The truth behind addictions is not what you think

Written By komlim puldel on Minggu, 25 Januari 2015 | 23.08

Drug addictions could come from places you didn't expect. Source: Supplied

IT IS now one hundred years since drugs were first banned — and all through this long century of waging war on drugs, we have been told a story about addiction by our teachers and by our governments.

This story is so deeply ingrained in our minds that we take it for granted. It seems obvious. It seems manifestly true.

Until I set off three and a half years ago on a 30,000-mile journey for my new book, Chasing The Scream: The First And Last Days of the War on Drugs, to figure out what is really driving the drug war, I believed it too. But what I learned on the road is that almost everything we have been told about addiction is wrong — and there is a very different story waiting for us, if only we are ready to hear it.

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If we truly absorb this new story, we will have to change a lot more than the drug war. We will have to change ourselves.

I learned it from an extraordinary mixture of people I met on my travels.

From the surviving friends of Billie Holiday, who helped me to learn how the founder of the war on drugs stalked and helped to kill her.

From a Jewish doctor who was smuggled out of the Budapest ghetto as a baby, only to unlock the secrets of addiction as a grown man.

From a transsexual crack dealer in Brooklyn who was conceived when his mother, a crack-addict, was raped by his father, an NYPD officer.

From a man who was kept at the bottom of a well for two years by a torturing dictatorship, only to emerge to be elected President of Uruguay and to begin the last days of the war on drugs.

The war on drugs consumes South America. Source: Supplied

I had a quite personal reason to set out for these answers. One of my earliest memories as a kid is trying to wake up one of my relatives, and not being able to.

Ever since then, I have been turning over the essential mystery of addiction in my mind — what causes some people to become fixated on a drug or a behaviour until they can't stop?

How do we help those people to come back to us? As I got older, another of my close relatives developed a cocaine addiction, and I fell into a relationship with a heroin addict.

I guess addiction felt like home to me.

If you had asked me what causes drug addiction at the start, I would have looked at you as if you were an idiot, and said: "Drugs. Duh." It's not difficult to grasp. I thought I had seen it in my own life.

We can all explain it. Imagine if you and I and the next twenty people to pass us on the street take a really potent drug for twenty days.

There are strong chemical hooks in these drugs, so if we stopped on day twenty-one, our bodies would need the chemical.

We would have a ferocious craving.

We would be addicted.

That's what addiction means.

One of the ways this theory was first established is through rat experiments — ones that were injected into the American psyche in the 1980s, in a famous advert by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

Rats in a cage: Pic: AP Photo/Science. Source: AP

You may remember it.

The experiment is simple.

Put a rat in a cage, alone, with two water bottles. One is just water. The other is water laced with heroin or cocaine.

Almost every time you run this experiment, the rat will become obsessed with the drugged water, and keep coming back for more and more, until it kills itself.

The advert explains: "Only one drug is so addictive, nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it. And use it. And use it. Until dead. It's called cocaine. And it can do the same thing to you."

But in the 1970s, a professor of Psychology in Vancouver called Bruce Alexander noticed something odd about this experiment.

The rat is put in the cage all alone.

It has nothing to do but take the drugs.

What would happen, he wondered, if we tried this differently?

So Professor Alexander built Rat Park.

It is a lush cage where the rats would have coloured balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want.

What, Alexander wanted to know, will happen then?

In Rat Park, all the rats obviously tried both water bottles, because they didn't know what was in them. But what happened next was startling.

The rats with good lives didn't like the drugged water.

They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did.

At first, I thought this was merely a quirk of rats, until I discovered that there was — at the same time as the Rat Park experiment — a helpful human equivalent taking place. It was called the Vietnam War.

Time magazine reported using heroin was "as common as chewing gum" among US soldiers, and there is solid evidence to back this up: some 20 per cent of U.S. soldiers had become addicted to heroin there, according to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

Many people were understandably terrified; they believed a huge number of addicts were about to head home when the war ended.

But in fact some 95 per cent of the addicted soldiers — according to the same study — simply stopped. Very few had rehab.

They shifted from a terrifying cage back to a pleasant one, so didn't want the drug any more.

Could addiction caused by too much partying? Source: AFP

Professor Alexander argues this discovery is a profound challenge both to the right-wing view that addiction is a moral failing caused by too much hedonistic partying, and the liberal view that addiction is a disease taking place in a chemically hijacked brain. In fact, he argues, addiction is an adaptation.

It's not you.

It's your cage.

After the first phase of Rat Park, Professor Alexander then took this test further.

He reran the early experiments, where the rats were left alone, and became compulsive users of the drug.

He let them use for fifty-seven days — if anything can hook you, it's that. Then he took them out of isolation, and placed them in Rat Park.

He wanted to know, if you fall into that state of addiction, is your brain hijacked, so you can't recover? Do the drugs take you over? What happened is — again — striking. The rats seemed to have a few twitches of withdrawal, but they soon stopped their heavy use, and went back to having a normal life.

The good cage saved them. (The full references to all the studies I am discussing are in the book.)

When I first learned about this, I was puzzled. How can this be?

This new theory is such a radical assault on what we have been told that it felt like it could not be true. But the more scientists I interviewed, and the more I looked at their studies, the more I discovered things that don't seem to make sense — unless you take account of this new approach.

Pill addiction could be caused by social crowds, rather than the substance itself. Source: Getty Images

Here's one example of an experiment that is happening all around you, and may well happen to you one day.

If you get run over today and you break your hip, you will probably be given diamorphine, the medical name for heroin.

In the hospital around you, there will be plenty of people also given heroin for long periods, for pain relief.

The heroin you will get from the doctor will have a much higher purity and potency than the heroin being used by street-addicts, who have to buy from criminals who adulterate it.

So if the old theory of addiction is right — it's the drugs that cause it; they make your body need them — then it's obvious what should happen.

Loads of people should leave the hospital and try to score smack on the streets to meet their habit.

But here's the strange thing: It virtually never happens.

As the Canadian doctor Gabor Mate was the first to explain to me, medical users just stop, despite months of use.

The same drug, used for the same length of time, turns street-users into desperate addicts and leaves medical patients unaffected.

If you still believe — as I used to — that addiction is caused by chemical hooks, this makes no sense. But if you believe Bruce Alexander's theory, the picture falls into place.

The street-addict is like the rats in the first cage, isolated, alone, with only one source of solace to turn to.

The medical patient is like the rats in the second cage. She is going home to a life where she is surrounded by the people she loves.

The drug is the same, but the environment is different.

This gives us an insight that goes much deeper than the need to understand addicts.

Professor Peter Cohen argues that human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections.

It's how we get our satisfaction.

If we can't connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find — the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe.

He says we should stop talking about 'addiction' altogether, and instead call it 'bonding.'

A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn't bond as fully with anything else.

So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety.

It is human connection.

This article was originally published on the Huffington Post.

The full story of Johann Hari's journey — told through the stories of the people he met — can be read in Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, published by Bloomsbury. The book has been praised by everyone from Elton John to Glenn Greenwald to Naomi Klein. You can buy it at all good bookstores and read more at www.chasingthescream.com


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