Bruce K. Alexander (born 20 December 1939) is a psychologist and professor emeritus from Vancouver, BC, Canada. He has taught and conducted research on thepsychology of addiction at Simon Fraser University since 1970. He retired from active teaching in 2005. Alexander and SFU colleagues conducted a series of experiments into drug addiction known as the Rat Park experiments. He has written two books: Peaceful Measures: Canada’s Way Out of the War on Drugs (1990) and The Globalization of Addiction: A Study in Poverty of the Spirit (2008).
The Rat Park experiments, published in psychopharmacology journals in the late 1970s and early 1980s, flatly contradicted the dominant view of addiction in their day. They quickly disappeared from view, having evoked only negative responses in the mainstream press and journals. Lauren Slater’s controversial psychology book, Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century helped to bring them back to public attention in 2005. These experiments are now widely known and cited.
The Rat Park experiments were among the first to show the error in the once dominant myth that certain drugs, particularly the opiates, convert all or most users into drug addicts. In the 1970s, this myth was said to be demonstrated by the high consumption of opiates and stimulants of rats isolated in specially modified Skinner Boxes that allowed drug self-administration. Alexander and his colleagues demonstrated experimentally that rats isolated in cages of about the same size as Skinner Boxes consume far more morphine than rats that are socially housed in Rat Park. Subsequent research has confirmed that social housing reduces drug intake in rats and that the dominant myth was wrong both for rats and for human beings. Nonetheless, the myth is still embedded in popular culture.
Alexander then explored the broader implications of Rat Park experiments for human beings. The main conclusions of his experimental and historical research since 1985 can be summarized as follows:
- Drug addiction is only a small corner of the addiction problem. Most serious addictions do not involve either drugs or alcohol
- Addiction is more a social problem than an individual problem. When socially integrated societies are fragmented by internal or external forces, addiction of all sorts increases dramatically, becoming almost universal in extremely fragmented societies.
- Addiction arises in fragmented societies because people use it as a way of adapting to extreme social dislocation. As a form of adaptation, addiction is neither a disease that can be cured nor a moral error that can be corrected by punishment and education.
Therefore, the current NIDA Model of addiction, which Alexander refers to as the official view, is untenable. Contemporary world society can only overcome mass dislocation (and addiction) by restoring psychosocial integration on a political and social level. This requires major social change.
Alexander’s controversial conclusions have been celebrated by some mainstream sources outside the United States. Alexander received a 2007 Sterling Prize for Controversy in Canada, a 2009 high commendation from the British Medical Association, and an invitation to present at the Royal Society of Arts and Manufactures in London in 2011. Although all mainstream American sources have ignored Alexander’s work, it has acquired considerable recognition in outsider sources.
One line of research in which Alexander played a key role was actively suppressed by the World Health Assembly. Early in the 1990s the World Health Organization (WHO) organized the largest study on cocaine use ever undertaken. Profiles of cocaine use were gathered from 21 cities located in 19 countries all over the world. Alexander was selected as the principal investigator for the Vancouver site. The WHO announced publication of the results of the global study in a press release in 1995.
However, an American representative in the World Health Assembly effectively banned the publication, apparently because the study seemed to contradict the dominant myth of addictive drugs, as applied to cocaine. Part of the study’s findings were “that occasional cocaine use does not typically lead to severe or even minor physical or social problems.” In the sixth meeting of the B committee the US representative threatened that “If WHO activities relating to drugs failed to reinforce proven drug control approaches, funds for the relevant programs should be curtailed”. This led to the WHO decision to postpone publication. The study has not been published officially but was leaked in 2009 and is available at wikileaks.
Published on Jan 7, 2014
Dr. Gabor Maté talks about the root causes of addiction and how to deal with them. This is taken from the Q&A part of TJ Dawe’s show – “Medicine”.