According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the cost of substance abuse issues in the United States exceeds $600 billion on an annual basis.1 Those who wish to reduce those costs might find it easy to blame those who take drugs. After all, the reasoning goes, these people chose to take drugs, and as a result, they should be asked to foot the bill for the drug abuse or pay some other sort of penalty for their actions.
For decades, blaming drug-addicted people in this manner was a common method used by medical professionals, family members and the public at large, and it’s likely this blame was responsible for an extensive amount of human suffering. Thankfully, those days have come to an end.
Experts now know that addictions are medical conditions that begin with changes in the brain and develop into uncontrollable behaviors. In addition, research suggests that addictions can be effectively treated, and people who are impacted can heal.
Addiction begins with a simple choice. A person chooses to take a drink of alcohol, take extra prescription medications or purchase illegal drugs. This simple choice is made hundreds of thousands of times, each and every day, and not everyone who chooses to use substances develops addictions to them.
In fact, some people can abuse all sorts of substances and never develop addictions. Their use might be dangerous or unhealthy, but they don’t fit the true definition of addiction as they make a choice to use, each and every time, and they have control over their use on some level.
People who have addictions, on the other hand, have an inability to control their substance abuse. Once they start using, they simply cannot stop.
It’s commonly assumed that people continue their use because they’re secretly hedonistic and attached to the pleasure that drug and alcohol abuse can bring. The truth is that many people who abuse drugs don’t feel any pleasure at all from their abuse. Many know that their substance abuse is destructive, and they truly want to quit. However, the drug use has become such an integral part of the person’s life that the person might not know how to quit. It’s a bit like asking a person to stop breathing. Even if the person wants to stop, actually stopping is difficult, if not impossible.
Studies have shown that many people who do not quit abusing drugs don’t stop because they simply don’t know how to make the transition. For example, a study of heroin-abusing teenagers found that while about half knew about drug addiction programs, most felt that issues of housing, finance and relationships would keep them from achieving success.2These users simply can’t fathom a way out of their addictions.
It’s possible to blame this lack of motivation on simple preferences, suggesting that people with addictions like their drugs and won’t stop using because they like the effects of the drugs, but it’s also clear that addictions cause damage that can lock behaviors in place. For example, the NIDA reports that some drugs of abuse target the neurotransmitter glutamate.3 Over the course of the addiction, the optimal level of glutamate is altered and transformed.
Someone with these deficits is simply unable to weigh the potential short-term benefits of taking drugs against the long-term damage the drugs can do. The person is functioning at an impaired level, hampered by the drug use and abuse. Moving forward in a reasonable, honest, straightforward way might be almost impossible.
They keep using drugs to keep withdrawal at bay.
In addition, addictive drugs tend to raise chemical levels in the brain to nearly record heights. The boosts in chemicals can help people feel happy, thrilled or even powerful, but the brain may react with alarm and work hard to adjust its sensors so it’s no longer flooded with chemicals it doesn’t need. Those adjustments take time to make, and similarly, they take time to break.
People who attempt to stop using drugs may feel crushing symptoms of withdrawal when they attempt to stop abusing drugs, and those symptoms might force them to keep taking drugs even when they don’t want them.
Risk Factors for Addiction
There is some evidence that suggests that genetic factors may make it harder for some people to quit once they start using drugs. For example, according to researchers writing in the journal Addiction, genetic factors are responsible for more than 50 percent of the variance in alcoholism liability.4Those who have the right set of genes respond to alcohol in a specific way, and they may have trouble regulating their use as a result.
However, genetics can also make it harder for some people to become addicted in the first place. For instance, a drug that makes some people feel good may make others feel sick, lessening their likelihood of becoming addicted. Therefore, while genetics can be a risk factor for some specific types of addiction, there are other factors that must be considered in order to pull together a complete picture of substance use and abuse.
According to researchers at the University of Utah, the method people use in order to take drugs can influence the likelihood of addiction.5 In short, the faster the drug enters the user’s system and begins to bring about symptoms, the more likely it is that the user will develop specific damage in the brain and an addiction will develop. As a result, those who smoke drugs, exposing the lungs and then the blood, have the highest risk of developing an addiction, followed by injecting the drug into the veins.
Those who abuse drugs that are smoked are playing a dangerous game that can lead to an addiction.
People who have mental illnesses are also at higher risk for developing addictions when compared to people who don’t have mental illnesses. Some drugs of abuse work on receptors damaged by mental illness, sharing a pathway and making the person feel normal for a short period of time.
As the body becomes accustomed, and the use becomes compulsive, the drugs start to harm instead of help. Similarly, some drugs cause damage in the brain that can lead to mental illness, and treating only one condition can allow the other condition to strengthen and grow.
