Human “Rat Cages” in Eureka?

(Thanks for the tip, Verbena)

Pine Motel

Put a rat in a cage, alone, with two water bottles. One is just water. The other is water laced with heroin or cocaine. Almost every time you run this experiment, the rat will become obsessed with the drugged water, and keep coming back for more and more, until it kills itself.

But in the 1970s, a professor of Psychology in Vancouver called Bruce Alexander noticed something odd about this experiment. The rat is put in the cage all alone. It has nothing to do but take the drugs. What would happen, he wondered, if we tried this differently? So Professor Alexander built Rat Park. It is a lush cage where the rats would have colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want. What, Alexander wanted to know, will happen then?

In Rat Park, all the rats obviously tried both water bottles, because they didn’t know what was in them. But what happened next was startling.

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The rats with good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did.

At first, I thought this was merely a quirk of rats, until I discovered that there was — at the same time as the Rat Park experiment — a helpful human equivalent taking place. It was called the Vietnam War. Time magazine reported using heroin was “as common as chewing gum” among U.S. soldiers, and there is solid evidence to back this up: some 20 percent of U.S. soldiers had become addicted to heroin there, according to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry. Many people were understandably terrified; they believed a huge number of addicts were about to head home when the war ended.

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But in fact some 95 percent of the addicted soldiers — according to the same study — simply stopped. Very few had rehab. They shifted from a terrifying cage back to a pleasant one, so didn’t want the drug any more.

Professor Alexander argues this discovery is a profound challenge both to the right-wing view that addiction is a moral failing caused by too much hedonistic partying, and the liberal view that addiction is a disease taking place in a chemically hijacked brain. In fact, he argues, addiction is an adaptation. It’s not you. It’s your cage.

After the first phase of Rat Park, Professor Alexander then took this test further. He reran the early experiments, where the rats were left alone, and became compulsive users of the drug. He let them use for fifty-seven days — if anything can hook you, it’s that. Then he took them out of isolation, and placed them in Rat Park. He wanted to know, if you fall into that state of addiction, is your brain hijacked, so you can’t recover? Do the drugs take you over? What happened is — again — striking. The rats seemed to have a few twitches of withdrawal, but they soon stopped their heavy use, and went back to having a normal life. The good cage saved them.

1499 5th street

Here’s one example of an experiment that is happening all around you, and may well happen to you one day. If you get run over today and you break your hip, you will probably be given diamorphine, the medical name for heroin. In the hospital around you, there will be plenty of people also given heroin for long periods, for pain relief. The heroin you will get from the doctor will have a much higher purity and potency than the heroin being used by street-addicts, who have to buy from criminals who adulterate it. So if the old theory of addiction is right — it’s the drugs that cause it; they make your body need them — then it’s obvious what should happen. Loads of people should leave the hospital and try to score smack on the streets to meet their habit.

But here’s the strange thing: It virtually never happens. As the Canadian doctor Gabor Mate was the first to explain to me, medical users just stop, despite months of use. The same drug, used for the same length of time, turns street-users into desperate addicts and leaves medical patients unaffected.


If you still believe — as I used to — that addiction is caused by chemical hooks, this makes no sense. But if you believe Bruce Alexander’s theory, the picture falls into place. The street-addict is like the rats in the first cage, isolated, alone, with only one source of solace to turn to. The medical patient is like the rats in the second cage. She is going home to a life where she is surrounded by the people she loves. The drug is the same, but the environment is different.

This gives us an insight that goes much deeper than the need to understand addicts. Professor Peter Cohen argues that human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It’s how we get our satisfaction. If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find — the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe. He says we should stop talking about ‘addiction’ altogether, and instead call it ‘bonding.’ A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn’t bond as fully with anything else.

So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.

