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Stanton Peele Stanton Peele

Marion Barry’s Story Shows How Sex Is More Powerful Than Crack

The late four-term DC mayor and the famous “Rat Park” experiments have something very important in common.

13 Substance

Marion Barry, the former mayor of Washington DC who died yesterday, was removed from office in disgrace when he was shown smoking crack on video back in 1990.  The story went that Mayor Barry was brought down by his drug addiction, for which he sought treatment as part of his successful political rehabilitation (he was back in office by 1995).

But what Barry actually showed about addiction is that sex (as well as love) is far more powerful than drugs—the same thing Bruce Alexander’s famous experiment, Rat Park, proves.

In the videotape, set up as a part of an undercover sting, Barry (who was married) meets with a woman with whom he previously had an affair and took drugs, as reported by the New York Times:

‘They reminisce about their past drug use—Ms. Moore testified that there were more than 100 such incidents.

”So what do you want to do?” Ms. Moore asks several times, without using direct questions about drugs.

The mayor, unaware that she is secretly working with the police and is prepared to supply him with drugs, says he wants to have sex.

Ms. Moore fends him off after he makes several advances. Mr. Barry then asks about a woman, identified as Wanda, who was briefly in the hotel room at the time he arrived.

”Your friend mess around?” he asks.’

Only after his efforts to have sex are repeatedly rejected does Barry resign himself to smoking crack:

‘The Mayor picks up the pipe, raises it to his mouth and lights it. He takes a long drag and holds the smoke. Then he repeats the process. Ms. Moore moves back into the camera’s view. ”You don’t want to take another one?” she asks.

”No, you’re crazy,” the Mayor replies. ”Let’s go downstairs and meet your friend.” There is a loud noise. ”Police!” a voice cries out.’

We thus have on-camera evidence that, for an experienced crack user, even after he has begun smoking the drug, sex remains far and away his dominant motivation.


Bruce Alexander’s classic “Rat Park” experiments demonstrated that when rats are offered a morphine solution in a spacious, enriched environment where opposite-sex rats are available, even after being habituated to the morphine in a cage, the rats choose water over the opiate.

Why is that, do you think? Hint: Bruce notes that a frequent occupation of the rats when they are together is having sex.

First published in a minor journal, Rat Park initially drew little attention. But Bruce’s experiments drew me to him immediately, since they supported my own minority viewpoint that drugs are, by far, secondary components in addiction (as was also demonstrated by the heroin experience in Vietnam).

I made Rat Park a strong focus in my 1985 book, The Meaning of Addiction, in a chapter I co-authored with Bruce and his colleagues, along with Archie Brodsky. In his own writing, Bruce offers a sociopolitical interpretation of his work. It is the richness of the Rat Park environment that immunizes the rats against drugs—which Bruce believes holds true for humans as well.

When I speak or give a workshop in Vancouver, Bruce attends. I always introduce Rat Park by describing Bruce’s perspective, then joking, “But you know where Bruce is coming from—he’s a commie, and that’s giving him the benefit of the doubt.” (Bruce is actually a utopian socialist.)

In Meaning, I propounded what I believe is a better explanation for the Rat Park results. The rats rejected an opiate because it depressed both the animals’ sex drive, and their ability to compete with other rats for sex.  Mammals simply want sex more than they welcome narcosis.

This was true for both genders in Bruce’s research.  It holds for humans as well.


From Rat Park to the halls of power, we see that sex is far more powerful than drugs. So why are we so afraid of drugs? We should be far more frightened by sex.

But we largely don’t fear sex. People do stupid things for sex. But even when they go overboard, as Marion Barry and Bill Clinton did, they usually recover quickly and retain their status and political power. (Barry was re-elected Mayor of DC and was on the city council at the time of his death. As for Bill Clinton, well, consider that he would be re-elected president if he could run.)

Just like they do with drugs.

Stanton Peele, a columnist for Substance.com, has been at the cutting-edge of addiction theory and practice, including uncovering natural recovery, identifying addiction as being not essentially linked to drugs, and focusing on social forces and individual choice in addiction since writing (with Archie Brodsky) Love and Addiction in 1975. He has since written numerous other books and developed the online Life Process Program. His latest book, with Ilse Thompson, is Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict. His website is Peele.net. Dr. Peele has won career achievement awards from the Drug Policy Alliance and the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies.