drugs $5
Dr. Hart was surprised that the subjects in his experiment often chose a $5 reward over a free high. Photo by David Hilowitz via flickr.com

Drugs are a necessary but not sufficient condition for addiction. Social scientists have long been interested in examining the social and environmental aspects of drug addiction.

A recent New York Times article discusses Columbia University Professor Carl Hart’s research on crack cocaine and methamphetamine addiction from his book “High Price.” When he started his research in the 1990s, Dr. Hart believed in the irresistibility of drugs, but findings from his experimental research to find a cure for drug dependency made him reevaluate his stance on addiction as purely a neurological phenomenon.

“Eighty to 90 percent of people who use crack and methamphetamine don’t get addicted,” said Dr. Hart, an associate professor of psychology. “And the small number who do become addicted are nothing like the popular caricatures.”

Both popular research and societal conceptions about drug addiction are missing a significant explanation for the cause of drug addiction. Dr. Nutt, a professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, supports Dr. Hart’s results:

Addiction always has a social element, and this is magnified in societies with little in the way of work or other ways to find fulfillment.

This “social element” could help explain why some people fall prey to drug addiction while others inexplicably escape its grasp. The idea of a social or structural element to addiction would cause a significant shift in the rhetoric of many substance abuse programs and wider societal discussions about drug use. The next step is to evaluate how large an effect environmental factors can have on addiction.

The reaction from other scientists has been mixed. No word yet on Dr. Hart’s next experiment, but I’m hoping it involves chocolate.