“It is not heroin or cocaine that makes one an addict. It is the need to escape from a harsh reality.” –Shirley Chisholm
My little brother is addicted to heroin. I desperately want to make his life better than what it currently is. For this reason, I have spent the last five years studying drug use and abuse. I was astonished to learn that the vast majority of people who use drugs, such as heroin, don’t have a problem and are not addicted. They are responsible members of our society, who pay taxes and take care of business. If this is true, then why does my little brother use problematically?
Studies on lab rats conducted in the 1960s and 70s showed that when allowed unlimited access to drugs, rats would administer them repeatedly, sometimes until death. These experiments provided evidence for the theory that one hit of a drug will inevitably lead to addiction. The problem with these studies was that the rats were kept in isolated cages akin to those of solitary confinement. With nothing else in the cage, the only choice the rat had was to press the lever for the drug.
Further studies compared the drug usage of rats kept in these isolated cages to that of rats in an enriched environment. In these experiments, the rats were provided with alternatives to the drug such as running wheels and other toys, sugary treats, or sexually receptive mates. Researchers found that rats in the isolated cages self-administered considerably more drug than rats housed in enriched environments. These studies showed that drug use was context-dependent and attractive alternatives decrease drug use.
What about in humans? Could attractive alternatives, which would be plentiful in an enriched environment, decrease drug use? Professor Carl Hart, a world leader in drug research, recruited heavy crack cocaine users for a study and brought them into a research lab. He offered them $5 cash or a hit of pure, pharmaceutical grade crack-cocaine worth more than $5. Even five dollars was enough to stop the crack users from taking the drug half of the time. When the reward was raised to $20, the users never took the offered drug. They always chose the money.
For yet another example of the role environment plays in drug use, we can look at soldiers in the Vietnam War. Concerns were once raised about these soldiers being addicted to heroin. During the Vietnam War, roughly 1 in 5 soldiers were said to be addicted to the drug. After the war ended, these “addicts” came back home to the United States. Within about a year, 95% of them stopped using. Think about this: If you’re in a hot jungle with people trying to kill you everyday, you may use compulsively to escape that harsh reality. Once you’re actually removed from that environment, however, there is no longer an urge to escape it.
Results from these studies suggest that drugs are not the problem; the environment is. Drugs may provide temporary relief from poor social and environmental conditions such as poverty, isolation, and discrimination. My little brother’s addiction likely stems from his traumatic upbringing and legal discrimination related to his criminal record. I am doing my best to remove my brother from his harsh reality. But, if we are serious about eradicating addiction from our society, we must radically restructure individuals’ social environments such that attractive alternatives to drug use are maximized.
Christopher Medina-Kirchner graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2014. He is now a Ph.D. student at Columbia University studying neuropsychopharmacology. You can contact him at email@example.com.