Rat Park and Other Children's Stories

There is a myth going around that dope is such a huge joy that if you try just one dose of it, it will be so pleasurable that you will get hooked for life. We have all heard of the experiments with the lab rats, where rats were put in cages and given levers to press. Each time they pressed the lever, they got a dose of dope. And the rats just pressed the levers all of the time, and stayed high until they died. They wouldn't even stop to eat; they just doped themselves to death. The implication was that the dope was so good, so pleasurable, such an ecstatic high, that the rats couldn't help but get addicted and kill themselves on the stuff.

It turns out that those experiments were all wrong. The researchers who conducted them weren't cheating; they were honest men trying to get good results. They just made one huge mistake: they ignored the true nature of rats. It turns out that rats are very sociable animals, and they just can't stand being held in solitary confinement, like the rats in those experiments were. For both rats and humans, solitary confinement is pure torture.

Some other researchers tried a new experiment: they created a "Rat Park". They fenced a big, natural area, with shrubs and grass, and plenty of space, and put in a small tribe of rats. Then they gave the rats two bowls of water that they could drink from. One contained morphine, and the other didn't. They could drink all they wanted, at any time they wanted. After a few tries, to see what was what, the rats would never drink from the morphine bowl. The researchers even tried bribing the rats, to get them to drink morphine, by dosing the morphine solution with sugar. It should have worked, because rats just love sugar. But it didn't work. The rats wouldn't drink it. The rats just didn't want to get loaded on morphine.6

So it turns out that rats will choose to stay high and whacked out all of the time if they are trapped in solitary confinement, but they don't like being dopey when they are in a better environment, hanging out with their friends, fooling around and fighting and fucking and scaring the hell out of the cat, and doing all of the usual fun rat things. Rats have their own agenda, and it doesn't include being locked up alone in a steel cage in a laboratory, pressing a lever.

It turns out that most humans are like that too. It is an old stereotype that it is the poorest people, in the slums and ghettos, who stay drunk or stoned all day long. Alas, that's also the truth, to a great extent. Most people, in better environments, don't really want to stay doped out all of the time.

Try a few thought experiments along those lines yourself. In scenario one, a guy is locked in solitary confinement in prison, maybe forever, he doesn't even know for how long, or if he will ever get out, and there is plenty of alcohol and dope available, sitting on a silver tray right in front of him. Does he use? Almost certainly, when the boredom gets to him. Does he use enough to get obliterated? Probably.

In scenario two, a guy is locked up in a big luxurious hotel suite with the entire Swedish bikini ski team. Again, the full supply of alcohol and drugs is also available. Does he use? Maybe. Maybe a little. Does he stay obliterated all of the time? Highly unlikely, because it's hard to charm those beautiful women when you are passed out...

We can repeat that thought experiment, but this time, make scenario one a miserable old apartment in a bad part of town, where everybody screams at each other, and hates each other, and fights, and steals from each other, and nobody has any hope that things will ever get any better... And make scenario two a charming cottage on five acres of wooded land at the edge of town, and the neighbors are all nice, and happy, and everybody has good jobs... Need I even continue?

Now consider that we all live in a mental environment, as well as a physical one, and we carry our own mental environment around with us inside our heads... And consider that many of our peculiar reactions to drugs, or desires for drugs, are due to that mindset... (This is a big part of the answer to that old question of "How can it happen here? How can the kids be getting stoned in our wonderful lily-white suburban neighborhood?")

Now consider that we all also live in a biochemical environment, our own physical bodies, which we also carry around with us... And consider that many of our peculiar reactions to drugs, or desires for drugs, are due to that biochemistry...

Just look around you, and do a little mental arithmetic. Is everybody stoned? No. Are one in ten people heavy dopers? No. One in a hundred? Yes. Maybe several, if you add up the opiate users, and the alcoholics, and the cocaine freaks, and the speed freaks, and the prescription drug over-users, etc... We have a lot of people who feel bad, so bad that they want to get doped out or high, just to feel okay. But they are a small minority. And how hard is it to get dope or alcohol or pills? Pathetically easy. Pretty much everybody who wants to do it is already doing it.