When I learned all this, I found it slowly persuading me, but I still couldn’t shake off a nagging doubt. Are these scientists saying chemical hooks make no difference? It was explained to me — you can become addicted to gambling, and nobody thinks you inject a pack of cards into your veins. You can have all the addiction, and none of the chemical hooks. I went to a Gamblers’ Anonymous meeting in Las Vegas (with the permission of everyone present, who knew I was there to observe) and they were as plainly addicted as the cocaine and heroin addicts I have known in my life. Yet there are no chemical hooks on a craps table. But still, surely, I asked, there is some role for the chemicals? It turns out there is an experiment which gives us the answer to this in quite precise terms, which I learned about in Richard DeGrandpre’s book The Cult of Pharmacology.

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Everyone agrees cigarette smoking is one of the most addictive processes around. The chemical hooks in tobacco come from a drug inside it called nicotine. So when nicotine patches were developed in the early 1990s, there was a huge surge of optimism — cigarette smokers could get all of their chemical hooks, without the other filthy (and deadly) effects of cigarette smoking. They would be freed.

But the Office of the Surgeon General has found that just 17.7 percent of cigarette smokers are able to stop using nicotine patches. That’s not nothing. If the chemicals drive 17.7 percent of addiction, as this shows, that’s still millions of lives ruined globally. But what it reveals again is that the story we have been taught about The Cause of Addiction lying with chemical hooks is, in fact, real, but only a minor part of a much bigger picture.

This has huge implications for the one-hundred-year-old war on drugs. This massive war — which, as I saw, kills people from the malls of Mexico to the streets of Liverpool — is based on the claim that we need to physically eradicate a whole array of chemicals because they hijack people’s brains and cause addiction. But if drugs aren’t the driver of addiction — if, in fact, it is disconnection that drives addiction — then this makes no sense.

Ironically, the war on drugs actually increases all those larger drivers of addiction. For example, I went to a prison in Arizona — ‘Tent City’ — where inmates are detained in tiny stone isolation cages (‘The Hole’) for weeks and weeks on end to punish them for drug use. It is as close to a human recreation of the cages that guaranteed deadly addiction in rats as I can imagine. And when those prisoners get out, they will be unemployable because of their criminal record — guaranteeing they with be cut off even more. I watched this playing out in the human stories I met across the world.

There is an alternative. You can build a system that is designed to help drug addicts to reconnect with the world — and so leave behind their addictions.

This isn’t theoretical. It is happening. I have seen it. Nearly fifteen years ago, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe, with 1 percent of the population addicted to heroin. They had tried a drug war, and the problem just kept getting worse. So they decided to do something radically different. They resolved to decriminalize all drugs, and transfer all the money they used to spend on arresting and jailing drug addicts, and spend it instead on reconnecting them — to their own feelings, and to the wider society. The most crucial step is to get them secure housing, and subsidized jobs so they have a purpose in life, and something to get out of bed for. I watched as they are helped, in warm and welcoming clinics, to learn how to reconnect with their feelings, after years of trauma and stunning them into silence with drugs.

One example I learned about was a group of addicts who were given a loan to set up a removals firm. Suddenly, they were a group, all bonded to each other, and to the society, and responsible for each other’s care.

The results of all this are now in. An independent study by the British Journal of Criminology found that since total decriminalization, addiction has fallen, and injecting drug use is down by 50 percent. I’ll repeat that: injecting drug use is down by 50 percent. Decriminalization has been such a manifest success that very few people in Portugal want to go back to the old system. The main campaigner against the decriminalization back in 2000 was Joao Figueira, the country’s top drug cop. He offered all the dire warnings that we would expect from the Daily Mail or Fox News. But when we sat together in Lisbon, he told me that everything he predicted had not come to pass — and he now hopes the whole world will follow Portugal’s example.

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This isn’t only relevant to the addicts I love. It is relevant to all of us, because it forces us to think differently about ourselves. Human beings are bonding animals. We need to connect and love. The wisest sentence of the twentieth century was E.M. Forster’s — “only connect.” But we have created an environment and a culture that cut us off from connection, or offer only the parody of it offered by the Internet. The rise of addiction is a symptom of a deeper sickness in the way we live — constantly directing our gaze towards the next shiny object we should buy, rather than the human beings all around us.

