In the 1980s, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America released a television advertisement showing a rat, alone, in a cage. The rat had been given two water bottles: one with plain water, and one laced with cocaine. “Only one drug is so addictive, nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it. And use it. And use it. Until dead. It’s called cocaine. And it can do the same thing to you,” the ad claimed.
This frightful propaganda was used to advance the narrative that drugs themselves are the cause of addiction, and that the only way to avoid a fate similar to the rat’s is to avoid drugs completely. But, is that really the case?
Rat Park: How Social Alienation Feeds Problematic Drug Use
Bruce Alexander, a professor of psychology in Vancouver, noticed that the rats in these experiments were being kept alone in cages. Surely, this had some impact, he reasoned, deciding to recreate the experiment in a way that would account for the isolation felt by the rats.
In Alexander’s experiment, all the rats were initially forced to ingest morphine for a month and a half. Then, some of the rats were put alone in cages — recreating the conditions of the earlier experiment. The rest of the rats were placed together in “Rat Park,” an enclosure with toys, exercise equipment, top-quality rat food, and walls painted to resemble a forest .
The two groups of rats reacted very differently. While all the isolated rats became heavy drug users, none of the rats in Rat Park did. In fact, the Rat Park residents voluntarily used less than a quarter of the drugged water used by their caged counterparts.
Alexander then ran another test. The isolated rats were allowed to become compulsive users of the drugged water for 57 days, before being placed in the Rat Park environment. Strikingly, after a short period of withdrawal, the addicted rats were able to heal from their problematic use of the drug, and went back to living normal lives.
Professor Peter Cohen of the Netherlands who entered the field of drug research in 1980, proposes that the cause of addiction is not solely the chemical properties of drugs taking over the human brain and body. If that were true, then how can humans be similarly addicted to shopping, gambling, pornography, and other non-ingested things? Instead, Cohen believes that addiction is more like searching for a bond, part of human nature. If one is unable to live a happy and healthy life bonding with others, they will look to bond with something else that will give them relief.
The bottom line is that humans need connection and love to thrive, meaning that attempting to solve problems associated with problematic drug use with fear tactics like locking people in jail cells and taking them away from their homes and families is the wrong approach.
Johhann Hari, author of Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, recounts how Portugal was able to decrease injection drug use of its citizens by 50%:
Trans Marginalization and Problematic Drug Use
People from marginalized communities may not have a strong base of social support, which can put them at risk for harmful drug use.
Transgender individuals, for example, are more likely than the general population to be rejected by their families, kicked out of the house, experience physical and verbal harassment at school and work, and live in poverty or experience homelessness. These risks are compounded for transgender people of color, or transgender people who are disabled, undocumented, or non-male. This hardship and trauma may be a reason that transgender people are more likely to use drugs and experience higher rates of substance abuse than the general population.
Unfortunately, from a historical perspective, substance abuse treatment was developed for adult heterosexual men without regard to non-normative sexuality, gender, age and cultural considerations.
In a survey of 27,715 transgender individuals, 33% had negative experiences when seeking health care “such as being verbally harassed or refused treatment because of their gender identity,” and 23% reported that they “did not seek the health care they needed due to fear of being mistreated as a transgender person.”
Love and support from family, friends, and the community might be an important factor in keeping transgender people and others from marginalized communities safe — 54% of trans individuals whose immediate families were unsupportive had attempted suicide in their lifetime, compared to 37% whose families were supportive.
The November 2015 issue of the Monthly Mosaic takes a deeper dive into the many ways in which trans people are disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs.
Drug Use v.s. Drug Abuse
Often, government rhetoric and popular media refer to all drug use as drug abuse, lumping the two as if no distinction is warranted, and a disproportionate number of studies focus on problematic — as opposed to non-problematic — drug use.
Drug use falls on a spectrum , and the majority of drug users do not have unhealthy relationships with the substances they use. People who have problematic drug use need compassion and treatment — but it is also important that those who do not want or need drug treatment not be forced into it.
Further Reading on Problematic Drug Use and Mental Health
“Most people know how to help someone with a cut or a scrape. But what about a panic attack?”
“How one mother came to terms with what her heroin-addicted son really needed—and how she saved his life with a surprising approach.”
“As the opioid epidemic rages across the country, some desperate parents of addicts are taking the extreme step of turning their own adult or teenage child into the police to prevent him or her from overdosing, perhaps fatally.”