- Using drugs at an early age
- Combining multiple drugs
- Using large amounts of drugs
- Spending time with others who are addicted
Common Drugs of Abuse
While almost anything could be considered a drug of abuse and therefore could be considered addictive, there are some specific substances that have been associated with abuse. According to the NIDA, those drugs include the following:
- Club drugs, such as MDMA and GHB
- Dissociative drugs, such as ketamine and PCP
- Hallucinogens, such as LSD and mescaline6
It’s important to note that drugs that are considered legal can also be incredibly addictive. In fact, many prescription medications have been associated with extreme addictions.Some people begin with a valid prescription and then begin taking larger and larger doses of the drugs for recreational purposes.
Others buy the drugs from street dealers, never visiting a doctor for the addictive drugs they crave. Any path a user takes can be destructive, however, and abusing drugs in this way is considered illegal and can land a user in jail.
Consequences of Addiction
In addition to developing persistent brain cell damage due to drug abuse, people who are addicted can also experience severe lifestyle disruptions. People may resort to stealing in order to afford the drugs they’re addicted to. They might also lie to their families and their coworkers about their drug use, creating a sense of social isolation and dysfunction. People who are addicted can become homeless, as the focus of their lives moves more and more toward drugs.
At high doses, drugs of abuse can shut down the body’s breathing system, or drugs can cause massive spasms in the heart. Addictions can also be deadly. People who are addicted to drugs may be forced to take extremely high doses of the drugs they’re addicted to as low doses simply don’t seem to bring about a noticeable effect.
Overdoses to drugs are a serious consequence of addiction, and they’re sadly common. In New Mexico, for example, death rates due to drug overdoses rose 60 percent between 2001 and 2010.7 This is a statistic that’s been repeated all across the country, especially as more and more addicted people turn to incredibly powerful addictive drugs in order to feed their addictions.
Drug dealers aren’t commonly known for their honesty, and many who sell drugs taint their drugs with inert chemicals or other additives to make a small amount of drugs stretch farther and bring back more money. People who buy drugs from street dealers may buy tainted drugs and develop medical complications, or they may overdose if they switch dealers and buy drugs that are more powerful than the versions to which they’re accustomed.
People who use needles to inject drugs can also face life-threatening consequences, especially if they share needles with other people. Needles can contain tiny drops of blood, even after they’ve been washed, and those little droplets can carry deadly infections such as HIV/AIDS or hepatitis. People who use needles for drugs also might inject tiny particles of debris that don’t dissolve in the blood, and these specs can travel to the heart or the lungs and cause infections or tumors. All of these incidents can cause death.
Are You Addicted to Drugs?
If you’re already asking yourself if you have a problem with drugs, chances are you already know the answer. Maybe you sense there’s an issue, or a friend or family member has pointed out a problem, but you want clinical, unemotional proof.
- Have you ever used drugs for reasons that aren’t medical?
- Do you ever use more than one drug at a time?
- Are you using more frequently than in the past?
- Do you have trouble stopping your drug use?
- Can you get through the week without using illicit substances?
- Do you ever feel guilty about your drug use?
- Do family members or friends comment on your drug use?
- Has your drug use resulted in negative personal or professional consequences?
If you answered “yes” to any of the above questions, you should consider getting a professional evaluation or seeking drug rehab and treatment. At The Oaks at La Paloma, we specialize in providing addiction care to people who have underlying mental health issues.
We use a comprehensive treatment program that can help you get to the root of why you use drugs and what you’ll need to do in order to stop. The process can be difficult, but we’ll work with you and help you develop effective solutions. Contact us at our 24-hour, toll-free helpline today at 901-350-4575.
1 "Is drug addiction treatment worth its cost?" NIDA. December 2012. Web. Accessed 24 July 2017.
2 Bruna Brands, Karen Leslie, Laura Catz-Biro and Selina Li. “Heroin Use and Barriers to Treatment in Street Involved Youth.” Addiction Research & Theory. Vol. 13, Issue 5, 2005. Accessed 24 August 2017.
3 "Impacts of Drugs on Neurotransmission." NIDA. 9 March 2017. Web. Accessed 24 August 2017.
4 "Drug Delivery Methods." Genetics Science Learning Center. 30 August 2013. Web. Accessed 24 August 2017.
6 "Commonly Abused Drugs Charts." NIDA. July 2017. Web. Accessed 24 July 2017.
7 Frosch, Dan. “Prescription Drug Overdoses Plague New Mexico.” New York Times. 8 June 2012. Web. Accessed 24 August 2017.