And how bad is it? We can catalogue a very long list of social ills caused by drugs and alcohol, and there really are a lot of them, genuinely horrible tragedies, but society somehow survives anyway. We are still here. And most of us have lives that are really okay. And most of the drug problems from which we suffer are actually caused by drugs being illegal. The junkies burglarize our houses because they want money to buy dope. Girls practice prostitution to get money to buy dope. They wouldn't do that if they could get the dope cheap or free. And we wouldn't have Uzi-toting dealers shooting it out in the streets if there wasn't a huge profit in it.

There are always a bunch of people who scream, "We can't legalize dope. We have to save all of those poor junkies from themselves." Baloney. Quit being a hypocrite. You do not care about those junkies. They are evil smelly people who will steal everything you've got as soon as you turn your back on them, aren't they? You don't want them in your house. And you aren't going to cry yourself to sleep at night if they all die. You never went downtown and gave a blanket to some poor shivering junkie one cold winter night. I know, because I was there, and I didn't see you there. (Actually, I did see a few kind-hearted souls who did just that. Thank you. And the odd thing is, those kind-hearted people who were giving out the blankets were the least-sanctimonious people around. It is the people who will not do anything for the junkies who declare that we have to save them by putting them in prison.)

And there are always some more people who scream, "We can't legalize dope. We can't have those junkies just laying around, feeling good all of the time." Baloney. Quit being a Puritan. It is of no concern to you whether the junkies feel good or bad. It won't ruin or improve your day.

Like The Eagles' song says, just Get Over It.
Some junkies are killing themselves. So what? Get Over It.
Some junkies are feeling great. So what? Get Over It.
Just Get Over It. It has nothing to do with you or your happiness.

And then there are always a bunch of people who start talking about their children, how they want to save their children from the evils of alcohol and drugs. Okay, good. Do it.

And make sure you save them from tobacco, too, because that is far and away the biggest killer drug in America, and in the whole world. And it's completely legal, because the Senators from North Carolina, the state where the evil weed is grown, are very powerful drug czars, men with lots of seniority and control of important Senate committees, and they want tobacco to stay legal.

The real death toll, in USA citizens per year, is:

Drug Deaths Per Year
Tobacco 420,000
Alcohol 100,000, plus 1/3 of all fatal auto accidents, another 13,000.
Heroin between 5,000 and 20,000.
Cocaine between 5,000 and 20,000.
Speed between 5,000 and 20,000.
Ecstacy dozens
Marijuana maybe 1 or 2, or maybe none.
LSD maybe 1 or 2, or maybe none.
All of the other unusual psychedelic "hippie" drugs maybe 1 or 2, or maybe none.

And those are the facts, people, as given out by the American Medical Association and the FBI. That isn't just my opinion.

(The reason that the numbers for heroin, cocaine, and speed are so vague is because they regularly cycle. Individual drugs will go into and out of fashion, and, when the police get hard on one, users will switch to one of the others. But the numbers usually cycle in those ranges.)

Now a sharp reader may immediately object: "There are far more cigarette smokers than heroin junkies, so of course more smokers die. Those numbers are skewed." Valid point. So let's look at what the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Cato Institute have computed for the mortality rates, per 100,000 users per year, for various drugs:

Drug Deaths per 100,000
users per year
Tobacco   (CDC 1) 440
Alcohol   (CDC 2) 100
Heroin   (Cato 3) 80
Cocaine   (Cato 3) 4
Marijuana   (Me 4) 0

Hard to believe, isn't it, that tobacco is far deadlier than heroin or cocaine? That isn't what your politicians have been telling you, is it?

When people talk about not legalizing drugs because of their children, what they are really saying is that they believe that everybody will turn into a dope addict if they can just get their hands on some drugs. Not true, not even vaguely true. Dope is already everywhere, and is almost as readily available as alcohol. And yet, most people do manage to save their kids from becoming addicted to either alcohol or drugs.

So how do you save your children from alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs? The first and easiest answer is "Don't abuse them."

