We’ve all heard the story. A normal, functional person starts abusing alcohol or hard drugs. Before long, the person becomes addicted.
What happens next varies; the person may end up in jail, the hospital, or the morgue, or acknowledge the addiction and seek help. If so, the addict checks into rehab, joins Alcoholics Anonymous, or otherwise seeks a program to help achieve sobriety.
Many addicts enter recovery through the criminal justice system, where judges routinely order treatment in 12-step programs, usually AA. This has led to lawsuits by addicts who say this approach violates their constitutional rights because it is religious in nature.
For them and for others, addiction, as it turns out, is an incredibly complicated disease, and everything we think we know about it is wrong.
That is the lesson imparted by Johann Hari, a British author and researcher who studies addiction. Hari gave a TED Talk last year, part of a program that invites professionals, politicians, and many others to speak on a wide range of fascinating topics.
Hari traveled around the globe for research on his most recent book, Chasing the Scream, a study of addiction and the ways in which we treat it. During his travels, he says, he came to understand the deep flaws in our treatment system and the profound failures of the drug war.
He also came to believe that everything we think we understand about drug use and addiction is plain wrong. And until we acknowledge that, Hari says, we can’t move forward and save lives.
Flawed study fooled our understanding of addiction
So what is our “understanding” of addiction? Not surprisingly, it is based on a scientific study – a famous study.
In a series of experiments in the 1960s and ’70s, scientists placed rats alone in cages. They gave the rats access to food and water. They also gave them a water bottle laced with cocaine or morphine or alcohol.
The results were startling: In almost every case, the rats drank only the drug-laced water – until they starved to death. This, experts concluded, means addiction works by exposing you to chemicals that then “hook” you with their addictive properties. And once it takes hold, almost nothing will kill the problem.
But Hari says that’s all wrong. And he has proof.
The case of the Vietnam War
His most telling case involves the Vietnam War, which stretched from the early 1960s to 1975. Unlike previous wars, this conflict brought thousands of young men into contact with addictive drugs, specifically, heroin.
Almost half of American servicemen tried the drug while in the country. Roughly 20 percent got hooked. But when those soldiers and sailors returned to the United States, the vast majority beat the habit.
And they did it alone, without the help of rehab or AA, in large part because they returned to good lives and loving families. That, Hari says, suggests heroin and other addictive drugs don’t get users hooked by chemistry alone. So how does addiction start?
Addiction is result of human disconnection
The answer, he says, is simple: human connection. Which is where Rat Park comes in.
In the 1980s, years after the rat cage study, a researcher named Bruce Alexander detected a problem with it. He noted that the rats had been isolated in their cages when they drank the drug water and died. And that isn’t the way rats live at all.
Alexander began to suspect that the results might be very different if the rats were allowed the same freedoms and joys they experience in daily life. So he built Rat Park.
It was a sort of jungle gym for rats, a place where they could play, eat, bond, and have sex. It was a veritable paradise for the animals. And after they had been there for a while, Alexander saw that he was right: The rats drank water and ate food but almost never touched the drugs.
Alexander concluded that the biggest cause of addiction may not be chemical, or even genetic. Rather, addiction is the result of misery, isolation, and severed human connections. Give people chances to bond, he says, and they will stop using dangerous drugs.
It’s too early to say with confidence whether Alexander and Hari are right. But their insights are already changing the way scientists and health care providers view drugs and addiction. Those improvements couldn’t come too soon.