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Why Do People Become Addicted to Drugs?

Why Do People Become Addicted to Drugs?

(This content is being used for illustrative purposes only; any person depicted in the content is a model)

Author: Justin Mckibben

This is arguably one of the most difficult questions to answer regarding drug addiction without being met with contention and passionate opposition. The troubling part is, despite the fact that the medical community, including the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) has taken a strong stance on classifying addiction as a disease, others still argue that it is a condition that only exists out of lack of personal responsibility or moral willpower. Stigma against addicts was the driving force behind the way the world understood addiction for so long that now it is an uphill battle at times trying to detach from those old ideas.

Beyond the assumptions most people adopt as fact, science and psychology have taught us that addiction is far more complex and misunderstood than most can imagine.

Still, the great question is the “why” of it all, which is a far more debatable way to ask the question than the “how” of it. Even more debate could surround the perceived motivations, and more controversy comes from the “addiction is a choice” conversation. At first, let us look at what the research tells us.

Why Do People Become Addicted to Drugs: The Brain

Now first, let us look at how addiction is defined according to medical science, offering the evidence from the ASAM.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) gave the most recent definition of addiction as a chronic brain disorder after a four-year process involving more than 80 experts. The ASAM definition notes that two decades of advancements in neuroscience convinced ASAM officials that addiction should be

defined by the activity present in the brain.

For instance, research has shown that addiction affects the brain’s reward circuitry to the point that memories of previous experiences with food, alcohol and other drugs or even sex can activate cravings and induce more addictive behaviors. Also, the brain circuitry that governs impulse control and judgment is altered in the brains of addicts.

Dr. Raju Hajela, former president of the Canadian Society of Addiction Medicine and chair of the ASAM committee on addiction’s new definition states:

“The disease creates distortions in thinking, feelings and perceptions, which drive people to behave in ways that are not understandable to others around them,”

“Simply put, addiction is not a choice. Addictive behaviors are a manifestation of the disease, not a cause.”

Dr. Hajela did, however, add that the idea of choice is not completely off the table, but that it is not about choosing addiction, but choosing recovery.

To be fair, there are also neuro-scientists like Marc Lewis, a psychologist and former addict himself; author of a new book “The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction is Not a Disease” who believe that the brain is definitively reshaped by addiction, but do not think it should be classified as a ‘disease’. These scientists recommend cognitive behavioral therapy as a way to reshape the brain and redirect its systems into less self-destructive patterns. While they do disagree with the specifics of the ‘disease’ term, they stand by the neuroscience of addiction.

Why Do People Become Addicted to Drugs: Chronic Medical Condition

Further exploring the definition of addiction as presented by the medical and scientific communities, we find that the American College of Physicians (ACP) calls addiction a “substance use disorder” and states that addictions to drugs should be considered a serious public health issue. The ACP states that substance use disorder is a chronic medical condition.

Several agencies have supported this definition of addiction, including:

  • The American Medical Association
  • The American Psychiatric Association
  • The Institute of Medicine
  • The World Health Organization

And if we are going to get really technical, the basic definition of “disease” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is:

-a condition of the living animal or plant body or of one of its parts that impairs normal functioning and is typically manifested by distinguishing signs and symptoms

Examining this logic, it is clear that addiction meets all the criteria to be considered a disease. In fact, most definitions of disease are pretty spot-on with the nature of substance use disorder.

Why Do People Become Addicted to Drugs: The Formula

Now that we have explored how addiction can qualify as a disease, let us look into the “why” of it. Some insist there is an ‘addiction gene’ that dooms people to addiction. Others say the reason people become addicted is because of their circumstances in life.

One might say there is a kind of ‘formula’ for addiction, but it would be one like X+Y=Addiction.

X= Genetics

Research has pointed toward biological differences that make people more or less susceptible to addiction. Certain genes, or combinations of genes, may result in someone’s brain and body developing dependence much faster than others with the same consumption.

So when someone says they drank the same as someone else, or did the same amount of drugs for the same amount of time, we need to understand that it doesn’t mean they will have the same reaction to those drugs. One of the main arguments people use to oppose the idea of addiction being a disease is comparing an addict to other people who drink and use drugs without being addicts… but science has shown us that is not how it works.

