Shawney Cohen is a Toronto-based film director. His most recent documentary, Rat Park, focuses on the global war on drugs and is streaming on Crave.
One year ago, I was standing over the bodies of two dead men in a morgue in downtown Manila.
Both victims had been strangled and shot in the head. They were the latest casualties of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal war on drugs, which has led to the extrajudicial killings of thousands of people.
I’ve been directing documentary films about drugs for the better part of a decade, and this is where the global drug crisis had taken me. Standing next to me was Vincent Go, a local photojournalist who has been documenting the drug killings in the Philippines and has dedicated his life to securing justice for the victims and their families, who are disproportionately from poor and marginalized communities.
I asked Vincent what happened to these men. He told me they could have been executed for having a few grams of methamphetamine on them. In some cases, the drugs could have even been planted.
This scene is a pivotal moment in the film I recently finished, Rat Park, which hinges on the radical Canadian experiment on addiction of the same name from the 1970s.
If you’re wondering what two dead bodies in Manila have to do with this rat experiment, well, the answer is everything.
I’ve come to understand that Rat Park is more than an experiment – it’s a metaphor for our society and all the misconceptions we have about drugs and the people who use them. And amid a worsening drug-overdose crisis, its meaning is more important than ever.
In the late 1970s, psychologist Bruce Alexander of British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University wanted to understand the root causes of addiction, so he conducted a series of experiments involving rats and morphine.
Previous science around addiction was based on studies of rats living alone in barren cages. The caged rats were given two bottles: one with water, the other with water and morphine. The rats overwhelmingly chose the morphine water and became addicted. This helped fuel the belief that drugs automatically cause addiction – what Prof. Alexander referred to as “the myth of the demon drug.”
He wanted to see if he could turn this notion on its head. So he placed many rats together in a large cage with lots of activities and treats. He called it Rat Park. He also gave them the choice of two water bottles – again, one with just water, the other containing water mixed with morphine.
He found that the rats in Rat Park chose to consume far less morphine than the rats in isolation. With an enriched environment, the rats were far less likely to become addicted, disproving the notion that drugs are inherently addictive and demonstrating the importance of one’s environment.
So how is this experiment relevant today? First, we need to understand the scope of the problem.
While only 10 per cent of people who use drugs actually become addicted, most governments focus their entire drug policies on this small number of people by banning drugs. This has led to an increasingly tainted street supply with no quality control, which affects all drug users – including recreational users.
To complicate matters, society has a major stigma problem. We are so quick to judge people who use – and we blame everything on the drugs.
A common misconception of Prof. Alexander’s experiment is that the rats in Rat Park chose not to drink the morphine at all. But many of the rats did drink the morphine from time to time. However, unlike the case in human societies, the rats were not shunned for their drug use.
I have worked on many drug-related documentaries, and it’s clear that addiction is usually a symptom of something much larger. Rarely have I been in a community in which a serious drug problem existed without being inextricably linked to environmental factors such as boredom, unemployment, depression, lack of opportunities and poor health care.
I’m often asked if there is actually a solution to the overdose crisis. And while there’s no silver bullet, there are places in the world that have made great strides. I saw this first-hand while filming Rat Park in Lisbon. In the 1990s, the country had a serious heroin epidemic. Portuguese politicians decided to completely alter their drug policies instead of ramping up criminalization. The government provided free access to methadone and helped people with addictions access treatment and find jobs.
Most importantly, Portugal decriminalized the possession of drugs. In a way, it was an acknowledgment that drug use is a part of life and isn’t going away.
They’re not perfect, but Portugal’s drug policies are undoubtedly more humane and they slashed overdose death rates by 80 per cent. They also stand in stark contrast to those of countries such as the Philippines, where someone even suspected of using or dealing drugs can be shot dead in the street.
While filming in the Philippines, the tension surrounding the drug war was palpable. One woman whose brother was killed because he was suspected of using drugs says in the film, “The government is fighting the wrong war.”
The Rat Park experiment involved rats, but the bigger message for the rest of the world is that without shifting our perspective on drug policies and focusing more on the environments in which we live and want to build, the futile drug war will only continue.
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