The writer George Monbiot has called this “the age of loneliness.” We have created human societies where it is easier for people to become cut off from all human connections than ever before. Bruce Alexander — the creator of Rat Park — told me that for too long, we have talked exclusively about individual recovery from addiction. We need now to talk about social recovery — how we all recover, together, from the sickness of isolation that is sinking on us like a thick fog.

But this new evidence isn’t just a challenge to us politically. It doesn’t just force us to change our minds. It forces us to change our hearts.

Loving an addict is really hard. When I looked at the addicts I love, it was always tempting to follow the tough love advice doled out by reality shows like Intervention — tell the addict to shape up, or cut them off. Their message is that an addict who won’t stop should be shunned. It’s the logic of the drug war, imported into our private lives. But in fact, I learned, that will only deepen their addiction — and you may lose them altogether. I came home determined to tie the addicts in my life closer to me than ever — to let them know I love them unconditionally, whether they stop, or whether they can’t.

When I returned from my long journey, I looked at my ex-boyfriend, in withdrawal, trembling on my spare bed, and I thought about him differently. For a century now, we have been singing war songs about addicts. It occurred to me as I wiped his brow, we should have been singing love songs to them all along.

Johann Hari in the Huffington Post

The full story of Johann Hari’s journey — told through the stories of the people he met — can be read in Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, published by Bloomsbury. The book has been praised by everyone from Elton John to Glenn Greenwald to Naomi Klein. You can buy it at all good bookstores and read more at

Full story with links:


29 thoughts on “Human “Rat Cages” in Eureka?

  1. John Calhoun’s earlier work with rats (The Behavioral Sink) showed how over-crowding creates the intolerable communities that the inhabitants want to escape.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Perhaps if we learn to treat innocent animals better, we would learn
    to treat each other better.


  3. Thanks for this TE and Verbena, really excellent, and spiced with pictures of Eureka’s own rat cages too…well done.

    One does wonder if there is such an addiction to hatred, certainly the loss of connection works for that as well as for violence and crime in many forms as well…the vicious circle.
    Thanks again…keep up the good work, please.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. Very informative TE. Thanks Verbena. It would be nice if the City Council paid attention to this information as they move forward on tackling “homelessness and drug problems”.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Silly Fool.

    It’s not about how they “look”, it’s about dignity, respect and community.

    Locally, it was the native people, then the Chinese, and now the homeless.

    First comes rapacious greed, then the hatred and bigotry against those left with nothing as a result. Blaming the victim eases the guilt for many.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. The political action group ‘EUREKA CITIZEN’ will be announcing plans to open a new shelter in the City of Eureka.

    Since our group’s first letter to TE, our membership numbers have grown to nearly 200 total.

    Our efforts to promote community discussions of public safety, homelessness, panhandling, slum-like motels and blighted buildings, has created a desire for the citizens to be directly involved in cleaning up Eureka on many fronts.

    Through our member contacts in both the business, and private sectors, we are pleased to announce we have raised over $400K in funding toward purchasing a facility within the City of Eureka and open a shelter facility. We hope to have the facility purchased within 60 days, and begin renovations upon close of escrow. The facility will house up to 100 single men, 35 single women, and 25 families. We will be working with several national charities to provide services at this facility.

    As we move forward on this project, we will keep the public informed on progress.


    • First of all, you are so full of it, “Eureka citizen”. All these members supposedly, but not one name! Maybe you are trying to start re-education camps or concentration camps or … where is this huge facility going to be? how you going to keep “the public ” informed when you can’t even say who you are? You do know that this blog is “in the spirit of Bret Harte” right? I think that means you will be exposed.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Verbana:

      I appreciate if this group can actually help. If as stated, perhaps they can.