Then there is epigenetics, the study of functional, and sometimes inherited, changes in the regulation of gene activity that are not dependent on gene sequencing. In short, it means to examine how environmental exposures or choices people make can actually remodel (mark) the structure of DNA at the cell level or even at the level of the whole organism.

Y= Environment/Actions

Here is where we openly admit to the actions (i.e. choices) of individuals to influence the development of addiction. Someone’s environment and the way they react to it does contribute to developing an addiction. In general, research has shown that an individual’s health is the result of interactions between their genes and their environment. Of course the likelihood of addiction can be increased by factors like:

Studies from the Nation Institute on Drug Addiction (NIDA) support that an individual’s surroundings also have a particular impact on drug use. According to the NIDA,

“Exposure to drugs or stress in a person’s social or cultural environment can alter both gene expression and gene function, which, in some cases, may persist throughout a person’s life. Research also suggests that genes can play a part in how a person responds to his or her environment, placing some people at higher risk for disease than others.”

When someone starts addressing external issues with drugs or alcohol, it magnifies the problem. Those who are exposed to a different life-style will also have a different risk of developing a substance use disorder. This impacts those epigenetics we were talking about.

In the end, we can say that people use drugs and alcohol as a solution. It is the resource they turned to for escape, for excitement or for a feeling of ease and contentment. It was a powerful element they were able to reach to, that ultimately rewired their brain and changed their DNA.

Why Do People Become Addicted to Drugs?

Some people will say that the Y of X+Y=Addiction model proves that addiction is a choice, not a disease. Well, to argue that choices can still create diseases, we can point out that in 2014 it was noted for the first time in history, “lifestyle diseases” killed more people than communicable diseases. Health care providers and public health officials have recognized for a very long time that unhealthy lifestyle behaviors are the root cause of several diseases, including:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Stroke
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Some forms of cancer

Choices influence these conditions, which the medical community categorized as modifiable risk factors, including:

  • Poor dietary habits
  • Physical inactivity
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol overuse

People would argue still that someone who uses hard drugs knows the high risk and chooses. Well, don’t people who eat foods with low nutritional value and over-indulge in smoking while never exercising know the risks?

Recovery Works

Why do people become addicted to drugs? There are so many factors unique to the individual with that formula. Genetics, environment, actions, along with physical and mental health all play a part in how a substance use disorder develops, just like numerous other conditions. That is precisely why it is so important we start to recognize addiction as a disease; as a chronic medical condition and one that people should not be shamed and stigmatized for. All these elements of substance use disorder literally rewire the brain and rewrite the DNA.

Though this may seem like a lot of information, it covers barely a fraction of the research on this subject. There is no easy “why” to it, but there is enough to know why recovery is so important. Real recovery is not just removing the drugs, but also working to create new coping skills. Recovery takes work, and a great foundation can make all the difference.

Understanding addiction is one thing. But learning how to make the life in recovery that you deserve takes a strong beginning. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, please call toll-free now.

   CALL NOW 1-800-951-6135

In The News: Marijuana may cause testicular cancer in young men

Hey dude, where’s my balls?!

Do I have your attention? Good.

That’s what some young men might ask themselves in the near future if they keep smoking marijuana recreationally.

Scientists at the University of Southern California say they’ve detected a link between recreational marijuana use and a greater chance among males in their early teens through their mid-30s of contracting a particularly dangerous form of testicular cancer — non-seminoma tumors, according to a small study published today online in CANCER, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society. [MSNBC, 2012]

The study, though small, showed a correlational between recreational marijuana use and an aggressive form of testicular cancer. The active ingredient in marijuana –THC seems to interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system, which is a cellular network that also works in the formation of sperm.

