Sigmund Freud loved cocaine. He loved it so much, in fact, that he often doled it out to his friends and family as a treatment for just about anything: Tired? Cocaine. Seasick? Cocaine. Troubles in the bedroom? Cocaine. Most famously, Freud prescribed the drug to his close friend, fellow Austrian physician Ernst von Fleischl-Marxow, to help him overcome an addiction to heroin. Fleischl-Marxow began using heroin after he lost a thumb in a freak autopsy accident. Cocaine, like heroin, is a drug that tends to be abused, and soon Fleischl-Marxow was doing as much blow as he was smack.
When Fleischl-Marxow finally died from his addictions at the age of 45, Freud felt terrible about pushing cocaine on his friend. “[It was] like trying to cast out the Devil with Beelzebub,” he lamented (Beelzebub being the Devil’s second in command). If only Freud had spent a little less time speculating about the sexual urges of young boys and a little more time researching drug abuse (and, perhaps, if he wasn’t a cokehead himself) he might have simply suggested to Fleischl-Marxow that he find a new place to live. According to a controversial study published in 1978 by Bruce Alexander of Simon Fraser University, the abuse of narcotics might have more to with one’s surroundings then it does with physical dependence on a drug.
For almost a century, scientists have noted that laboratory animals seem to love drugs. If you put a monkey in a cage and give it a choice between two buttons, one that delivers a shot of water and one that delivers a shot of morphine, the creature will gleefully hit the morphine button over and over again, sucking up every last drop, and neglecting meals and mates in the process.
Getting rats to do hard drugs is slightly more difficult; you have to get them addicted first. Rats that have been forced to drink morphine for a few days will continue to take the drug even if they are later given a choice not to. This experiment, in particular, was thought to provide definitive proof that opiates – morphine and its more powerful derivative, heroin – are highly addictive: why would the rats continue to drink morphine unless they were physically dependent on it? But in 1978, Alexander thought differently. He reasoned that the rats’ continued drug abuse might simply be a means for the animals to escape the bleak laboratory environment in which they were housed.
To test this theory, he constructed something of a lab rat utopia, later dubbed “Rat Park.” Rat Park was an open-topped plywood box, 200 times the size of a normal rodent cage, filled with comfy sawdust, lots of food, and obstacles for the rats to explore. He then forced several dozen of the animals – some isolated in standard rodent cages, the rest housed together in Rat Park – to drink water laced with morphine for 57 days.
On the 58th day, Alexander let the animals choose between morphine and water. As dozens of studies had shown before, the caged animals appeared to be addicted to the drug; they continued to drink morphine. But the animals housed in Rat Park immediately went back to drinking plain old water. After being forced to abuse hard drugs for almost two months, the rodents housed in Rat Park, it seemed, were not all that addicted to morphine.
Alexander concluded that in the stimulating world of Rat Park, the effects of morphine interfered with otherwise enjoyable rat activities – mating, nesting, grooming – that weren’t available to the caged animals. In other words, the caged animals weren’t physically dependent on the drug, they were more likely just really, really bored. Depressed, even. From a human perspective, the Rat Park experiment suggests that locking drug users away in prison might only make the problem worse – much like Freud trying to treat his friend’s heroin abuse with cocaine.
Daniel Lametti has only one column left this year. Get in touch with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.