What can this experiment teach us about humanity?
CW: This article discusses topics of drug use and war which could be distressing to some readers
Drug use in England and Wales
In March 2020 drug use statistical data, provided by The Office for National Statistics, reported that 3.2 million adults aged 16-59 used drugs in England and Wales. In comparison to the population of the United Kingdom, estimated at around 66 million by Population Matters TM , it would seem that 3.2 million drug users are a minority, or are they?
3.2 million people isn't a small amount of people. The data showed that not even the Covid19 pandemic slowed down the use of drugs. Surely this highlights that incarcerated punishment does not deter the use of drugs.
Notably, those being released from incarceration struggle returning to society without relapse due to underfunded support services. Opening bank accounts proves to be one of the major frustrations for those released. Like a red flag has been placed on their names.
The Rat Park experiment
One example of how to manage addiction, is Rat Park. Johann Hari, public speaker, decided to dive deep into research after experiencing drug use in his family from a young age. What Hari found out was astonishing.
The full Ted Talk video can be found on YouTube or viewed below. Video is just under 15 minutes long.
To summarise, Hari explains to his audience that everything we think we know about addiction is wrong and there is in fact a better way we could be dealing with this ongoing issue.
Hari illuminates that, drugs were first banned in The United States and The United Kingdom 100 years ago, and a century since the declaration of war on drugs. Essentially, the system takes addicts and punishes them, because it's believed to be a deterrent or incentive to make them stop.
Hari crucially asks, ‘what really causes addiction?’, ‘why do we carry on with this approach, when it doesn’t seem to be working?’ and ‘Is there a better way out there that we could try and use instead?’
Hari states, if Grandma needed to have diamorphine administered following her hip replacement, which is the purest form of heroin, then why didn't she leave hospital as an addict?
On a much larger scale, Hari exemplifies the Vietnam war where 20% of American soldiers used narcotics every day. Headlines of the time showcased the worry of addict soldiers returning home from war, however, the soldiers were followed home and analysed by The General Archives of Psychiatry (of which an abstract can be found here) and the results showed that 95% of soldiers just stopped using drugs.
Canadian doctor Dr Gabor Mate, an addiction expert, spoke with Hari. He said that ‘If you wanted to design a system that would make addiction worse, you would design that system’
Professor Peter Cohen, from the Netherlands spoke with Hari and said, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t even call it addiction, maybe we should call it bonding’. As human beings we have a natural need to bond and when we’re happy and healthy, we’ll connect with each other. If you can’t do that because you’re traumatized or beaten down by life, you will find connection with something that gives you some sense of relief in your life.
The most interesting discussion Hari encountered was with Bruce Alexander, professor of psychology in Vancouver. They discussed a series of rat experiments that were carried out in the early 20th century, where one rat was put in a cage and given the choice of regular water and water laced with either heroin or cocaine.
In this example the rat almost always went for the drugged water and usually killed itself quite quickly.
In the 70’s, Professor Alexander looked at this experiment again and noticed that the rat had nothing to do except use the drug water. Professor Alexander then created ‘Rat Park’, a haven for rats where they had lots of toys, food, friends, and sex whilst been offered the same choices of Regular water or drugged water.
The results found that, in Rat Park the drugged water was almost never used, never used compulsively and none of the rats ever overdosed. Statistically moving from almost 100% chance of overdose in the isolated cage to 0% chance of overdose in Rat Park.
Portugal trailed the new approach
In the year 2000, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe where 1% of the population was addicted to heroin. Leaders of the time set up a panel of scientists and doctors, led by Dr João Goulau, to figure out how they could genuinely solve the problem after years of using a failing system.
Scientists looked at all the new evidence before advising leaders to de-criminalise all drugs and use the money that was previously spent on cutting addicts off and instead spend it on re-connecting addicts back into society.
A programme was later released that created jobs for addicts. Businesses received subsidised wages, paying half of an addict’s wage as an incentive to accept addicts back in to work, generating a reason for addicts to get up on a morning.
As addicts rediscovered purpose, they created bonds and relationships with society which gave Portugal amazing results. 15 years later, according to the British journal of Criminology, injecting drugs had reduced by 50%, addiction, HIV, and overdose also showed a significant decrease as a result.
Final Thoughts - from the writer
In agreement with the final words of Hari. In our society today we find an increasing amount of people who feel vulnerable to addiction. Whether that is an addiction to smart phones, drugs, shopping or eating, there seems to be an agreeable confusion as to whether we're more connected as a society or the least connected we've ever been.
So, with all this information at hand my plea is this, stay connected as much as possible and rethink any prejudices you may have about addicts.
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