This is a story about how two independent forces conspired to turn the United States in the world’s leading champion of incarceration. A powerful combination of shoddy lab experiments and entrenched prejudices have turned America into the world’s preeminent jailer.
The use of mice and rats in experiments dates back to the 1850’s, when so-called rat fanciers sold them to early scientists looking for a better way to conduct experiments, to the benefit of humans. The most common mouse species — Mus musculus, or ‘house mouse’ — are considered “biomedical Swiss army knives,” and are easily genetically manipulatable, according to a 2019 article in Smithsonian Magazine on the history of lab research. Bookending our scientific needs, the most common rat species — Rattus norvegicus, or ‘Norway rat’ — closely mimics the human neural network, and physiology. Together, these comprise 95% of all lab animals, according to The Foundation for Biomedical Research.
Their short life spans, allowing for quick multi-generational observations, their docility, their relative abundance and economy, their size, their genetic, biological and behavior characteristics, and now, the creation of genetically altered ‘transgenic’ and ‘knockout’ mice that more closely mirror the human genome, all conspire to make these tiny creatures the darlings of scientific research.
Enter the world of drug experiments.
A religiously quoted set of early 20th century studies, in which a series of lone rats in empty cages were given a choice of feed bottles — one with pure water, and one laced with cocaine, heroin or morphine — showed that the rats chose the drug-laced water every time, and continued to feed until they died from overdose. This story has fueled American drug policy for a century, where it remains in force, today. The conclusions that these early experimenters reached was that the drugs were irresistible, to the point of being lethal. Their word became gospel, and a hundred years on, it still is.
Except that American drug policy never had anything to do with the fear of human addiction, or mortality. Meaning, it had nothing to do with helping people. Rather, according to the not-for-profit Drug Policy Alliance, drug laws were enacted and leveraged as powerful tools in the arsenal of an entrenched majority that aimed to weaken minority and immigrant populations. The DPA states that US laws are “not based on any scientific assessment of the relative risks of these drugs — but it has everything to do with who is associated with them.”
They go on to school us: “The first anti-opium laws in the 1870s were directed at Chinese immigrants. The first anti-cocaine laws in the early 1900s were directed at black men in the South. The first anti-marijuana laws, in the Midwest and the Southwest in the 1910s and 20s, were directed at Mexican migrants and Mexican Americans. Today, Latino and especially black communities are still subject to wildly disproportionate drug enforcement and sentencing practices.”
Most of us are familiar with president Richard Nixon’s 1971 War on Drugs campaign. I’ve written about it extensively, here and here. Forty-one years later, John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s chief policy advisor on domestic issues, admitted to journalist Dan Baum that the War on Drugs was Nixon’s way of justifying the institutional persecution of black people. The US incarceration rate — stable for decades at 100 inmates per 100,000 people, or one inmate per 1,000 citizens — began to climb steadily after 1971’s policy shift. It doubled in its first 15 years, then was turbo-charged in 1986, when president Ronald Reagan created the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. After enactment, incarceration rates increased five-fold, over 1971’s tallies. Today, according to an excellent resource on prisonpolicy.org, more than 2.3 million individuals fill 1,833 state, 110 federal, 1,772 juvenile and 3,134 local prisons, in addition to hundreds of detention facilities, military prisons and psychiatric hospitals.
One in every 100 Americans is now in jail.
Moreover, one fifth of these — 456,000 individuals — is serving time on a drug charge, according to The Center for American Progress, with over twice that many on parole or probation. The Human Rights Watch reports that every 25 seconds, someone is arrested for drug possession; and that arrests for drug possession far outstrip those for sales — six times more.
Every twenty-five seconds.
The imbalance of favoring the punishment of users over the jailing of sellers betrays the focus of law enforcement. Americans’ prison problems go well beyond drugs; the US leads the world in incarceration rates, holding a full 25% of the world’s prisoners, while comprising just 5% of its population.
Three times as many African Americans, per capita, are arrested on drug charges as whites; and “almost 80% of the people serving time for a federal drug offense are black or Latino,” according to CAP. Moreover, they report that the average black defendant convicted of a federal drug offense will serve nearly as much time (58.7 months) as a white defendant would for a violent crime (61.7 months).
The United States has spent more than $1 trillion on Nixon’s and Reagan’s War on Drugs, so far. Where does it go? In 2015, federal and state spending on incarceration alone was a combined $10.3 billion. And while one can’t extrapolate a half-century from one year, $10 billion over the half-century ‘war’ would total half of the investment.
Back to the rats.
