Addiction is No Walk in the Park: The Rat Park Drug Addiction Experiment

“For 100 years, we’ve been singing war songs about addicts. I think all along we should have been singing love songs to them, because the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.” – Johann Hari

With addiction rates rising each year, chances are you or someone you know has struggled with addiction at some point in their life. 

 In 1971, Nixon officially declared “drug abuse” as public enemy number one, marking the beginning of what we now call the War on Drugs. As a result, many studies were carried out during this time that related to drug addiction

Drug Laced Water vs. Non-Drug Laced Water

One such experiment placed a single rat in a cage, with an option to drink either water or drug-laced water. The results indicated that the rats were overwhelmingly choosing to ingest the drug-laced water over the non-laced water, often to such a degree that they would overdose and die. 

These results were taken and propagandized to claim that drugs in and of themselves are the cause for addiction, so the solution, of course, is to take them away. However, this still left questions unanswered, such as why isn’t every person coming out of surgery from the hospital also coming out addicted to drugs? Nor does it explain how 20% of American troops were using heroin during the Vietnam war, but 95% of them were able to just stop using the drug once they were back in their home environment. 

Did Creating a Rat Park Change Drug Addiction Results?

In the late 70s, a Canadian psychologist Bruce Alexander, wondered how the aforementioned experiment would change if the rat had friends and things to do other than just drinking water or consuming drugs. He created a rat oasis, or “Rat Park” including colorful balls to play with, wheels to run on, and of course, other rats to socialize and mate with. 

These changes to the experiment changed the results dramatically. Rats that were in the Rat Park consumed less than a quarter of the drugs that the isolated rats drank. 

What was gathered from this experiment is that the presence of drugs isn’t as alluring when you have a connected, stimulating environment. 

Does Addiction Serve a Purpose?

Addiction is functional, which means it serves a purpose. That purpose could be anything from aiding depression symptoms to easing boredom. As such, simply prohibiting the addictive drug is not an adequate solution, because there is nothing put in the drug’s place to fulfill the still-necessary function. 

Now, there were issues with the Rat Park experiment. One of the measurement machines failed, which caused eight days of data to be lost. The non-isolated rats in the Rat Park were also able to reproduce since there were both male and female rats, which could impact the results as a confounding factor. Plus, there’s obviously differences between rats and humans that could make the results not completely generalizable across species. 

Drug Addiction in Portugal

However, Portugal is a living, breathing example of what happens when we take the focus off of prohibition and instead place it on bolstering treatment options for those already struggling with addiction and strengthening the areas of society that can lead people down the path of addiction. 

Portugal was in the midst of a drug crisis. They kept going deeper and deeper into the American method of prohibition and criminalization, and the problem kept getting worse and worse. In response, they employed a panel of scientists to figure out how to solve the issue. Their answer was to immediately decriminalize all drugs from cannabis to crack, and spend the money that they were spending on enforcing prohibition on micro loans, job opportunities, etc., instead.

This quickly led to significant improvements. Injecting drug use is down 50%. Addiction, HIV, and overdoses are all massively down also. What speaks the loudest is that almost no one in Portugal is a proponent for going back to the old, American-esque system. 

When our understanding of addiction is flawed, it’s no wonder that our approach to a solution is flawed as well.

Addiction Treatment at Williamsville Wellness

Williamsville Wellness understands that there’s more to addiction than just the addictive drug or behavior. That’s why we teach life skills, coping skills, exercise and nutrition habits, financial skills, and so much more. We utilize a high number of individual therapy sessions in conjunction with group therapy sessions because we know everyone’s addiction fulfilled a different function in their life. 

Our recipe for success is addressing the individual as a whole, not just the addiction. 


Want to learn more about the programs at Williamsville Wellness? Call 804-559-9959 right now.

By Courtney Judd


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