      But I agree that what unsettles me is the, “We have sooo much (invisible) grassroots support…”

      Why that unsettles me is that is precisely the direction John Fullerton’s campaign against Measure R took: “Look at all our supporters from every walk of life. But we won’t tell you who they are.”

      I couldn’t help but see (feel) the hand of Mr. Arkley in the Measure R campaign and I’m afraid I can’t help but feel it in the Eureka Citizen group’s efforts… and Mr. Arkely does not give without getting something more in return.

      Maybe they will buy the Balloon Track, announce plans to build a shelter and step back and see if the people who were against the Marina Center on Ecological principles will suddenly support this development.

      Just “spit balling” there.

      Liked by 2 people

    • You have a devious mind, Mola….and I think you could be onto something. What seems strange to me is that this anonymous group claims to be currently working with the city and the county. The group must have some powerful backers! I might be wrong, but I’m pretty certain the city or county wouldn’t meet in secret with me, and I’d guess Verbena would probably be turned away as well (correct me if I’m wrong Verbena).

      This group has the feel of a well connected and already established group of insiders, posing as the “average” eureka citizen.

      Liked by 3 people

    • JP:

      That’s what I do all day long… plotting, scheming, wishing ill on my enemies.

      I got another one if you like.

      Why would Eureka Citizen knowingly start a “dialog” with the Tuluwat Examiner and then get all prissy about the rather predictable result (see 1/29/2015 article)?

      Why didn’t they approach the LoCO? Or even John Chiv? Were we set up for them to turn around and say, “See? You can’t reason with those so-called “people”.

      Maybe that’s how they got the 500% increase in their membership (out of sympathy for how mean we are to them)?

      Anyway, come to me for all your dark conspiracy needs.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Wow. Mind. Blown. Seriously, you are much better at this stuff than me. You may have hit the nail on the head. I take off my hat to you sir. Thanks

      Liked by 1 person

  7. How will the public be kept informed?

    Far from “promoting” community discussion, EC has taken an aggressive stance PROVOKING discussion by advocating permits for panhandling requiring the destitute to wear visible identification, (Is this true?), while ignoring the sources of local poverty.

    It is problematic on so many levels of fairness/ logic/ethics/enforcement/cost.

    Until Eureka joins other communities restoring common-sense housing regulations that incorporate solutions for housing the homeless with dignity, Eureka’s panhandlers and tent cities will multiply.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. JP…..I’m not sure if you’ve ever had a real paying job. But if you did, you might have noticed that wage earners pay INTO social security, as well as medicare. They are not the typical government freebies that “your ilk” would have everyone living off.


  9. Thank you for bringing this fantastic article to local attention. I hope every public official in this area reads the article and the book.

    “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It’s connection.” It makes total sense, but it’s nice to see how thoroughly this common sense is now backed by research.

    What a great example of how our society’s assumptions blind us to the obvious — we are wildly individualist and so blame the addict, when the obvious reality — at least an obvious reality to anyone who has ever read a single work of great literature — is that a high rate of addiction is a symptom of a collapsed and collapsing society.

    Liked by 3 people

    • (Incidentally, this research explains an additional reason why Alcoholics Anonymous has been so successful. It enables people to connect with people who care about them, and enables them to once again begin caring about others. That’s the “higher power” it talks about, whether the organization knows it or not.)

      Liked by 3 people

  10. Some people say it is not that successful, but those who are no longer looking to the bottle for comfort swear by it. I heard a woman who was told she had a problem when she was a teenager, she believed it and thought the problem was alcohol and was helped by AA. Then in her 40’s (5o’s?) she began to think about it and wonder. She now knows she can have a drink without becoming a drunk; and understands she went to the meetings because there were people who wanted her to be there and told her she could choose to stop drinking. I heard the story on the radio, perhaps on the “This American Life” program…


  11. Maybe so-called “Eureka citizen” is NOT or HAS NOT a group? I just don’t think anything typed under that moniker is to be trusted.
    Yes… reminds me of the “Protect the Rich/Anti Fair Wage” effort to keep Eureka in poverty.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So be it…
      We have tried to include you, and the other TE commentators in a discussion of our group’s proposal. While others embrace our community effort, those who doubt our commitment will be left out. Yet, in the end, all Eurekans will benefit.