Public Perception of Marijuana

We know that marijuana is addicting because we work with people who have become dependent on this drug but they aren’t the only ones. Marijuana is the drug used by an estimated 61% of all Americans suffering from a substance use disorder related to drugs other than alcohol. Marijuana is considered a “gateway” drug to other drug use but many still downplay its huge impact in the cycle of addiction. The general public is still up in the air on whether they believe marijuana is addicting or not. Many people believe that it is not more dangerous than alcohol and it should be legalized and regulated just like alcohol while others feel it should remain illegal. I believe that marijuana has been so ingrained into American culture that the facts no longer matter; it’s all about the culture.

Is Marijuana addicting?

According to ASAM, marijuana use can lead to tolerance to the effects of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), as well as to addiction. Marijuana dependence is the most common type of drug dependence worldwide with 9% of first time users becoming dependent. Marijuana withdrawal symptoms are also present when users try to quit. Marijuana withdrawal symptoms include irritability, anxiety, insomnia, appetite disturbance and depression.

Are there Health Benefits with Marijuana use?

ASAM warns that smoked marijuana is not, and cannot be a medicine and that it should be developed and approved by the FDA by those who think otherwise. However, there have been large amounts of support in the use of marijuana to fight cancer.  Pro marijuana activist like Dr.Grinspoon of Harvard support and advocate the use of marijuana to fight certain illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, arthritis, and depression. [Ibtimes, 2012] It’s easy to see why so many are confused about marijuana, is it good for us or is not? I think the main issue here is that smoked marijuana can cause addiction and that it is currently illegal. Like many other drugs there are benefits to the natural state of the drug or only partial components. When a drug is used for medical reasons and not abused it can be beneficial but marijuana has not been approved by the FDA as of yet for those purposes.

Are there negative health benefits to Marijuana use?

Yes. Marijuana use affects memory, verbal fluency, attention, learning, perception of time, sensory perception and increases anxiety, depression and schizophrenia. Marijuana smoke also contains more carbon monoxide, tar and carcinogens than tobacco smoke. Marijuana cigarettes can deposit as much as four times the amount of tar to the lungs compared to tobacco cigarettes. Although people say marijuana has not caused any deaths, research shows that “drugged driving” from marijuana intoxication doubles the risk of a crash and amongst all fatal car crashes in the U.S for which test results were available, 8.6% were positive for marijuana.

So is marijuana good for you or bad for you?

I don’t believe that the perceived benefits (like cancer fighting properties) out weight the negative health effects that legalization and recreational use of marijuana will have on the American population. In ASAM’s white paper, State-Level Proposals to Legalize Marijuana, they make some recommendations in regards to Marijuana that sum of the dangers of marijuana and its potential legalization in a nutshell.

  • Marijuana use is neither safe nor harmless. Marijuana contains psychoactive cannabinoids which produce a sense of pleasure in many users and a sense of discomfort and even paranoid thoughts in other users. Cannabinoids interact with brain circuits in comparable ways to opioids, cocaine and other addictive drugs.
  • Substance use disorders resulting from marijuana use are a serious and widespread health problem.
  • Marijuana use is associated with adverse health consequences, including damage to specific organs and tissues and impairments in behavioral and neurological functioning. Among these are acute impairments in the performance of complex tasks such as driving a motor vehicle.
  • Marijuana-related crashes, deaths and injuries are currently a major highway safety threat in the United States.
  • Legalization of marijuana would likely lead the general public and, in particular, young people, to view marijuana as less harmful than it is now viewed. Decreases in “perceived harm” associated with marijuana use would result in increased rates of marijuana use and increased rates of marijuana-related substance use disorders, including addiction.
  • Marijuana use is associated with increased rates and worsening symptoms of psychosis. Population-wide increases in availability of and access to high-potency marijuana would be associated with increased rates of marijuana use and could result in increased rates of psychotic illnesses.
  • Increased incidence and prevalence of marijuana-related substance use disorders, including marijuana addiction, would lead to increased demand for treatment services. Today treatment systems are inadequate for meeting the current treatment needs in our nation.
  • Revenues projected to be generated from taxation of legal marijuana would be far lower than the costs associated with increased marijuana use and would be unlikely to be targeted to these needs, as tobacco and alcohol revenues are not targeted to the health costs of the use of these drugs.




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