about 200 times the square footage of the standard laboratory cage. It was also scenic (with a peaceful British Columbia forest painted on the plywood walls), comfortable (with empty tins, wood scraps, and other desiderata strewn about on the floor), and sociable (with 16-20 rats of both sexes in residence at once).” A “short tunnel opening into Rat Park that was just large enough to accommodate one rat at a time” contained two dispensers – one of morphine solution, and the other an inert solution. What they found was that the subjects of Rat Park had very little interest in morphine. In fact “nothing [they] tried instilled a strong appetite for morphine or produced anything that looked like addiction in rats that were housed in a reasonably normal environment.” This was true even of rats which were already physically dependent on the drug.

This makes a lot of sense, given our modern understanding of addiction in humans. We have clearly observed that people under greater stress have a greater tendency towards drug addiction. This was demonstrated starkly during the Vietnam war, but few people took heed. In that war, a staggering twenty percent of the armed forces in Vietnam were addicted to heroin, barbiturates, amphetamines, or a combination of these drugs. The remission rate among these soldiers, upon returning to the United States, was ninety-five percent, a rate unheard of among the population of civilian addicts. It should have been very clear from this data that context is of monolithic importance to understanding drug use. Conscripted against their will and fighting a meaningless and brutal war against guerrilla’s, the GI’s of the Vietnam war were stressed to an inconceivable degree – that is why they used drugs. And that is why people still use drugs today. 

Properly understood, chronic drug addiction is a flight from suffering. The research is unequivocal on this point: most chronic drug addicts come from abusive homes. If you consider yourself a righteous person, a person of moral intuition, a fighter of a just cause, then this startling fact alone should have started something stirring inside of you. Surely we can find it in ourselves to care for the people these children grow to be. And yet, all too often we do not. Dr Mate, no stranger to human suffering himself, movingly writes: “We readily feel for a suffering child but cannot see the child in the adult who, his soul fragmented and isolated, hustles for survival a few blocks away from where we shop or work.”

These insights hold a special relevance to us, today. Why? Because we have a child abuse problem in this country and it is getting worse. We are having two conversations in our political realm, confident that they are separate conversations. They are not. If you care about the health of the Australian family, if child abuse is an affront to your morality, then you should be fucking outraged by our drug policies. The criminalization of drug use, put simply, punishes people for having been abused in the first place and then turning to drugs. Is this the conservative response to the abuse of our children? Is it the liberal response? To send armed and uniformed men and women after them when, a few short years later, they seek desperately to self-medicate the fallout from this abuse? To condemn and to stigmatize these casualties of our profoundly ill society?

We are confronted with two horrific facts. Firstly, child abuse is on the rise. Secondly, hard experience and a wealth of data have taught us that many of these children will, in the coming years, turn to drugs. They will try, sometimes perilously, to navigate the marketplace we have left for them; for heroin, or methamphetamine, or any of the chemical tools which so effectively relieve their pain, if only for a few hours. If your inclination is to condemn drug users, to scorn them as fools, think hard about this fact. The next generation of drug addicts is at this very moment being forged under the condemning eyes and roving hands of mothers and fathers and uncles and aunts. Exhortations of family values take on a sickly hue in this light, and will until we bring our drug policy in line with our purported values.  

The lesson of Rat Park and the thoroughly flawed experiments which inspired it is that self-administration of drugs is a natural response to great pain or to exceptional circumstances. It is beyond meaningless to condemn this behaviour while ignoring the great injustices which invariably precede it. Once we understand that pain is the primary source of addictive behaviours in our society, two questions become fundamental to the treatment of this societal ailment. How am I causing pain, and how can I alleviate it?


Applying the Lesson

We cause pain in many ways. The two most clearly relevant here are our social attitudes and our drug policies.

If we have taken these lessons to heart, we can no longer permit ourselves the luxury of believing that social shaming, ostracization, or stigmatization offer any possibility of reducing problem drug use. They can only contribute to the isolation which is responsible in the first place.

Further, we cannot possibly be so naive as to think that caging people in isolation for long stretches of their lives can reduce their need for drugs, having seen that these conditions are precisely what underlies the neurobiology of drug addiction. Nor can we believe that taking mothers and fathers away from their children for victimless crimes is anything less than hard shove in the direction of drug addiction’ for their children. The so called ‘War on Drugs’ obviously takes a gigantic toll on users and society alike. We can hardly believe that navigating a black market, and all its attendant problems, is conducive to healing addiction.

And what about alleviating suffering? Most obvious are the corollaries of the two causes stated above.

1. We can stop stigmatizing drug users and addicts. We can treat them with respect and kindness, and accept them as they are. We should encourage recovery, of course, but we have to do our part to make recovery possible. Further, if they are unable or unwilling to stop using the drugs they are dependent on, we should love them any way in the hope (otherwise extinguished) that they may one day be in a position to do so.

2. We can end the ‘War on Drugs’, and thereby lift a monolithic burden from the backs of drug users, and we may be comforted by the knowledge that in doing so we greatly increase their odds of recovery. We can cease to chase, harass, abuse and traumatize already abused and traumatized human beings. We can cease to isolate already isolated human beings.

