Imagine there was a way to save millions of lives. To dramatically reduce violent crime rates. To wipe out an entire criminal industry. To rebuild communities, and reconnect people with the world. Who wouldn’t be up for that? Who could possibly stand up and say “No, I’d rather see people raped, murdered, and robbed. I’d rather see lives destroyed and whole communities living in fear.” Imagine there was a solution to all of that.
There is. It’s known. It’s been tested. It’s understood. It’s called drug legalization.
“But no,” we scream, recoiling in fear. “Drugs are dangerous. Drugs kill. Druggies will do anything for a fix. Drugs are catastrophically addictive.”
This is what the vast majority of us believe, and we don’t question the science. Which is why I was shocked to read “Chasing the Scream”, by Johann Hari. It was the first time I ever heard of the Rat Park experiments by Bruce Alexander. These experiments showed, with startling clarity, that drugs are indeed addictive to rats, if you keep rats in isolation, without any other source of stimulation. In solitary, deadingly dull confinement, rats will choose heroin over water.
But it turns out that if you keep rats in company, with things to do and plenty of food and water, rats don’t get addicted. In fact they choose not to take heroin at all, even after being forced to take it for weeks at a time – when you stop forcing them and put them back into happy, healthy surroundings, they stop taking heroin almost immediately.
This is stunning stuff that turns our understanding of drugs on its head. So it must be amazing new research, surely? Amazing yes, but new, no. This research was conducted in the 1970s. Published in 1980, and more or less buried ever since. The results were so far outside the established dogma that funding was cut almost immediately.
In England in the 1980s and 90s, heroin was available in some areas on prescription. Crime rates fell. Addicts began to lead stable, productive lives, and many even came off heroin – all because heroin was more easily available than before. In fact in those areas total drug use went down, largely because users didn’t need to push drugs in order to be able to afford their own drugs.
According to Chasing the Scream, Dr John Marks, who prescribed heroin to his addicted patients, “expected that the news of these results would spur people across the country, and across the world, to do the same. Who would turn down a policy that saves the lives of drug users, and leads to less drug use, and causes dealers to gradually disperse?”
Instead, a conservative government shut the program down, death and crime rates shot back up, and England was back to square 1 in the drug war.
The shocking essence of the book is that it’s our increasing lack of connection that drives our relationship with psychoactive substances of all kinds. Our desperate drive for stuff fails to fill the void, and drugs, including alcohol, ease the pain. Increasing connection by providing support, care, and a place in society, decreases addiction reliably and consistently. And our war on drugs is guaranteed to sever the very relationships we need to strengthen if we’re to beat drugs.
When outcomes are measured consistently and you combine harm to users with harm to others, our easily available legal drug, alcohol, is one of the most dangerous drugs we have. Far worse than marijuana, heroin, cocaine, and even LSD. Most of the catastrophic harm that we know drugs cause is actually a direct result of prohibition rather than the drugs themselves. I won’t convince anyone of that in one short blog, but I urge you to go and read the book for yourself. Also check out Bruce Alexander’s work on the Rat Park.
Research and practical experience has shown time and again that we can win the war on drugs simply by ceasing to fight it. The monstrous enemy we believe drugs to be is entirely a construct of our political system. It bears no resemblance to objective reality. And yet here in Australia we seem unable to allow even medicinal use of cannabis.
In a sense this revelation ties in with our attitude to climate change. We have a problem that is of catastrophic proportions. The science is in. We know how to fix it. But our politicians aren’t listening to the science. They are hostage to the fearful monsters in their own heads. But the more we talk about it, the more we question the things we used to know were true, the more chance there is that the world will finally become a more compassionate and rational place.
So go read Chasing the Scream. And next time the conversation turns to drugs, drop some facts into the conversation. Who knows what you might accomplish?