Bruce Alexander, a psychologist formerly with Simon Fraser University, British Columbia has since the 1970′s been arguing against the traditional view that drugs cause addiction.
In the 1960′s many experiments were conducted with rats which tended to show that caged rats, exposed to drugs such as heroin or cocaine rapidly become addicted.
Alexander doubted this purely chemical theory of addiction, being aware of many cases in which people using narcotics for pain relief , despite frequent use of these so called “addictive drugs”, did not become addicts. In fact, most people forced to use morphine to cover extreme pain, were only too pleased to get off the drug, when their pain subsided.
A major side effect of using narcotics for pain relief is that pain drugs “cloud” the brain so that people feel out of control, and unable to function properly. Some people having used a pain drug preferred to suffer their pain rather than submit to the loss of mental control caused by using a narcotic.
In the 1970′s, Alexander tested the drugs cause addiction theory by modifying the environment in which rats were experimentally exposed to drugs.
Research rats were traditionally placed in the straight jacket conditions of the “Skinner Box” when performing experiments. Alexander took a novel approach, and designed a garden of eden for his rats, providing optimal conditions in which they were free to roam and play.
Then these rats, in an optimal environment, were offered a choice between water, and water laced with morphine. In all cases the rats rejected the morphine and preferred to drink pure water.
Tempting the rats further, by adding sugar to the morphine laced water did not induce the rats to drink it. It was only when the effects of morphine were blocked by adding naloxone to the water that the rats preferred the sugar flavor to pure water.
The experiments of Alexander showed that it was limitations in the environment that determined a “choice” by rats in Skinner boxes to compulsively seek out drugs. The Alexander experiment showed that unhappy confined rats took to drug addiction, when offered drugs, whereas rats in a more stimulating and natural environment, in fact rejected the drugs completely.
Even when Alexander administered morphine to the rats so that they became “physically dependent” (ie, would suffer painful symptoms on withdrawal), more rats in the eden box went straight back to drinking pure water as their preference (despite withdrawal symptoms), than did rats in the skinner boxes.
As Alexander points out, human beings are far more complex in their motivations and behaviors than can be accounted for by “conditioned” responses. We are able to make free choices between many available, and sometimes conflicting options.
As Alexander heard when he spoke to drug addicts – addicts say that they can stop – can go through withdrawal, their problem is quite simply that – they do not want to stop.
People have thought that the addicts were wrong – that they are in denial about the power that the drugs have over them. Alexander’s work, although politely rejected, for no particular reason, by mainsteam research workers, shines a powerful light on what it is that the addict’s are really trying to say.
The addict’s are saying that where drug use is concerned, they don’t want to stop, not as a voluntary choice but because at the relevant time it is the best of all available options.
Even when drugs are causing physical deterioration and dependency, addicts act more like the Skinner rats, and keep on using the drugs. Rats not constrained by an oppressive, depressive environment get away from the drugs as a preferred response.
The implications of the Alexander research are far reaching for society – it is not drugs per se that cause addiction but distressed containment in the Skinner box and a lack of available, pleasurable alternatives that intensify the addictive response.
Alexander says that there is no drug policy that will ever touch the problem of addiction – we need to foster and develop viable culture.
In a psychosocial model of drug addiction the causes of drug addiction are said to be a lack of lifeskills, a perception of inferiority and lack of agency, oppression and constraint, essentially a profound sense of depression and inertia.
Viewed from this position in life, drug use appears to be more dynamic and exciting. From the viewpoint of a well adjusted and happy life – drug use is just the pits, unattractive, and to be avoided.
Drugs will always have a capacity to provide us with empty pleasure - if that looks good to us, then we are in trouble.
We need to enhance and improve our life, we need to be filled with optimism and the natural joy of living – then, and only then will we have, like the Alexander rats, a happy, contented, fulfilled life – with a healthy distaste for drugs.
Comprehensive drug programs enable people to fully recover from drug use, gain natural immunity to drugs, by helping them to get free of the Skinner box mentality and into Alexander’s garden of eden.