“We do not incarcerate people with diabetes for donut possession when they fail to maintain a healthy diet, nor do we arrest those who fail to exercise enough to bring their blood pressure down. But we do incarcerate thousands of people with addiction for possession of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and other substances.”
DRUG WAR NEWS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
The War on Drugs is an international travesty. This new section of the Monthly Mosaic, co-sponsored with SSDP’s International Outreach Committee, will highlight some of the top drug policy reform news from around the world
In Duterte’s Footsteps, Hun Sen Launches a Drug War
“Cambodia’s newly launched war on drugs is in full swing, with nearly 3,000 people arrested in the campaign’s first month of crime-busting.”
“The five leading candidates in the upcoming French presidential election, who hail from across the political spectrum, offer markedly different approaches to cannabis policy.”
“There used to be a time when smoking weed in India was still legal—before the implementation of the NDPS (Narcotic Drugs & Psychotropic Substances) Act of 1985 by the Rajiv Gandhi government. Post-1985, India’s cannabis legacy is all but diluted. What’s considered spiritual to sadhus is considered illegal to the masses, on the surface. Cannabis has been around for over 5000 years now. And while the plant thrives in most parts of North and South India, its consumption is illegal.”
“The Bill…will allow the Minister for Health to issue a licence, with conditions, to operate a supervised injecting facility.”
“Gilad Erdan, the nation’s Public Security Minister…said that if the Government approves his new policy, those caught smoking marijuana would be fined rather than arrested and prosecuted. Criminal procedures would be launched only against those caught repeatedly.”
“[The Eurasian Harm Reduction Network] is launching its first project with the European Commission in the field of drug policy. The project…will focus on the Central and Eastern Europe region, with pilot actions in the three Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The aim… is to involve various groups – from legislators and law enforcement to civil society activists – to work on drug policy evaluation mechanisms and promote transparent and evidence-based decision-making processes for national drug policies.”
As U.S. States Decriminalize Marijuana, Mexico’s Drug War Rages On
“While legalization is an important component of righting the wrongs of the drug war, it is not the only component—especially for the hundreds of thousands of Mexican families who have already been victimized by a century of prohibitionist policies.”
Peru’s Government Proposes to Legalize Medicinal Cannabis
“Peru’s government says it will present to the opposition-dominated legislature a plan to legalize the medical use of marijuana “for the treatment of serious and terminal illnesses.”
“Hontiveros is instead calling for a public health solution to the bloodshed that has killed at least 7,022 people since July 1, 2016.”
“At least 3,600 people, and possibly thousands more, have been killed by the police or by vigilantes since Mr. Duterte came to power.”
“Scientific evidence and our concern for health and human rights must shape drug policy. This means making sure that fewer people die from drug overdoses and that small-time offenders do not end up in jail where their drug problems get worse.”
Indonesia-South Africa Exchange: Paralegal (Peer) Support
“In South Africa, extensive violence and injustices against People Who Use Drugs (PWUD) occur on a daily basis. Moreover, access to a fair trial or legal support is rare for this target group. Mainline connected their South African partners to PKNI from Indonesia. This network of PWUD has organised paralegal support via their peer networks.”
South Africa: Don’t Treat Drug Users like Criminals, Says Health Workers
“Injecting drug users lead a life in the shadows, one that makes them prone to many health threats.”
Harm Reduction in Tanzania: A Delicate Balance
“Tanzania has fulfilled a leading role in the East African region by introducing an exceptionally successful harm reduction programme – including a strong NSP component and methadone distribution in Dar es Salaam. However, the continuation of this great work is not certain as recent incidents show. ”
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Each Monthly Mosaic is edited by Emory Basso and Kat Murti. This issue also features contributions by Miranda Gottlieb and Sarah Merrigan.
Each month, SSDP’s Diversity, Awareness, Reflection and Education (DARE) committee publishes the Monthly Mosaic, a newsletter dedicated to exploring intersectionality and the War on Drugs. Previous issues have covered topics such as domestic violence, trans awareness, Black Lives Matter, and women’s unique experiences with the drug war. The DARE committee strives to promote inclusivity within the SSDP network, and facilitate collaboration and engagement with presently underrepresented perspectives, individuals, and movements. In order to ensure that the Monthly Mosaic more intentionally and meaningfully reflects these values, the DARE committee is pleased to invite members of our student and alumni network to submit ideas for upcoming issues.