  • Forty percent of all alcoholics and junkies were abused children. Sometimes the parents were alcoholics, sometimes dopers, sometimes just insane. Sometimes insane vicious religious nuts, or insane cruel alcoholic military sergeant fathers. Sometimes insane first, and then they used alcohol or dope to kill the pain of their insanity. Often, those abusive parents had been abused children themselves, and they were just passing it on. For whatever reason, they then abused their children, physically, or mentally, or both, and the children responded by using alcohol or dope to kill their own pain.
  • And, in addition, at least half of the people in prison for violent crimes were also abused children. Perhaps it's much worse than that — according to one survey, 85% of all violent prison inmates were abused in childhood.
  • Two-thirds of all teenage mothers were raped or sexually abused as children or teenagers.
  • Rape victims are ten times more likely than other women to use drugs and alcohol to excess.
  • In the U.S., at least one in ten women have been raped, almost two-thirds before the age of eighteen.
  • A recent survey reports that one-sixth of all rape victims reported to police are under the age of 12. (And this is the category of rape least likely to be reported.) One-fifth of these girls were raped by their fathers. They have been betrayed.

What goes around, comes around. So don't abuse your children. Don't abuse them physically, and don't abuse them mentally. It's just that simple.

Perhaps my own experiences will shed a little light on the subject. I was an abused child, the son of an insane, vicious alcoholic military sergeant father. In those days, it was not called child abuse, it was called "being a strict disciplinarian", so he was never arrested or stopped, or even criticized. (Even today, some people advocate treating children in such a manner, and call it "tough love" in "boot camps".) I did the same thing as all abused children do: I shut down my ability to feel. Abused children just do that. It isn't a matter of choice; it's an automatic survival reaction. You shut down your feelings so that you won't feel the pain or the anguish or the fear and anxiety, to make life bearable. So I ended up going through life only half-feeling things. And when I did feel things, it was often just repressed fear and anxiety and distrust. I was pretty messed up. So when I smoked pot for the first time, my reaction was, "My God! I can change how I feel!" It was like a total revelation — that I could consciously, deliberately use something to change what and how I felt. "Better Living Through Chemistry." That was it — I was hooked right there. I was basically a born addict, or made one by childhood. Actually, I ended up getting addicted to alcohol and tobacco as my main drugs, not pot, but that is beside the point. I was destined to become habituated to using something to change how I felt, or to just get some feelings happening, because my ability to feel was so damaged.

There has even been some scientific research recently which shows that the brains of abused children actually grow differently from those of normal children.5 The brain — especially the brain of a child — is always growing connections and changing in response to experiences. Child abuse makes the brain grow in less than optimal ways. (Researchers found that a part of the brain called the cerebellar vermis was affected by stress hormones, and didn't grow properly, and didn't have proper blood flow, in people who, as children, had been subjected to chronic severe stresses.) No wonder abused children's ability to feel like normal people is damaged.

So don't abuse your children. Don't abuse them physically, and don't abuse them mentally. It's just that simple.

After that, the answers are harder to get. So let me approach the problem backwards; let's start eliminating the ways that your kids won't get hooked.

First off, can you imagine a bottle of whiskey slipping off of the shelf in the local corner liquor store, and sneaking down the back alley at night, and then hiding in the bushes of your back yard? Then, next morning, when your children come out to play, the bottle attacks them, and holds them down while it pours its contents into them? And then they love it so much that they spend the rest of their lives trying to get more?

Not likely.

Well then, how about, a syringe full of heroin slips out of the dealer's house, and sneaks down the back alley at night, looking for your back yard.... Nope. No hope, dope.

Now that we have dispensed with the most ridiculous images, I think we can safely say that just having the stuff around won't hook your kids. That runs contrary to a lot of propaganda. The standard propaganda stories have it that one kid will get his hands on some dope, somehow, and then he'll share it with his friends, and instantly, the whole junior high school class is a bunch of addicts. Ridiculous. Go back to the rat story. All of the rats in Rat Park tasted morphine, and felt its effects, and then decided that they didn't want any more. Humans do the same thing too.

I know that a lot of you will have a hard time believing that, because you have been so propagandized that you think the propaganda is the unquestioned truth. So let me tell you a real-life story, the story of my own son.

I've been a hippie since the sixties, and all of our children have been exposed to the drug culture all of their lives. When my son was seven years old, his older brother, my step-son, shared marijuana with him. I wasn't very happy to hear that. I knew he'd try it sooner or later, but I wasn't planning on seven, that's just too young. Still, I didn't fly into a rage, or beat up the older brother. I just said that I thought that was a stupid thing to do, giving it to a kid that young, and then asked my son how he liked it. He said that he didn't like it, that it made him feel weird. That was his entire drug career. He went through high school without doing any drugs. He was too busy getting straight A's, and jumping on his girl friend. He felt that drugs would have just distracted him from things he enjoyed more. Then he went on to college with that girl friend, and graduated, and is still jumping on the same girl friend...

