Brit Journalist Has the Addiction Solution
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Brit Journalist Has the Addiction Solution


This post was originally published on January 30, 2015.

The battle over whether drugs should be criminalized or legalized continues to wage throughout the globe, and British author Johann Hari, a well-known polemicist on the matter, has just published Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, which posits a “new” theory about why we get—and stay—addicted to drugs.

A Quick Disclaimer

Hari got into some trouble when, in 2011, the Cambridge alum and Independent columnist was accused of not only journalistic plagiarism but of Wikipedia Vandalism—that is, having added all sorts of evil fabrications like that Telegraph columnist Cristina Odone and The Observer’s Nick Cohen were homophobic and antisemitic. Yeah, a little like writing fake reviews on Yelp. But we won’t hold that against him.

A “New” Theory

On Friday, HuffPo published an excerpt from Hari’s book in which he claims that the criminalization of drugs only exacerbates the addiction problem, leaving addicts who might potentially recover trapped up in jail, poverty, shame and an inability to renter the normal world. He says that a lack of human connection, not chemical dependency, is the main cause of addiction.

Hari cites Rat Park research to explain his position. The (brief) history of RP is this: in the 1980s, scientists “proved” the theory of chemical addiction by shoving rats in solitary confinement with two beverages to choose from—water and water spiked with cocaine. As any addict would expect, these lonely and bored rats went back to the blow over and over and over, becoming addicted.

But in the 1970s Professor Bruce Alexander in Vancouver considered that maybe the rats’ addiction had more to do with nurture than with nature, so he built a lush Rat Park, a sort of ant farm for rats, where he not only provided the rodents with playmates, but also with toys and tunnels and gourmet rat food. Researchers gave the rats water and cocaine water to drink, but these happy rats snubbed the spiked water and guzzled down the plain old H2o. Then, when researchers dropped cocaine-addicted rats formerly in solitary confinement and put them inside the Rat Utopia, they, too, went for the plain old water instead of hitting the coke.

“What it reveals again is that the story we have been taught about The Cause of Addiction lying with chemical hooks is, in fact, real, but only a minor part of a much bigger picture,” Hari writes.

While Hari does present an valid argument, anyone detoxing from coke or heroin, or even caffeine or nicotine, knows chemicals do play a role, perhaps a larger role than Hari admits. Of course emotional upsets and other triggers might easily propel an addict or alcoholic to abandon their recovery in favor of another hit, sip or smoke. But to dismiss the chemical component as just a teeny tiny aspect of addiction is not only super ballsy but also somewhat irresponsible.

Humans are not rats after all (not to disparage rats). We are inarguably more intelligent, though of course high intelligence doesn’t necessarily mean wiser choices.

A Cold Snub?

It’s surprising that in this entire excerpt, there’s no mention of 12-step programs, which are all about social interaction, fostering community and developing love for your fellows. Still, my true problem with this piece is that it perpetuates a “No really, this is the solution!” approach, just like authors of fad diets and motivational speakers. He’s clearly a smart guy and any discussion about addiction is surely helpful but I say don’t swallow all this unless you chase it with a big heap of salt (or cocaine-laced water).

Photo courtesy of internets_dairy (Flickr: Johann Hari) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons (resized and cropped)

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.