Changing Our View on Drug Addiction

You may have heard of the drug diamorphine. In countries like the UK, it is commonly used in hospitals to relieve pain in patients with trauma from car accidents, after surgery or chronic pain from terminal illness. What you might not know, is that diamorphine is the scientific name for heroin. That’s right, thousands of people are being prescribed pure heroin in hospitals around the world. This might make you wonder, why aren’t these people becoming addicted to heroin? Drug addiction has been stigmatised and punished for a very long time, however some scientists are now saying everything we know about addiction is wrong.

It’s estimated that they’re are over 70,000 dependant heroin users in Australia. Image by Thomas Marthinsen via flickr

What is Addiction?

We all think we have a pretty good understanding of what drug addiction is. Take an addictive drug and your body will become dependant on it. Take away the chemical from your body and you will have withdrawal symptoms. However more and more experts believe that drug addiction is more psychological than chemical. They argue that, just like people get addicted to gambling, shopping or pornography, drug addiction is nothing more than a habitual addiction, which can be overcome by changing someone’s environment and social life.

Rat Park

So where does our idea of addiction come from? Early drug experiments conducted on animals (such as rats and mice) found that when given the option between normal water and water with an addictive drug, such as cocaine or heroin, animals always chose the addictive drug. They became so addicted they drank it compulsively and almost always overdosed.

However, during the 1970’s, psychologist Bruce Alexander conducted the famous Rat Park experiments. In these experiments, he recreated some of the original animal drug studies, but with a few major differences. This time, instead of keeping rats in a cage, he put them in a massive enclosure, filled with food, toys, wheels to run on and other mice to mate with. This time, the rats in “Rat Park” all rejected the water with heroin in it. None of the rats became addicted and none overdosed.

Alexander concluded that addiction was not caused by the drugs themselves, but by the living conditions the rats were in. Many health experts believe that it is a very similar case for humans. People become ‘addicted’ to drugs because they are lonely, socially isolated, depressed and under-stimulated. Recent research suggests that drug addiction can be effectively treated by helping a patient create stronger social connections and a greater sense of belonging. This goes against decades of scientific evidence that shows how addictive drugs rewire our brains and make our bodies addicted.

Rats have been used in drug trials for centuries. Image by theresa via flickr


15 years ago, Portugal had one of the biggest heroin problems in the world. More the 1% of the population in Portugal was addicted to heroin. In 2001, Portugal responded in a profound way. It became the first country in the world to decriminalise all drugs. That’s right, every drug, from cannabis to heroin was decriminalised. Part of the Portugal’s plan involved taking the money that was being used to police drugs and use it to help reconnect drug addicts with society. Since then, the number of people addicted to heroin has more than halved in Portugal, and it has one of the lowest rates of deaths from drug overdose in the world. By treating drug addiction as a mental health issue, and not a criminal issue, Portugal were able to successfully tackle their drug problem.

The War on Drugs

The US spends more than $50 billion yearly on the “war on drugs” with more than a million Americans arrested every year for possession of illicit drugs. Although there is still some debate about what causes addiction, there is overwhelming evidence that drug prohibition and incarceration is not effective, and that we are losing the war on drugs. Many drug and health experts are calling for a radical change in the way that we view drugs and addiction around the world, including support for medically supervised injecting centres. By treating drug addiction as a mental health issue, they believe countless lives can be saved.