Now if any kid in the world should have been doomed to drugs, you would think it should have been him. He knew all about drugs when he was just a kid. Kids are very perceptive, and they pick up on how people talk about things. He knew that drugs were very powerful and important things, just from the way people talked about them. So he was always asking me about them, and I always told him. I felt that his life was on the line, and the best thing I could do, the only thing I could do, was tell him the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The good, the bad, and the ugly. So at the ripe old age of eight or so, he had memorized the names of every drug you ever heard of, along with their effects, overdose danger, what happens if you overdose, which drugs are fatal to mix, and so on. And he was very proud of his knowledge. I didn't make him memorize all of that stuff, it was more like I couldn't stop him.

When we went to a Grateful Dead concert, my girlfriend and I ate a bunch of magic mushrooms, and he wanted some too. I didn't give him any, explaining that I felt that it was really bad for kids to take psychedelics, because it would mess up their minds, and he would be much better off if he waited until he was older, like eighteen or so. He accepted that explanation, and was okay with it. He had a fine time, but my girlfriend and I ate too many, and spent most of the concert pinned to the ground. So it goes.

Anyway, after all of that, he grew up to be an abstainer. I never put any pressure on him to take drugs, and neither did I forbid him to take drugs. All I asked was that he wait until he was older, and then to be extremely careful with what he was doing. He ended up deciding that life would be easier without the stuff all on his own.

What about the older half-brother, the one who was smoking pot way back when, and who turned on his younger brother? Well, he turned out okay too. He was pretty wild during his teen years, and tried out a bunch of things like alcohol, psychedelics and cocaine. And then he just tapered off, and quit everything. He's too busy working and being successful in life now, to bother with drugs or alcohol. He too ended up deciding that life would be easier without the stuff, all on his own.

I'm sure that you hope your children will come to essentially the same conclusion. Obviously, it isn't possible for you to carbon-copy my experiences, or my kid's childhood. I don't think you would even want to.

But there are a few lessons we can take away from this: First, I didn't abuse my kids. I went to the extreme opposite side, and was a good hippie Mister Peacenick. I probably went too far in that direction, but the kids turned out okay anyway. Second, I did not actually try to protect my kids from drugs. I tried to protect them from wanting to kill themselves on drugs. Those are two very, very different things.

It isn't like you just have a few conversations about drugs when they reach a certain age, and that takes care of it. And it isn't like you just kill the local dope dealer, and that solves the problem. And it isn't like you act the Grand Inquisitor, constantly spying on them, even giving them drug tests, to see if they are complying with the prohibition laws.

You do the second one, protecting the kids from wanting to kill themselves on drugs, every day of the kid's life. You start the day the child is born, and you don't ever stop. You have to love and cherish your children, and let them know that you are glad they are alive, and give them feelings of self worth, and be friends with them. You have to make them feel so good about themselves that they don't need to use drugs to change how they feel.

(And you might think about working on yourself, too, and making yourself into the best, clearest, nicest, and highest person you can be.)

Now that is sometimes a very tough job. For some people, it is nearly impossible, because they had emotionally crippled parents who didn't know how to do it, and now they don't know how to do it, either. People who have trouble loving themselves will have troubles loving their children too.

Some people will start grumbling about molly-coddling kids, and ruining them. Those people were probably abused children themselves, and the voices we are hearing are their parents' harsh voices, not their own.

  • "Spare the rod, and spoil the child."
  • "Children should be seen and not heard."
  • "Children are inherently selfish and greedy little monsters who have to be forced to be good by treating them harshly. Send them to boot camps and abuse them."

Some people will say that they feel very uncomfortable and awkward touching and hugging their children — "I didn't grow up in a touchy-feely family." That's a very revealing remark, because I was not talking about a lot of touching and hugging. I never said a word about it, in fact. Read back and see if I'm telling the truth. Making your children feel good about themselves has very little to do with touching, and has a whole lot to do with giving them pride and feelings of self-worth. Now there is nothing wrong with touching and hugging, I strongly recommend it, but it isn't the same thing as love, any more than giving children a lot of sugar is giving them love.

And some other people are full of anger and hatred because of what was done to them as children. They are terrible candidates for parenthood, but they will probably have some children anyway, and will do to their kids what was done to them when they were kids... And the grand tragedy will continue for another generation.

