Cigarette ends

Cassiobury Court has provided an interesting infographic on recent cuts to services. Since the UK Health and Social Care Act of 2012, expenditure on addiction services has dropped and drug-related deaths have sharply increased.

I have no expertise in this issue, but it raises important issues about what kind of society we should be aiming for.

It reminds me of a Huffington Post article published a few years ago by Johann Hari, The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think.

The dominant explanation is chemical hooks in the drug. Keep taking an addictive drug, and when you stop you crave more. There is ample research evidence, largely from experiments with rats.

Hari quotes a 1970s psychologist, Bruce Alexander, who questioned the research.

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 happened?

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.

Hari compares this with 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.

But when they returned home, 95% of them simply stopped, without needing any rehabilitation.

Back to the rats. Hari continues:

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.

I should stress that I am no expert on this. However, both these reports tell us something about how a constructive society can respond to addiction. If the main cause is neither ‘moral failing’ nor ‘a chemically hijacked brain’ but the ‘cage’, the solution is to make sure nobody is stuck in a stressful cage like those mistreated rats.

The question then becomes: why do so many people live such stressful lives that they resort to addictions?

No doubt there are many reasons. However I suggest that one of the main ones is the dominant agendas of most modern governments. Like rats, we have evolved over millions of years to live happily within the kind of environment that has evolved with us. Change the environment, and we are soon out of our comfort zone. We get stressed.

Yet if there is one unifying factor in all the agendas of ‘developed’ countries – if there is one thing that gives us pride in being further advanced than ‘backward’ countries – it is our success in changing our environment. Despising the natural, we artificialise our lifestyles with ever-new technologies.

We haven’t evolved to sit in an office from nine to five. We haven’t evolved to know about all the disasters in the world. We haven’t evolved to have in our pocket a machine which enables people all over the world to contact us at a moment’s notice. We haven’t evolved to rush about at seventy miles an hour.

Modern technology, of course, brings many advantages. But they are not shared by everyone. Many are losers, trapped in an artificial cage where the only relief from stress is some kind of addiction.

The more we change our environment, the more we need to make sure nobody suffers from it.