But there is more we can do. We can make this a nicer world to live in. Recall the Parable of Rat Park. In a very real way, people are prisoners of the socio-political reality we collectively create for them. This is particularly true of drug addicts. Our goal should be to change this environment, and to make it a little more liveable. What desiderata can we scatter about the present moment to make it a little more comfortable? What institutions can we build which might make drug addicts more fully a part of society, and might provide people with the basic necessities of existence, which include not only food, health and shelter but love, meaning, and a sense of belonging.

We mentioned the burden of prohibition. We might note, more specifically, that it forces users and addicts to navigate a hazardous and complicated black market for drugs, often at greatly inflated prices and dangerously low qualities. In doing so it exposes them to crime, disease, and misery; and often narrows their associations down to only other addicts, hobbling chances for recovery yet again. From this, a seemingly radical hypothesis arises: safe, legal, cheap (or free) access to drugs of dependence may greatly eliminate the burden we have attached to the simple act of acquiring a drug one is dependent on, and thus greatly increase their chance of recovery. I say ‘seemingly radical’, because this theory has been vindicated repeatedly. One example is Switzerland’s trial of heroin maintenance for chronic addicts which, by simply providing safe and easy access to a drug these addicts had been previously forced to hustle for by prohibition, achieved the following results, as summarized in Dr. Mate’s book:

  • “Fitness for work improved considerably: permanent employment more than doubled.
  • The patients’ housing situations rapidly improved and stabilized (in particular, there was no homelessness).
  • There was no fatal overdose due to prescribed substances.
  • There were no notable disturbances in local neighborhoods.
  • There were significant economic benefits in terms of savings per patient-day, owing to marked reductions in legal and health costs.
    Among participants there was a marked decrease in crime of all kinds, from shoplifting to drug dealing – in the case of hard drugs, from 49.9 percent to 8.2 percent.
  • Overall, offenses dropped by 68 percent. According to the Central Criminal Register, the number of convictions dropped by 80 percent among addicts enrolled in the program.”

These facts imply that legal manufacture and sale of currently proscribed substances warrants consideration. At the very least, prescription of substances to people already dependent on them is clearly beneficial. The institutions at which addicts have safely and mercifully administered their drug of choice are immensely valuable. 

Along the same lines are needle exchanges, vociferously opposed by the United States, and by any country (most) upon which it can exert enough pressure. The principal effect of needle exchanges is to reduce misery and disease.

We should think, as well, about the institutions of civil society.

The voluntarily established and maintained harm reduction community (and service) I am on the volunteer staff of is one example of the kind of civil institutions with which our society might be more abundantly furnished if we liberalized our drug policies. It is called Tripsit. It’s aims are harm reduction and popular education, as well as 24-hour assistance to anybody having a difficult time on psychoactive substances. We have helped literally thousands of people, often at some of the most important moments of their lives. We maintain an environment among several hundred regular users, and thousands more passers by, wherein education and responsibility are held up as valuable. More importantly, our community gives people a sense of belonging, purpose, and empowerment.

A grander example is the Portland Hotel Society in Vancouver, Canada, the core mandate of which is to “provide domiciles for people who would otherwise be homeless,” as explained by Dr. Mate (referenced repeatedly above) who is the resident physician at the four hotels at which te PHS provides shelter to hundreds of societies most downtrodden members. What makes it unique, he says, is it’s principle of accepting people “as they are – no matter how dysfunctional, troubled, and troubling they may be.”

MAPS (the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) does incredible work researching the potential application of psychedelic compounds to therapy, which has the potential to alleviate and unfathomable amount of suffering for a huge number of people by treating things like PTSD, anxiety relating to end of life in patients with chronic illness, depression, and even opiate and alcohol addiction. Primarily, their research is into psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, which has demonstrably immense value. At present, this kind of activity is still suppressed, as a rule. MAPS, and a handful of other organizations like it, are islands of freedom in a socio-political system characterized by repression and hysteria when it comes to drugs. We could allow this art to develop, and we may conceivably see responsible clinics for this treatment set up in major cities across the world in the coming decades, treating multitudes of depressed and traumatized human beings with, by all reports, unprecedented efficacy.

I know this suggestion won’t be popular with many people, but we can allow an open culture of drug use. We can allow people to create safe spaces for the consumption of drugs. Many people derive meaning and identity from various substances. If they wish to form communities, we should not stand in their way. Community is immensely valuable to people, and we should not be so arrogant as to decree that it will develop on our terms, or not at all. Better on their terms than not at all. There are obvious objections that will be raised, but they needn’t be refuted here. Suffice it to say that the answers lie in the Parable of Rat Park. I might mention cultural institutions of a different kind, for example the numerous psychedelic gatherings and festivals across the world, or the institutions of psychedelic music, and painting, and so on. We might argue about their value, but pretentious, dumb, or vacuous as these things can be, they make people happy – and they’re often far from vacuous. There is nothing vapid about the Grateful Dead, or Huxley’s ‘Island’ (or the kind of communities prescribed within), in my opinion.

It isn’t the addicts that need to change, but our society. Once we understand this, we can begin fruitfully to approach the issue of addiction and drug use by the construction and maintenance of institutions, and by the promotion of tolerance. This is just a few examples and suggestions of how this can be done, taken either from the imagination of one individual, or from the few institutions which have been allowed to flourish in an atmosphere characterized by intense repression and fanatical anti-drug dogma, of which there are dismally (though predictably) few. Allow the people in their multitudes freedom in deciding how they shall relate to drugs and to drug users, and they will invent more than I could possibly conceive or hope to cover here.