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Dolphins on drugs: What can animals tell us about getting high?

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A lot of us do it. A lot of us don’t. Our gov­ern­ments try their best to pre­sent them as the route to all evil while Baude­laire and Lil Wayne have sung their praises. Over the years the drug de­bate has been ex­hausted by par­lia­ments and piss-heads alike, but how can an­i­mals shed new light on an age-old issue? Commentary from Olivia Capadose. 

I turned to an­i­mals after watch­ing the re­cent BBC footage of dol­phins get­ting high. The doc­u­men­tary Spy in the Pod filmed a group of young male dol­phins po­litely pass­ing round a puffer-fish to “puff” on be­fore all be­com­ing half-eyed and float­ing ver­ti­cally in bliss. Ap­par­ently, the dol­phins have learnt that when in­tim­i­dated, a puffer-fish re­leases a toxin, which in small doses in­duces a nar­cotic ef­fect. This ridicu­lous scene in­spired a search for other wasted an­i­mals and after ex­haust­ing YouTube’s gems in­clud­ing 'cats going crazy for cat­nip' and 'jaguars on DMT', it struck me – does this mean it is nat­ural for liv­ing crea­tures to change their states of mind? And could these an­i­mals’ recre­ational drug habits be a valid ar­gu­ment against the de­mo­niza­tion of human drug users?

Dol­phins get­ting high in the BBC doc­u­men­tary "Spy in the Pod" (2014). 

Mo­ti­vated by my mus­ings, I con­tacted Bruce Alexan­der – a drug psy­chol­o­gist and pro­fes­sor who in the 70s car­ried out an un­usual study into opi­ate ad­dic­tion called Rat Park. At the time, pre­vi­ous stud­ies had ex­am­ined an­i­mals such as rats and mon­keys kept ex­clu­sively in un­com­fort­able cages. The re­sults al­ways showed an­i­mals quickly be­com­ing de­pen­dent on drugs, which sup­ported the com­mon as­sump­tion that drugs cause im­me­di­ate and ir­re­versible ad­dic­tion. But Bruce chal­lenged this ar­ti­cle of faith by hous­ing half his rats in con­ven­tional cages and the other half in Rat Park – a 200 square feet rat heaven fit­ted with toys, painted back­drops of nat­ural land­scapes and the op­por­tu­nity to pro­cre­ate. Both groups were given the choice be­tween pure water and mor­phine-spiked water drips, but the rat park res­i­dents con­sumed sig­nif­i­cantly less mor­phine. Try as he might, Bruce could not make ad­dicts of his Rat Park res­i­dents — even after being force-fed mor­phine water for two months, rats in Rat Park al­ways went back to the unadul­ter­ated water.

"As if the rats were hav­ing a party"

Bruce’s find­ings not only re­jected the com­mon be­lief that ex­po­sure to drugs causes in­evitable ad­dic­tion but it also sug­gested that ad­dic­tion is a prod­uct of so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors - just like peo­ple, it was the rats that were iso­lated, un­com­fort­able and un­pro­tected that suf­fered from ad­dic­tion. “What we also saw,” says Bruce, “is that al­though the rats in Rat Park didn’t ad­min­is­ter as reg­u­larly as the caged rats, they did oc­ca­sion­ally dab­ble.” Pat­terns of drug use among the rats were sim­i­lar to pat­terns among hu­mans. Some of the rats weren’t both­ered while oth­ers took mor­phine from time to time – “as if they were hav­ing a party.” Bruce’s rats sug­gested the de­sire to take drugs recre­ation­ally is nat­ural and pos­si­bly even good for us – as a means of en­abling lat­eral think­ing. He planned to do more care­ful analy­sis of this ap­par­ent recre­ational drug use. Would ado­les­cent rats be more likely to ex­per­i­ment than older rats? Did they take the drugs in groups? There are sev­eral in­ter­est­ing but sadly unan­swered ques­tions here.

Bruce’s study co­in­cided with the in­cep­tion of Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs and the un­pop­u­lar­ity of his re­port was re­flected in the study being shut down. Ac­cord­ing to the Cana­dian Coun­cil of An­i­mal Care, the trial rooms were in­suf­fi­ciently ven­ti­lated and de­spite Bruce point­ing out that rats usu­ally live in sew­ers and very en­closed spaces, the whole thing came to a halt. The fact that the same rooms were later used as a stu­dent coun­selling space with­out any work being done to the “ven­ti­la­tion issue” is a bit con­fus­ing.  Bruce is care­ful not to in­dulge in con­spir­a­cies, but ei­ther stu­dents re­quire less air than rats or some­one wasn’t happy with Bruce’s agenda. As it goes, Rat Park made lit­tle im­pact, quickly be­com­ing buried by gov­ern­ment stud­ies and bil­lion dol­lar anti-drug or­gan­i­sa­tions such as the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Drug Abuse.

"Hu­mans don't have the in­non­cence of dol­phins" 

The gov­ern­ment had the last say, but what does Bruce think – does an­i­mal drug use mean it is nat­ural for hu­mans to take drugs too?  “Yes and no. We can cer­tainly say that drug use is nat­ural in the an­i­mal king­dom be­cause evo­lu­tion pro­duces a cor­re­spon­dence be­tween what feels good and what is good for us. Hu­mans in their nat­ural form also know what’s good for them be­cause evo­lu­tion tells us, but now in the 20th cen­tury, there are so many drugs we know very lit­tle about. Moder­nity has short-cir­cuited our clev­er­ness; there­fore we can­not make an ar­gu­ment for tak­ing what we like. We don’t have the in­no­cence of dol­phins liv­ing in dol­phin par­adise.” Come to think of it, you don’t see dol­phins with a "ten puffer-fish a day" habit or rein­deers run­ning drug car­tels across the wilder­ness. An­i­mals don’t seem to have the same ad­dic­tion prob­lem that we do. “Ad­dic­tion,” Bruce says, “is al­ways the prod­uct of the break­down of com­mu­nity, ei­ther as a con­se­quence of his­tor­i­cal shifts that come with moder­nity or in­di­vid­ual prob­lems such as a flood.”

When we look to tribal com­mu­ni­ties un­touched by colo­nial­ism that use drugs as part of spir­i­tual or so­cial rit­u­als, ad­dic­tion is non-ex­is­tent.  It is only after these com­mu­ni­ties are bro­ken that ad­dic­tion be­comes epi­demic. “Com­mu­nity is a frag­ile flower”, Bruce ex­plains. “Ad­dic­tion has be­come a major issue be­cause of an in­trin­sic break­down of com­mu­nity, mod­ern hy­per-cap­i­tal­ism and all that stuff.” Hav­ing been cat­a­pulted into moder­nity, we hu­mans are not as clever as we think. Our re­la­tion­ship with drugs is still a mys­tery, but tak­ing drugs is not a mod­ern phe­nom­e­non. The de­sire to take drugs is a nat­ural one – as Bruce’s rats proved. Those furry crea­tures can teach us that the choice to take drugs should not be sub­ject to en­ti­tled slan­der and that the peo­ple who sadly be­come ad­dicted are the re­sult of bro­ken com­mu­ni­ties rather than flawed char­ac­ters.