Shortly after Nixon waged war, a Canadian psychologist at Simon Fraser University named Bruce Alexander finally asked himself an insightful ‘new’ question about those early experiments with suicidal drug-lapping rats. He asked himself, “Is this about the drug, or might it be related to the setting they were in?” To study the question, Rat Park was born. Rat Park’s goal was to approximate the natural habitat of rats. They had space, playthings, and, critically, other rats.
Said another way, while the early experimenters put their rats in solitary confinement cells, Alexander put them into neighborhoods. I don’t think you need to read any further to intuit how rats’‑or humans’ — behaviors would vary between those environments.
But I’m going to tell you anyway. Even though the rats had access to the same two water bottles — one pure water and one laced — they stopped overdosing altogether, and only occasionally sipped the drug water, overwhelmingly preferring the ‘clean’ water. In short, they became happy rats, doing things that happy rats do, when they’ve given the chance to. And doing drugs was decidedly not a material part of that picture.
A social community beat the power of drugs.
His experiments have been carried out again and again by other researchers in other laboratories over the years, to similar results. On his website, Alexander provides a list of them, here. He chafes at the idea that drugs control human behavior to the marked exclusion of contextual influence — that they cause “permanent addictions in all mammals, including human beings.” He calls the idea The Myth of the Demon Drug.
Journalist Johann Hari, the author of Chasing the Scream — The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs — has a 2015 TED Talk on the subject of Alexander’s experiments, and his own three-year research project into drug use and underlying causes. Hari has a simple conclusion, not unlike Alexander’s. He says “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.”
Said another way, it is loneliness and lack of community that underpins addictive behavior — not the inherently ‘sticky’ lure of the drugs themselves.
If all of the journalists and scientists who have drawn conclusions similar to Alexander’s and Hari’s are right, then it not only explains why the War on Drugs is utterly failing to curb drug use (remember the tenfold increase in incarceration since Nixon’s and Reagan’s one-two punch?), but it also implies that since the highly publicized science is there for policymakers to see, the true intent of American drug laws isn’t to mitigate/reduce their usage (remember the six-fold incarceration rate of users, over sellers?), but rather to vilify and persecute targeted populations, as Ehrlichman admitted, in 2016, and as the Drug Policy Alliance outlined in their brief history of drug prohibition.
I’ll share just one more statistic. In 2016, the latest data available, 15% of state prisoners, and 47% of federal prisoners, were serving time for a drug offense, for a combined 20% of the nation’s total. According to World Population Review, this means that the United States has jailed more inmates on drug charges than there are total prisoners in any other country on Earth, apart from Russia and China, which regardless, both trail the US significantly, in both incarceration totals and per capita rates.
Eleven American states have now legalized recreational marijuana use, as has the entire nation of Canada. An interesting 2019 treatise titled The Cannabis Effect on Crime, published in Justice Quarterly, sought to clear up conflicting reports of crime from a variety of journalistic and political sources. In focusing on two states — Colorado and Washington — they concluded that “marijuana legalization and sales have had minimal to no effect on major crimes in Colorado or Washington. We observed no statistically significant long-term effects of recreational cannabis laws or the initiation of retail sales on violent or property crime rates in these states.
So, if ‘soft’ drugs don’t lead to criminal or violent behavior (have you ever seen someone stoned on weed? They couldn’t get angry, if you paid them!); and if the antidote to ‘hard’ drugs is users’ reintegration into — the enrichment of — supportive communities; and if we have spent a trillion dollars in order to effectively increase incarceration rates by a factor of ten, not reduce them, then it is difficult, if not impossible, to see the American experiment as a success — or even as a sincere attempt to do anything but criminalize non-criminal behaviors. In fact, you could say that the American attitude toward drug use is the criminal behavior.
Alexander is stereotypically Canadian in his humility. In appraising Hari and others (Peele, Slater, Macmillan…), he writes, “In the hands of these excellent writers, Rat Park became more than a technical experiment that demonstrated that the earlier rat experiments had overlooked the effect of social isolation [emphasis mine]. It became a kind of a popular parable, which seems to shed light on the deepest nature of addiction.”
Alexander challenges us to ask ourselves:
“If drugs are not the cause of addiction, what is?”
Well, I think he has answered his own question. It is a failure of society. It is an abdication of our responsibility toward one another to make and cultivate human connection, and to lift one another up when one of us falls down. It is a failure of our shared accountability for the success of those within our community, whomever they may be, and whatever they may look like.
The answers are there. But if we are honest with ourselves, the true problem may simply be that we don’t want to hear them.