One of the most pernicious, costly and destructive beliefs in the US is the idea that certain substances, like drugs and alcohol, are addictive in themselves. In other words, almost anyone, if they are exposed to marijuana or heroin or cocaine, are going to become addicted to it and not be able to curb their usage. The public acceptance of this belief has resulted in the War on Drugs, which has probably cost us over a trillion dollars over the years, countless deaths and a huge prison population increase. Most of the focus of this effort has been on trying to prevent illegal drugs from entering the US and, when someone is caught selling or using drugs, they’ve been imprisoned. There has also been very little effort on treatment of the offenders. As a interviewee (Johann Hari) on Bill Maher’s show on February 6 pointed out, throwing drug users into prison where they have contact mostly with hardened criminals and stigmatized as criminals themselves, has probably resulted in them becoming even more dependent on drugs to make them feel better. And when they are released from prison, with little prospect of leading normal lives, they are almost guaranteed to return to drug usage.
So the War on Drugs has proven to be a colossal failure. Instead of eradicating the use of drugs in our country, they’ve actually increased it. And the price of drugs has, according to the NY Times, resulted in no decrease in illegal drug use.
Part of the reason for this belief that the drugs are addictive in themselves is a study that was done years ago on rats. The researcher found that, if a rat is in a cage by itself and has two sources of liquid: one with plain water and one with water laced with heroin, it would begin to compulsively drink out of the heroin-laced water supply. It even neglected food and drank the heroin water until it actually died. That seemed conclusive evidence, at least if the results were extrapolated to humans, that the drug itself was addictive.
But a later study done by another researcher contradicted this conclusion. In this study, rats were placed in a kind of rat nirvana. The environment, called Rat Park, was filled with colorful objects, things to play with and, most importantly, other rats. There were, again, two water supplies: one with heroin, the other with plain water. Since there were rats of both sexes, they could also have lots of sex. And they did! The results showed that these rats avoided the water with heroin. They didn’t need to drink the heroin water. The stimulating environment was much more important and satisfying to them.
The conclusion from these two studies is that rats with a very deprived environment will turn to anything that gives them a good feeling, such as one that involves the ingestion of heroin. Rats who have an enriched, stimulating environment, will find much more fulfilling sources of satisfaction.
Another source of data disproving the belief that drugs are addictive rather than the environment creating addicts is what we learned from the war in Vietnam. 25% of the service people there became addicted to heroin. It was very cheap and an antidote to the alternatively boring and terrifying environment they faced in Vietnam. Plus a great many of them began to see the war that they were risking their lives on was a huge mistake. But, when they returned to the States after the war, 95% of them stopped using heroin after getting treatment. Those heroin users who had become addicted without being in the military were also given treatment, but 95% of them went back to using illegal substances after treatment.
The writer who appeared on Maher’s show, Johann Hari, discussed Portugal which, at one point, had the highest rate of addiction to heroin in Europe. 1% of the entire population. But the Portugese seem to be a lot smarter than us Americans. They decided that following our lead was not working, so they took all the money they had been spending on interdiction and imprisoning addicts, de-criminalized drug usage and devoted much of their resources to treatment. Although drug usage hasn’t decreased, it hasn’t increased, and they’ve saved millions of dollars by not sentencing users to prison. After only 5 years of the new policy, there was a reduction of teenage drug usage and a drop in HIV cases through the sharing of dirty needles.
A big obstacle to us adopting some of the effective measures that have worked in countries like Portugal is that it’s politically effective for US politicians to base their electoral strategy on scaring the hell out of people with false statements about what causes drug usage. Hopefully, as the facts become more widely known, this will change.