  12. Interesting angle. I think it’s all true BUT… missing a pretty important point. I don’t think it’s all about bonding and human connection being missed by drug addicts, and their substituting substance addictions for the human touch. In fact, as a fairly isolated and alone (but non-addicted) person who has known many down and out people with various harmful physical addictions, i would say those people are much more social than i am: the street people travel in packs. The barflies swarm in warm numbers. Maybe misery loves company. Maybe they can’t afford to live alone. But for whatever reason, i do see that comparing the average number of daily human contacts for (please excuse the generalizing) a non-drug-using, contributing member of society, with those of a down-and-out ne’er-do-well, might show a close contest–or the “achievers” even being less connected to a “tribe.” So the addicts do find company. Maybe the trouble is that the shared activity is the drug or alcohol use? It doesn’t actually replace human contact, it’s the constant companion of that contact. Although i completely agree that the “cage” rather than the “reward” is what can be changed to lessen drug abuse and other destructive behaviors, i don’t agree that the main component of the cage change is the addition of human bonding. It’s the KIND of humans, and what they do to give themselves a sense of reward, that matters.


  13. This county offers an unusually high number of examples of very isolated lifestyles by individuals that are not addicted to chemical substances but have very limited human contact…and loads of forested distractions.

    Urban and rural workaholic/accumulation addiction represents the extraordinary accomplishment, effort and resources required to maintain the illusion of independence that, once “earned”, justifies all sorts of selfish injustices to protect “our way of life” that is, in fact, a culture against man now threatening all life on Earth.

    The human reality never diverged from complete interdependence upon each other and nature to survive, but the illusion and desire for independence is embedded in our psych making it as endlessly profitable as it is unattainable.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Anonymous, i think you are saying quite delicately what i might interpret as: Workaholic/accumulation addiction is just as much a morphine-drip replacement for real interdependence and healthy enjoyment of life, as is addiction to chemical substances. The people whom i might generalize as calling “ne’er-do-wells” could be seen as enjoying more normal human relations–pursuit of sociable happiness, i.e., partying–than the isolated “achievement”-oriented self-protectors. Am i on the right track here with your interesting comment?


  14. There is very little “normal” left to human behavior chemically anesthetized, or not.

    In terms of impact, one could argue that the suicidal, anti-social behavior of addicts slumped before the TV pales by comparison to the largest inter-generational theft in human history, the rapacious over-consuming of limited resources, aka, the celebrated suicidal, anti-social behavior by the multitudes of “normal people” limited only by what they can afford to frivolously consume, constantly seeking distant lands to find some happiness unattainable at “home”.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I would like to say. That I personally do not know Chief Mills I shook his hand at the awards ceremony. And sat with him at the DA’s table. Any thing I blog or posted was not against his personal character. My comments and personal statements were directed towards his officer(s) Chief Mills was the one speaking on the officer(s) behalf. And I do not have a axe to grind as Mills put it. I have a nephew that was shot and kill because of a officers preconceived notion that affected his 2 second decision. Also as far as the family/myself posting grievances over the Internet, the family/myself just wanted the facts/truth about why Tommy was shot. I will stand up and say Mills has reported misleading information. I have emailed the Mayor called his offices he never returned my calls or replied to my email. 2 city council members said they were sorry for my loss and forward my concerns to Mills. the grand jury said it was out of their jurisdiction. I field a complaint with Mills he forward it to the DA along with that one I filed another one with the DA both my complaints were never investigated. So I just want to say I have taken the necessary steps. I listened to officer Steve Watson say it was justified homicide. I will stand and say it was not justified. There is nothing to show Tommy acted in such away that justified killing him. But it only took 2 seconds to take his life.


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