Rat Trap — The Walrus, Dec. 2007
Why Canada’s drug policy won’t check addiction
By: Robert Hercz
Image Credit: banksy.co.uk
“Canada’s anti-drug strategy a failure, study suggests,” read the headline of a brief CBC story that circulated through a handful of news outlets before dying out early this year. The British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS had just published a paper revealing that almost three-quarters of the $368 million allocated to Canada’s Drug Strategy in 2004–2005 was spent on enforcement initiatives aimed at staunching the supply of drugs. The authors pointed out that despite this war on drugs, the rate of consumption was higher than ever: in 2002, 45 percent of Canadians reported having used illicit drugs in their lives, up from 28.5 percent in 1994.
The study advocated that money be directed toward cost-effective, evidence-based prevention, treatment, and harm-reduction programs — the other three pillars of Canada’s drug policy. But to Bruce Alexander, a psychologist who recently retired after thirty-five years at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, the policy debate is just a distraction. “There’s no drug policy that will have much effect on addiction,” he says from his home in Vancouver. “I think that’s one of our diversions: ‘If we could just get the drug policy right, we’d solve our addiction problem.’ I don’t think that would touch it. The only way we’ll ever touch the problem of addiction is by developing and fostering viable culture.” Read the rest of the article here.
The statement that North America’s policies and strategies on drug control don’t work certainly isn’t a new one, and they’re not as bad as some places (here in Taiwan, the ‘official’ punishment for dealing is the death penalty, although it must be said they rarely administer said penalty); however, the notion that most addiction could be caused by the structure of society itself certainly is, you must admit, a fascinating one.
Now, I know many people would scoff at what Bruce Alexander says in the article, that “the only way we’ll ever touch the problem of addiction is by developing and fostering viable culture.” They might feel insulted by the implication that it’s typical Western cultural standards and mores — i.e. the surrounding social environment — which could cause some people to take to the needle or the pill. And when he says, ‘viable culture,’ what exactly does he mean? Viable for whom? Obviously what some people see as viable is not viable for others.
But if we get past these points, and look at the results of his experiments with Rat Park and the data from Vietnam vets, for example, I definitely think he’s on to something. From the article:
Alexander’s research reveals that addiction rates are low when societies are stable, and they rise at times of social disruption. “The extreme case is the aboriginal people,” he says. “You don’t have anything identifiable as addiction until you screw up their culture, and then alcoholism becomes a major problem. In extreme cases, addiction rates can go from zero to close to 100 percent.”
Such spikes suggest that environment is a stronger determinant of addiction than chemistry . . . (Alexander’s) message — that the core values of Western life have created an environment of rootlessness and spiritual poverty that leads more and more of us to addiction — is Rat Park writ large. And by addiction, Alexander means a great deal more than illegal drugs. There are the legal drugs, alcohol and tobacco, of course. Then there’s gambling, work, shopping, the Internet, and anorexia (“addiction to starvation,” as Alexander puts it). Research is showing that as far as the brain is concerned, these activities are drugs, too, raising levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, just like alcohol, heroin, and almost every other addictive substance we know. In this broad — but not loose — sense of the word, addiction is not the preserve of a coterie of social outcasts, but rather the general condition of Western society.
Even if you accept his hypothesis, the problem becomes: what do you do next? How do you alter society so much so as to, I suppose it would be, eliminate disenfranchisement of every kind? Seems almost catastrophically insurmountable, doesn’t it?