This is taken from the interview titled: Does Capitalism Cause Drug Addiction?  The piece that I am going to excerpt is about how we view addiction in society.  If we are to believe Hari, it isn’t about a failure in moral rectitude or falling into a drug laden trap of compulsion; but rather it is the atomization and rampant consumerism in society that causes the addictions we see today.

Ratpark“Drugs are not what we think they are. Addiction is not what we think it is. The drug war is certainly not what we’ve been told it is. And the alternatives aren’t what we think they are.

And there were two people here in Canada who really helped me to think about this. One is guy called Bruce Alexander. He’s someone you will know the work of. If you had said to me four years ago, say, “What causes heroin addiction?” right, I would have—I would have looked at you like you were a little bit simpleminded. I would have said, “Well, heroin causes heroin addiction, right?” There’s a story we’ve been told about addiction, how it works, for a hundred years now, that’s so deeply ingrained in our consciousness that it seems like our common sense, right? We think if the first 20 people on the rows here, if we all used heroin together for, say, 20 days, there are chemical hooks in heroin that our body would start to physically need, right? So, on day 21, we would need that heroin. We would physically crave it. And that’s what addiction is; that’s how we think it works.

And the first kind of chink in my doubt about that was explained to me by another great Canadian, Gabor Maté in Vancouver, who some of you will know the work of, amazing man. And he pointed out to me, if any of us step out of here today and we’re hit by a bus, right, God forbid, and we break our hip, we’ll be taken to hospital. It’s very likely we’ll be given a lot of diamorphine. Diamorphine is heroin. It’s much better heroin than you’ll score on the streets, because it’s medically pure, right? It’s really potent heroin. You’ll be given it for quite a long period of time. Every hospital in the developed world, that’s happening, right? If what we think about addiction is right, what should—I mean, those people should leave as addicts. That never happens, virtually never happens. You will have noticed your grandmother was not turned into a junkie by her hip replacement operation, right?

I didn’t really know what to do with it. When Gabor first explained that to me, I didn’t really know how to process that, until I met Bruce Alexander. Bruce is a professor in Vancouver, and Bruce explained something to me. The idea of addiction we have, the one that we all implicitly believe—I certainly did—comes from a series of experiments that were done earlier in the 20th century. They’re really simple experiments. You can do them yourself at home if you’re feeling a little bit sadistic. Get a rat and put it in a cage and give it two water bottles. One is just water, and one is water laced with either heroin or cocaine. If you do that, the rat will almost always prefer the drugged water and almost always kill itself very quickly, right, within a couple of weeks. So there you go. It’s our theory of addiction.

Bruce comes along in the ’70s and said, “Well, hang on a minute. We’re putting the rat in an empty cage. It’s got nothing to do. Let’s try this a little bit differently.” So Bruce built Rat Park, and Rat Park is like heaven for rats. Everything your rat about town could want, it’s got in Rat Park. It’s got lovely food. It’s got sex. It’s got loads of other rats to be friends with. It’s got loads of colored balls. Everything your rat could want. And they’ve got both the water bottles. They’ve got the drugged water and the normal water. But here’s the fascinating thing. In Rat Park, they don’t like the drugged water. They hardly use any of it. None of them ever overdose. None of them ever use in a way that looks like compulsion or addiction. There’s a really interesting human example I’ll tell you about in a minute, but what Bruce says is that shows that both the right-wing and left-wing theories of addiction are wrong. So the right-wing theory is it’s a moral failing, you’re a hedonist, you party too hard. The left-wing theory is it takes you over, your brain is hijacked. Bruce says it’s not your morality, it’s not your brain; it’s your cage. Addiction is largely an adaptation to your environment.

There was a really interesting human experiment going on at the same time as Rat Park, which kind of demonstrates this really interestingly. It was called the Vietnam War, right? Twenty percent of American troops in Vietnam were using heroin a lot, right? And if you look at the reports from the time, they were really worried. They thought—because they believed the old theory of addiction. They were like, “My god, these guys are all going to come home, and we’re going to have loads of heroin addicts on the streets of the United States.” What happened? They came home, and virtually all of them just stopped, because if you’re taken out of a hellish, pestilential jungle, where you don’t want to be, you can die at any moment, and you go back to a nice life in Wichita, Kansas, you can bear to be present in your life. We could all be drunk now. Forget the drug laws. We could all be drunk now, right? None of you look very drunk. I’m guessing you’re not, right? That’s because we’ve got something we want to do. We’ve got things we want to be present for in our lives.

So, I think this has—Bruce taught us about how this has huge implications, obviously, for the drug war. The drug war is based on the idea that the chemicals cause the addiction, and we need to physically eradicate these chemicals from the face of the Earth. If in fact it’s not the chemicals, if in fact it’s isolation and pain that cause the addiction, then it suddenly throws into sharp contrast the idea that we need to impose more isolation and pain on addicts in order to make them stop, which is what we currently do.

But it actually has much deeper implications that I think really relate to what Naomi writes about in This Changes Everything, and indeed before. We’ve created a society where significant numbers of our fellow citizens cannot bear to be present in their lives without being drugged, right? We’ve created a hyperconsumerist, hyperindividualist, isolated world that is, for a lot of people, much more like that first cage than it is like the bonded, connected cages that we need. The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection. And our whole society, the engine of our society, is geared towards making us connect with things. If you are not a good consumer capitalist citizen, if you’re spending your time bonding with the people around you and not buying stuff—in fact, we are trained from a very young age to focus our hopes and our dreams and our ambitions on things we can buy and consume. And drug addiction is really a subset of that.”


I’m very happy to see that some places in Canada are starting to turn on to this sort of thinking – Medicine Hat Alberta for instance where they are working toward eradicating homelessness – by giving people homes to live in – because it is cheaper to do so that the current methods.


**update** John Hari speaking on a TED talk about addiction.