But for those people with such problems, just being aware of the problem, and starting to work on it, is a big victory.

Steven Gaskin had a great line:
"If you don't like your children, then change yourself."
They are just copies of you.

Well, have I answered all of your questions about drugs and alcohol? No, I don't think so. But maybe this is a start.


1) The number of smoker deaths attributed to smoking (about four hundred thousand per year) is drawn from "Cigarette Smoking-Atributable Mortality and Years of Potential Life Lost — United States, 1990," Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, August 27, 1993, pp. 645-649. The number of current and former adult smokers (about ninety million) is drawn from "Cigarette Smoking Among Adults — United States, 1991," Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, April 2, 1993, pp. 230-233.

2) "Alcohol Related Mortality and Years of Potential Life Lost — United States, 1987," Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, March 23, 1990, p. 175. According to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, the number of "current" (past-month) drinkers was 109 million in 1988, roughly the same as in 1995.

3) James Ostrowski, "Thinking About Drug Legalization," Cato Institute Policy Analysis #121, May 25, 1989, p. 47. Starting with data from the Drug Abuse Warning Network, Ostrowski excluded suicides and discounted the number of deaths attributed to illegal drugs by 80 percent to account for the effects of prohibition, including contamination and uncertain doses.

The previous three footnotes came from For Your Own Good, The Anti-Smoking Crusade and The Tyranny of Public Health, by Jacob Sullum, pp 316-317.
The Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, 1998.
ISBN 0-684-82736-0
Dewey: 362.2967 S9529f 1998

4) My computation: If nationwide, the death toll from marijuana use is zero, then the death rate per 100,000 users is obviously also zero.

5) Was at: http://www.cnn.com/2002/HEALTH/01/05/health.abuse.reut/index.html [ Dead Link ]

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — Repeated sexual abuse makes physical changes in the brain, changes that can explain why abused children often use illegal drugs later in life, researchers said this week.

They found that children who were sexually abused had changes in the blood flow and function of a brain region called the cerebellar vermis, which is also known to change when people abuse drugs.

"This part of the brain has been recently implicated in the coordination of emotional behavior, is strongly affected by alcohol, cocaine, and other drugs of abuse, and may help regulate dopamine, a neurotransmitter critically involved in addiction," McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, where the study was done, said in a statement.

Writing in the January issue of the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, Carl Anderson and colleagues said they used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at the brains of 32 adults, aged 18 to 22. Half had been abused as children.

They homed in on the cerebellar vermis because it develops slowly and can be affected easily by stress hormones.

"Damage to this area of the brain may cause an individual to be particularly irritable, and to seek external means, such as drugs or alcohol, to quell this irritability," Anderson said in a statement.

A second study published this week [in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence] showed related results.

A team at the University of Buffalo in New York found that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can increase the craving for drugs in abusers.

Psychiatry professor Scott Coffey and colleagues at the Medical University of South Carolina tested 30 cocaine-dependent and 45 alcohol-dependent volunteers, all of whom also suffered from PTSD resulting from a physical or sexual attack.
"From our research with trauma victims, we know that intrusive trauma memories are very upsetting to patients, and now we have shown that these trauma memory-induced negative emotions increase craving in substance abusers with PTSD," Coffey said in a statement.

"These findings add support to our contention that we need to treat the two disorders at the same time."

Also see: BrainConnection.com

Note that excessive stress hormones can be caused by more than just sexual abuse. Physical child abuse, and mental abuse, will do it too. So does living in a war zone. Somebody did a study of black children who were living in inner-city neighborhoods that were rife with gang warfare and constant shootings, and they found that the children were exhibiting the same stress symptoms as children living in Lebanon during the civil war there. There was plenty of PTSD to go around. It should come as no surprise then, that they seek drugs to feel better when they get older.

6) The researcher was psychologist Dr. Bruce Alexander, then of British Columbia's Simon Fraser University. Rejected by Science and Nature, Alexander's paper was published in the obscure Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior, where it was summarily ignored.
Also see: http://opioids.com/morphine/laboratory.html
Also see this video for another discussion of Rat Park: http://disinfo.com/2015/07/everything-you-think-you-know-about-addiction-is-wrong/

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Last updated 10 August 2015.
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