In honor of our new Drug Czar, here's a little post about addiction. From metafilter,
Addiction: thousands of studies have been done claiming that it is a disease, often using rats in isolated cages with a bar-press system of delivery, showing they will repeatedly get high even if it means starving to death.
Rat Park showed that a rat’s environment, not the availability of drugs, leads to dependence. In a normal setting, a narcotic is an impediment to what rats typically do: fight, play, forage, mate. But a caged rat can’t do those things. It’s no surprise that a distressed animal with access to narcotics would use them to seek relief."
Bruce Alexander recently finished a book synthesizing these findings into a much larger picture. "The Globalisation of Addiction" is his attempt to broaden the scope of this new understanding, applying it to the world at large. From the description, "[this] book argues that the most effective response to a growing addiction problem is a social and political one, rather than an individual one. Such a solution would not put the doctors, psychologists, social workers, policemen, and priests out of work, but it would incorporate their practices in a larger social project. The project is to reshape society with enough force and imagination to enable people to find social integration and meaning in everyday life. Then great numbers of them would not need to fill their inner void with addictions."
Humans are more complicated than rats, and so I don't think there are cut and dried lessons here. But my own observation of the addicts I've known makes the overall conclusion ring true: The physically addictive nature of the drugs--and even the pleasure of the high--are far less powerful reinforcers than people generally think.