The common perception about drug addiction, or about the cause of addiction in general, is that people get addicted to drugs because the drugs are addictive and trick their body into thinking it needs them. This may, or may not, be supplemented with a statement about these people being too weak or otherwise unworthy: a typical distancing maneuver people use to ignore the fact that bad things can happen to them too.

This perception appears to be supported by one of the oldest experiments in drug addiction: putting mice or rats alone in a cage with two water bottles, one containing water and the other water and a drug like cocaine or heroin. This was made famous by the following well-known advertisement:

The studies investigating drug addiction by adding cocaine to water, of which there are several, appear to have started in the 1960s, and were continued up and past 1993.  At the same time this ad was running, Bruce Alexander was laying the groundwork for a much deeper understanding of why rats would appear to voluntarily consume cocaine until they died (as seen in Woods, 1978). As confirmed in more recent studies, including this one from 2008, the issue isn’t as much the drugs themselves as the environment the animal is in.

The basis for the classic myth about drug addiction stems from a seemingly human urge to find an easy answer to complex problems. The experiments used to support the statements in those advertisements involved putting rats alone in cages, and exposing them to a cocaine for a period before offering them both water and cocaine. But these experiments didn’t dig deep enough into the dynamic and didn’t consider that their self-destructive use might lay in their circumstances.

The isolated rats, after already being exposed to cocaine, chose cocaine over the normal water repeatedly. In a 1989 study, where they presented the rats with sugar-water and more food alongside cocaine, the number of rats using cocaine significantly decreased. The rats in group settings seem to use the cocaine water, after introduction, far less often than those rats kept in solitary confinement. Furthermore, rats which had “good lives” consisting of little struggle over food (more than enough food, and sugar) were less likely to consume cocaine laced water than the groups who did not have these improvements.

The experiments performed by Bruce Alexander in the late 1970s and ’80s, with his “Rat Park,” showed that drug addicted rats changed their behavior from preferring morphine laced water to normal water when placed into a comfortable, and social, environment.  The rats were effectively “rescued” from their addiction through a healthy, and sufficient, environment. This was replicated with cocaine in 2008 by Solinas et al, and gives us a window to human addiction.

Human addiction, much like that of rats, is often the result of an insufficient environment and the urge of the individual to escape circumstances that are otherwise intolerable. It has been repeatedly shown (for instance in Compton et al’s 2007 review) that drugs are more often used by people of lower socioeconomic status, ethnic minorities (especially native Americans), and those who have never been married, divorced, or separated. Do you see the common thread?

These are all groups of people who feel left out, who feel like society and the world is leaving them behind. As a friend of mine who used to frequently consume dopaminergic narcotics like amphetamine on a regular basis said: “drugs create layers between you and your problems, allowing you to buy more distance between now and the eventual reality of your problems.” For people whose problems just don’t seem solvable, drugs present an immediate escape.

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Much like the rats in Smith’s 2014 study, which had rats become addicted to cocaine while alone and then be moved back together with a partner, use was much higher when the partner had previous experience with cocaine. The obvious implication is that return to addiction, following completion of a therapeutic program, is vastly increased by a social network composed of current or past users.

Taken together, all this information leads us to see massive flaws in our current justice paradigm regarding drug use. How is it productive whatsoever to take drug users and force them into an environment where their social network is primarily drug users and actual criminals? How is that likely to lead to rehabilitation?

When past users return from prison and find it more difficult to get a job, does that increase or decrease their ability to cope with their life? The correct answer is that it doesn’t help to make the life of previous addicts difficult, as the feeling of helplessness these scenarios create for the returning convict only increase the odds of them returning to use and potentially even using their new connections from prison to enter more profit-oriented types of criminality. Could it be that society is making the streets less safe, increasing the number of past drug users returning to their addictions, and costing us all more money than effectively dealing with these problems?

The for-profit prison industry most assuredly plays a role in continuing this ineffective system and contributes to pretending that the problem is a lack of punishment or the continuing availability of drugs, but it is not solely responsible. Partially responsible is our inability to acknowledge that even though some people are more susceptible than others, we all have the potential to be a drug addict if the circumstances and social situation provide it as a viable solution. We can only help these people (ironically, we could save money doing so) by acknowledging their humanity and trying to help them find real answers to their problems, instead of heaping more problems onto their heads.