The Answer is Rat Park

In the 1980’s, the Partnership for a Drug Free America ran a commercial that showed a rat confined in a cage drinking from a cocaine-filled water bottle. In ominous tones the commercial told us that the rat would choose the cocaine water over regular water to the point where the rat starved to death.  This commercial was based on actual research and was part of the larger effort in the 1980’s to raise concern, and hysteria, over drug use.

A researcher, Bruce Alexander, observed that the rat in the cage experiments were always conducted with one isolated rat. He wondered what would happen if the rats were given access to drugs in an enriched, social environment. He created Rat Park, a place in which rats were housed together and given access to great food, toys, and rat camaraderie. It was Rat Party. In this experiment, both the solo rat and those in Rat Park were given access to plain water and to morphine-laced water.

In the isolated cages, the solo rats turned to the morphine water bottle. In Rat Park, rats largely ignored the morphine-laced water. They had better options.[i]

This research raised the question if addiction and drug abuse has as much to do with environment and connection as it does with the nature of the drug itself. The reality is that large numbers of people regularly use a range of drugs (alcohol, marijuana, Xanax, cocaine…) recreationally and that most people don’t get addicted.  Those who get in trouble and have their lives derailed by drug abuse are more likely to be disconnected and in an impoverished, stressful environment.  They are also more likely to have experienced trauma and abuse as children. Frequent drug use becomes a way to cope with loneliness and reoccurring negative emotions and to get numb.

Our punitive response to addiction often makes things worse. We stigmatize drug users and lock them up; we put them in a cage and isolate them; we make it harder for them to get jobs. We create the conditions for ongoing drug dependence and crime.

I grew up in Rat Park. I went to school in pre-Prop 13 California, a time in which we had well-funded schools and recreational programs. I participated in science labs in elementary school and enjoyed frequent field trips. I learned to play the guitar in a free summer school program and played sports in free city-sponsored rec programs.  I was fortunate to grow up in a caring family. While drugs and alcohol were around me, I viewed them as a distraction. In the jargon of youth development, I grew up with strong “protective factors.”

As more and more local governments and states permit legal marijuana businesses and collect revenues from those businesses, we have the opportunity to invest those revenues in young people and to increase the protective factors that surround them. We have the opportunity to build Rat Parks. In doing so we should take into account the history of the War on Drugs and prioritize investments in black and brown communities that were targeted by law enforcement and which experienced great trauma as a result. These communities typically experience the highest rates of poverty and have the greatest need.

In making these investments, we can create enriched environments and over time reduce substance abuse among young people and adults. Investments alone aren’t enough. We need to remove stigma and change policies that treat those struggling with substance abuse as criminals.  Our actions to decriminalize marijuana are a great first step. It’s time to apply these lessons to opioids and other drugs as well.

[i] I first learned about the Rat Park study in Johann Hari’s book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. I am aware that some have questioned the validity of the research. However, it’s important to note that there is extensive, parallel research on the positive impact of enriched environments and relationships in the field of youth development. The Search Institute (www., for example, has spent decades identifying critical assets in the lives of young people and how those assets protect young people from a range of risky, destructive behaviors, including substance abuse.  As with Bruce Alexander’s research, the Search Institute stresses the need to create positive healthy environments and caring relationships for young people to thrive. 

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