Industrious Mammals.

So a friend of mine posted this article about alcohol and native populations in America today.  If you’re not interested in clicking through, I’ll summarize.  The gist of it is that native american peoples were not introduced to alcohol by europeans and in fact had been fermenting plant products to produce alcohol all over north america, from Texas up to the Inuit in the far north.  Distilled spirits caused a bit of a stir, but they had already been drinking beer-and-wine strength alcohol long before the Europeans showed up.

This is a part of what I’ve been telling people for years, which is that drugs and alcohol have been a part of human behavior, well… since the dawn of civilization.  Drugs and alcohol have been a part of celebration, religious observance, and even having a good time for thousands of years… as far back as 12,000 BC for alcohol.  The idea that the native peoples would be any different is, that they were somehow innocent (as people used to say that they were innocent of war) represents an inability or ignorance of their history and is an extension of the popular but really racist “noble savage” caricature imposed on natives by a victorious population of white europeans.  Really, the idea that any racial group is significantly physiologically different than any other is pretty racist.  Aside from the difficulties that the natives originally had in dealing with distilled liquor (and really, how did your first night with liquor go? Not great? What a surprise), there’s no support for the idea that natives are somehow less able to process alcohol or that they’re physiologically predisposed to alcoholism.

Just like black people aren’t physiologically predisposed to becoming addicted to crack, and just like upper middle-class housewives aren’t physiologically predisposed to becoming addicted to opiate based pain killers.

So how to explain higher rates of alcoholism in native populations?  It’s true that disadvantaged groups exhibit higher incidence of substance abuse than privileged groups, even if you discard the fact that disadvantaged groups are certainly more likely to be stigmatized for said abuse.

Well, the first step is to set aside the idea that skin color is the root of these problems and look into what else might be happening.

This line of thought led me back to the Rat Park experiments.  Rat Park sought to prove that previous experiments showing that rats would inject themselves over and over with a drug by pressing on a lever were flawed.  The idea was that since the lab rats in previous experiments were kept in solitary conditions in cages, and in fact had to be tethered to the cage for the injection system to work, the misery of the conditions may have impacted the rats choices to consume drugs.  Rats are naturally intelligent, social, and industrious little animals (sound familiar?), and keeping them individually in cages, unable to do anything but press a lever is against their nature and frankly sounds pretty dire.  So the focus of Rat Park was to provide rats with social interaction, the possibility of mating and raising a family, space to run around and do things, and also to give them the option; to drink water laced with morphine, or to not drink water with morphine.

The results were stunning; the Rat Park rats chose to consume much less of the morphine than the caged rats.

This seems to indicate that, despite prior claims, addiction is not a function of the drug being consumed.  This makes sense; anything that stimulates a release of reward chemicals in the brain can cause addiction… from any of a number of mind-altering drugs (yes, marijuana included) to normal, everyday activities such as eating and sex and gambling.

It also implies that addiction is perhaps a function of the level of misery that the individual is subject to.  Now, of course, rats aren’t people, and people aren’t rats… but the fact that rats are intelligent and social are one of the reasons that they’ve been used for psychological experimentation as well as medical. Perhaps it’s time to consider the fact that historically (and currently) oppressed minorities are more likely to suffer from addiction, not because they are somehow physiologically different from white people, but because so many individuals in this population live lives that are shorter on space, possibilities, opportunities, comfort, and dignity than the lives of most white males.

That doesn’t mean that if we made everyone happy that drug use would stop.  Drug use will never stop.  We have always enjoyed the consumption of intoxicating substances, and we always will.  For the most part, though, drug use is not the problem.  Addiction is the problem.  We also have a significant problem with industrialized drugs… methamphetamine and crack instead of cocaine; cocaine instead of coca; heroin instead of opium poppy.  Even cigarettes suffer from this industrialization… did you know that acetalaldehyde is added to cigarettes?  Acetalaldehyde is produced by the liver during the metabolism of alcohol and is thought to increase the addictive nature of tobacco smoke.

Think about it, though.  If increasing the level of human happiness would help mitigate the misery of addiction, and all of its related social ills, then my god, why aren’t we doing that?

I’ve touched on this before, in this blog post about how chickens really only need to be debeaked when their living conditions deteriorate to the point that they’re driven to cannibalism..  That post dealt with violence, and this one with a different but definitely related problem.  It all comes down to the same issue, though… the issue that we often live and work in situations that feel bad; that are dehumanizing, and the possibility that these conditions, which have become Standard Operating Procedure in the post-industrial landscape, might be causing a wider range of societal ills than anyone is willing to admit.

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Author: adrennan

An artist and writer in Bellingham, Washington.

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