Reefer monkey madness

Researchers persuade simians to get themselves stoned -- and say it helps prove that dope is addictive.

Published November 29, 2000 8:04PM (EST)

The <a target="new" the National Institute on Drug Abuse has four bakehead monkeys, and the researchers who enabled them are just as thrilled as they can be. The fact that, after long toil, they have succeeded in the unprecedented feat of inducing these monkeys to introduce THC into the temples of their bodies proves that marijuana is like "other abusable, addicting substances," according to NIDA director Dr. Alan I. Leshner.

This startling breakthrough is documented in a study in the November issue of Nature Neuroscience, a spinoff of the prestigious scientific journal Nature. Dr. Stephen Goldberg, one of the study's authors, is quoted in a NIDA press release explaining that "this finding suggests that marijuana has as much potential for abuse as other drugs of abuse, such as cocaine and heroin."

Sure it does, Dr. Goldberg.

But wait! Abuse isn't scary enough: Let's lurch one step further into zealotry by confusing abuse with addiction. (What's the difference? Let's clarify with an example. Have you ever abused cheesecake? I think you have. But do you go through torment on a day when you can't get cheesecake? Have you repurposed your life toward getting and consuming cheesecake? Do you ever wake up in a doorway with graham crust crumbs on your face and no idea where you've been? No? Thank God -- you're not addicted. Yet.)

Major newspapers quickly picked up on the tale of the four simian dope fiends. The New York Times headlined it "Marijuana Seen as Addictive in Monkeys." In the first paragraph we read that "the result emphasizes the idea that people can become addicted to marijuana and provides a way to test therapies." And, reported the BBC, "cannabis may be as addictive as hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine."

(Let me reveal my hidden agenda: I'm going to make fun of this. But here's the diabolical part -- I'll do it by actually reading the study.)

The monkeys in question are squirrel monkeys (Saimiri sciureus); they're quite small (and relatively cheap, if you are running a lab), have long prehensile tails and weigh just a pound or two. In the wild their custom is to leap about the branches of Central and South American forests at high speed, chittering like crazy.

Squirrel monkeys are easily bored. (No squirrel monkey would have read this far, for instance. A squirrel monkey would have skimmed the headline, shrieked in derision and started biting the keyboard by now.)

Thus, in an essay posted on a Web site for primate lovers, one woman who keeps a squirrel monkey as a pet -- the realization of her lifelong dream -- breaks into capital letters to warn that "squirrel monkeys are EXTREMELY HYPER!" (She has had Chippy's canine teeth removed, because he also bites.)

Some years ago, for an animal behavior class, it was my task to observe a small troop of squirrel monkeys at the Washington Park Zoo in Portland, Ore. Formerly they had been kept in a small cage and had been bored out of their tiny gourds, bouncing off the walls like ping-pong balls with teeth. Now they had the unusual privilege of roaming free during daylight hours, but they loathed the Oregon weather and chose to stay inside, still bored.

My task involved standing in front of the cage, recording how much time they spent boinging back and forth, how much time sleeping, how much time eating, how much time grooming themselves and -- as it turned out in the case of the males -- how much time they spent performing acts of oral self-gratification. The males spent a lot of time on this activity. Occasionally they put their heads up to check for monkey-eating eagles, and then they returned to their labors.

Did the female monkeys do the same? I don't recall. I was such a pure-minded naif that if they did, I probably thought they were just keeping springtime-fresh. "Grooming," I would have jotted down in my records.

I note without surprise that the woman who warns that squirrel monkeys are EXTREMELY HYPER! eventually had to stop giving her monkey small stuffed animals, as "he tried having sex with them, causing him to become frantic and frustrated." (That must be why the craze for Beanie Babies was just a passing thing.)

The Nature Neuroscience paper does not speak to the sex lives of the four squirrel monkeys the researchers studied. Nor does it give other data that interests me, such as whether they named the monkeys. (Researchers are not supposed to name their study animals, but often they do. Then they keep the names secret, because it seems unscientific and they're embarrassed. I say the public has a right to know.)

If the researchers gave the monkeys names like Cheech, Chong, Kind Bud and Woody Harrelson, that would indicate one form of bias, whereas if they were named Anomie, Shiftless, Brainless and Slippery Slope, that would indicate another.

Actually these monkeys are pioneers, so maybe they called them all Sacajawea. For it seems that, in general, monkeys do not like to smoke marijuana. They do not like to eat hash brownies. They do not even wear hemp outfits and suck optimistically on the hems.Lab animals can and do just say no when offered marijuana. This has been very frustrating to some researchers seeking animal models of human behavior.

There are lab animals freely ingesting heroin, animals willingly ingesting methadone, animals wantonly ingesting 30-second public-interest spots showing Barry McCaffrey making a fist, but animals ingesting marijuana are hard to come by. (I know, I know, you had a puppy that ate a whole baggie of the stuff, but that's not science.) When lab animals turn down such treats, it makes it hard for reefermadnessologists to conduct studies. So in this particular case we're talking breakthrough.

Finally the NIDA team (Gianluigi Tanda, Patrik Munzar and Steven R. Goldberg) forged boldly ahead and discovered a way to get monkeys to get stoned: They started with monkeys they had induced to inject cocaine directly into their veins through catheters. For one hour a day the monkeys had access to a lever that they could press, of their own free will, to obtain hits of coke.

The study indicates that the monkeys sat in a chair in an isolation chamber. This means that they were strapped into the chair, since squirrel monkeys do not voluntarily sit in one place for long unless it is necessary to obtain oral self-gratification.

After establishing that the strapped-down monkeys voluntarily shot cocaine into their catheters -- but declined to shoot up with a saline solution when given the chance -- the wily researchers switched them over to a new drip, offering them the opportunity to self-administer a solution containing THC, the psychoactive ingredient of marijuana.

They did so, the vile simians. They did so again and again, getting up to 30 doses an hour of devil-weed juice. We have our proof: Marijuana has "abuse potential." From having abuse potential to being addictive is but a quick leap to a moron's mind.

Interestingly, the researchers were forced to reverse the usual course and portray cocaine as a gateway drug to marijuana. The journal article doesn't reveal why the researchers started with cocaine-using monkeys -- maybe that's all they had around the lab. Ingenious! Next thing you know, heroin will lead to coffee.

Now, I would argue that if EXTREMELY HYPER individuals are forcibly strapped into chairs with needles in their veins and no way of knowing what the kindly doctors are going to want to use them to study this week, soothing hits of THC might be just what's called for. Why fret? Why shriek? Why try to bite the nice man? (That's why the straps, dummy.) Why not push the damned lever and mellow out the harsh? That's not abuse, that's judicious use of medication.

Remember how the researchers proclaimed that this exciting new research would provide "a way to test therapies"? Here's a low-cost therapy: Unstrap those monkeys and let them out of the chair. Voilà! Instant rehab!

By Susan McCarthy

Susan McCarthy is a San Francisco freelance writer and the author, with Jeffrey Masson, of "When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals."

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