The Rat Park Theory

The Rat Park Theory

n 1979, Bruce Alexander, a researcher at Simon Fraser University, separated rats into two cages, a stimulating one and an isolated one, and gave them morphine in order to measure the effect of environment on addiction rates.

The so-called “Rat Park” experiment was intended to debunk some of the flawed understanding around addiction at the time, specifically the notion that the drug itself was the most important factor in whether someone became addicted. The rats in both cages became physically dependent on the morphine, but the Rat Park rats consumed less morphine than the group in the boring cage. “Addiction isn’t you — it’s the cage you live in,” Alexander concluded.

The Rat Park study was flawed in its design and its findings, however, and it was ignored for almost three decades — until a group of experts rediscovered and started promoting it around 2008. The Rat Park study undermined one popular misconception about addiction, that chemistry of drugs is the single most important factor in addiction. But instead of pushing the popular understanding forward, it merely replaced that misconception with a new one: that environment is the most important factor.

The prevailing rhetoric asserted that recreational drugs were inherently addictive and using them would “hijack” the brain, turning it from a “normal” brain into an addicted one. This was an oversimplified, damaging view that fundamentally misunderstood addiction and helped undermine more effective policy ideas like decriminalization and harm reduction. Alexander called this the “Myth of the Demon Drug.”


Though many had long doubted the effectiveness of increased criminalization of drugs and drug use, it took 30 years of longitudinal studies to get hard data to support that notion. In 2008, The Brookings Institute compared the “punishment” model used in the U.S. to more lenient policies in Europe, and found that it did not correlate with lower usage rates; in fact, the “combined hardcore user rate for hard drugs” was “approximately 4 times higher in the US than in Europe,” the report concluded.

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