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Fri, Sep 19, 2014 01:56 PM
Issue of September 17, 2014

A hope note
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A hope note
Dr. Wayne Willis reflects on life and hope.

Heroin crisis

April 30, 2014 | 10:53 AM

Heroin use in our country, tragically, is way up.

In the last five years, the number of heroin users and the number of deaths from heroin have doubled. Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin spent his entire State of the State address this year discussing, not the trend, but a "full-blown heroin crisis."

Canadian psychologist Bruce Alexander conducted experiments in the 1970s on drug addiction that may offer some clues on how addiction happens. Alexander noticed that almost all the research on drug addiction had been based on studies with rats isolated in cramped boxes. All those studies showed that rats, once introduced to a drug like heroin, craved it and became helplessly dependent on it.

Alexander had a hunch. Suspicious of the tests, since each rat was in solitary confinement and never saw or touched other rats, he wondered whether things might be different if the rats had a better life. So he built a "Rat Park, "a spacious, rat-friendly enclosure shared with other rats, with plain water offered alongside morphine-laced water."

Most of the rats in Rat Park — free to run and play, exercise and socialize — chose the plain over the drugged water, including the rats that once stayed stoned on drugged water.

Few deny that heroin is addictive. But did the rats' isolation and other miserable conditions contribute to their staying stoned?

On Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Nebraska, the unemployment rate is pushing 90 percent. Alcoholism, too, is a gigantic problem. Is the alcoholism rampant on the reservation because "Indians can't genetically handle alcohol" or is it also that they have few positive role models and few realistic alternatives, like jobs?

While making no excuses for addiction, I believe we should work hard to understand and address other factors in our society that contribute to drug addiction.

Dr. Wayne Willis


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