Vice’s ‘Rat Park’ Is A Stunning Doc About The War On Drugs

Directed by Shawney Cohen, Rat Park is a new documentary from Vice that explores what the so-called War On Drugs looks around the world.

Cohen’s film is inspired by an experiment from the 1970s. Canadian psychologist Bruce Alexander discovered that rats who were confined to cramped cages were more likely to overuse – and overdose on – opium when given access to it than rats who lived in more spacious setups. The pleasant communities that belonged to the second group were referred to in the lab as “Rat Parks,” hence the film’s title.

Alexander’s findings begs many questions, including whether drug use disorders are caused solely from addiction. Or, is it that forces like poverty, social isolation, or untreated mental and physical illnesses can make life so miserable, we turn to drugs as a means of escape? And if that’s true, isn’t the solution to drug use making life better for all of society, not waging war on narcotics and those who use them?

Cohen and his crew have clearly done their research. Rat Park compares and contrasts how drug use is dealt with in three distinct locations, the Philippines, Portugal and South Florida. In South Florida, we see the government provides little assistance to those wishing to kick their dependency, but the few who do have access to services like needle exchanges are actually more likely to reduce their drug use. We also learn that, thanks to the recent policies of president Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippine approach to drug use is particularly draconian. As the doc shows, Duterte has given the police permission to shoot anyone they suspect is involved in the drug trade as a dealer or a user. This has resulted in countless extrajudicial killings of people whose lives are cut tragically short without due process. And yet, such gruesome policies have still not eradicated drug use. The reasons people turn to drugs – escape, needing the energy to work a second job, physical pain – remain, even in this culture of fear.

However, Rat Park is not all doom and gloom. Cohen also case studies Portugal, which became the first country in the world to decriminalize all drugs. In these scenes, Cohen introduces us to a vivacious middle-aged potter, who credits methadone clinics with his productive – and relatively healthy – life.  Of course, it should be noted that Portugal does not encourage the sale of hard drugs. Instead, when a police officer sees a person with heroine, they do not arrest them, but instead refer the person to the Ministry of Health for help. Indeed, this portrait of Portugal’s drug policies is so logical, one wonders why it isn’t the norm everywhere.

Ultimately, Rat Park is a film about how people have paid – and are still paying – the price for outdated government policies. But, even more importantly, it will open your eyes to the possibilities for how we could actually solve The Opioids Crisis.

Rat Park will made its Crave TV premiere on November 4th.





Sarah Sahagian

Sarah Sahagian

Sarah Sahagian is a feminist writer based in Toronto. Her byline has appeared in such publications as Elle Canada, Flare, Bitch Media, The Toronto Star, and The National Post. She is also the co-host of You Do You: A Dating Podcast. Sarah holds a master’s degree in Gender Studies from The London School of Economics. You can find her on Twitter, where she posts about politics and live-tweets The Bachelor