Addiction is a chronic, often relapsing brain disease that causes compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences to the addicted individual and to those around him or her. Although the initial decision to take drugs is voluntary for most people, the brain changes that occur over time challenge an addicted person’s self-control and hamper his/her ability to resist intense impulses to take drugs.
Fortunately, treatments are available to help ordinary people counter addiction’s powerful disruptive effects. Research shows that combining addiction treatment medications with behavioural therapy is the best way to ensure success for most patients. Treatment approaches that are tailored to each patient’s drug abuse patterns and any co-occurring medical, psychiatric, and social problems can lead to sustained recovery and a life without drug abuse.
In this section the interest is primarily the illegal use of drugs. Some countries (like Portugal) have elected to remove all penalties associated with drug use. Such countries have had great success in reducing the number of ordinary people addicted to drugs. All this runs counter to normal logic. But then again we aren’t dealing with people that think logically, especially not strategically. For example after 5 years of legalising the heroin industry and investing in addiction reduction approaches (like free needles, free methadone, free mental help and support services), the number of ordinary people addicted to heroin has reduced by a staggering 90%.
Similar to other chronic, relapsing diseases, such as diabetes, asthma, or heart disease, drug addiction can be managed successfully. And as with other chronic diseases, it is not uncommon for a person to relapse and begin abusing drugs again. Relapse, however, does not signal treatment failure—rather, it indicates that treatment should be reinstated or adjusted or that an alternative treatment is needed to help the individual regain control and recover. Drug addiction is not just about the physical ingestion of addictive substances, it’s also a serious mental health problem because of its effects on the brain.
What Happens to Your Brain When You Take Drugs?
Drugs contain chemicals that tap into the brain’s communication system and disrupt the way nerve cells normally send, receive, and process information. There are at least two ways that drugs cause this disruption:
(1) by imitating the brain’s natural chemical messengers and
(2) by overstimulating the “reward circuit” of the brain.
Some drugs (e.g., marijuana and heroin) have a similar structure to chemical messengers called neurotransmitters, which are naturally produced by the brain. This similarity allows the drugs to “fool” the brain’s receptors and activate nerve cells to send abnormal messages.
Other drugs, such as cocaine or methamphetamine, cause the nerve cells to release abnormally large amounts of natural neurotransmitters (mainly dopamine) or to prevent the normal recycling of these brain chemicals, which is needed to shut off the signalling between neurons. The result is a brain awash in dopamine, a neurotransmitter present in brain regions that control movement, emotion, motivation, and feelings of pleasure. The overstimulation of this reward system, which normally responds to natural behaviour linked to survival (eating, spending time with loved ones, etc.), produces euphoric effects in response to psychoactive drugs. This reaction sets in motion a reinforcing pattern that “teaches” people to repeat the rewarding behaviour of abusing drugs.
As a person continues to abuse drugs, the brain adapts to the overwhelming surges in dopamine by producing less dopamine or by reducing the number of dopamine receptors in the reward circuit. The result is a lessening of dopamine’s impact on the reward circuit, which reduces the abuser’s ability to enjoy not only the drugs but also other events in life that previously brought pleasure. This decrease compels the addicted person to keep abusing drugs in an attempt to bring the dopamine function back to normal. But now larger amounts of the drug are required to achieve the same dopamine high—an effect known as tolerance.
Long-term abuse causes changes in other brain chemical systems and circuits as well. Glutamate is a neurotransmitter that influences the reward circuit and the ability to learn. When the optimal concentration of glutamate is altered by drug abuse, the brain attempts to compensate, which can impair cognitive function. Brain imaging studies of drug-addicted individuals show changes in areas of the brain that are critical to judgment, decision making, learning and memory, and behaviour control. Together, these changes can drive an abuser to seek out and take drugs compulsively despite adverse, even devastating consequences—that is the nature of addiction.
Why Do Some People Become Addicted While Others Do Not?
No single factor can predict whether a person will become addicted to drugs. Risk for addiction is influenced by a combination of factors that include individual biology, social environment, and age or stage of development. The more risk factors an individual has, the greater the chance that taking drugs can lead to addiction. For example:
- Biology. The genes that people are born with—in combination with environmental influences—account for about half of their addiction vulnerability. Additionally, gender, ethnicity, and the presence of other mental disorders may influence risk for drug abuse and addiction.
- Environment. A person’s environment includes many different influences, from family and friends to socioeconomic status and quality of life in general. Factors such as peer pressure, physical and sexual abuse, stress, and quality of parenting can greatly influence the occurrence of drug abuse and the escalation to addiction in a person’s life.
- Development. Genetic and environmental factors interact with critical developmental stages in a person’s life to affect addiction vulnerability. Although taking drugs at any age can lead to addiction, the earlier that drug use begins, the more likely it will progress to more serious abuse, which poses a special challenge to adolescents. Because areas in their brains that govern decision making, judgment, and self-control are still developing, adolescents may be especially prone to risk-taking behaviours, including trying drugs of abuse.
In subordinate sections it is later proposed to link linked individual sections on several of the most socially damaging addictions, discussed within the context of this over-arching explanation which is common to most.
The typical list of drug deemed illegal or illicit across western society includes:
- Crystal Meth
- Mis-use of Prescription Drugs, Pain-killers and Ritalin
Drugs are essentially poisons. The amount taken determines the effect. And the effects vary depending upon the drug taken, its quality, strength and the takers own metabolism. In contrast to prescription drugs, illegal drugs are not manufactured in controlled environments under strict standards of quality. In other words, you never know what quality and quantity you are really getting, or with what cheaper poison an unscrupulous dealer may have diluted the drug.
The main reason ordinary people use illegal drugs is the expectation of experiencing their claimed hallucinogenic effects on the brain. Unfortunately most can involve some serious side-effects. These side effects can limit a person’s ability to have the ‘good time’ they might have thought the drug was going to provide. The side-effects multiply, compound and can cause permanent damage the more frequently you take the drugs. Side effects include:
- Increased energy, alertness
- Increased lobido
- Panic attacks
- Schizophrenic and psychotic behaviour
- Hostile and aggressive behaviour
- Violence, often for no apparent reason
- Periods of severe mental and emotional disturbance, and possible permanent mental illness
- Potentially permanent damage to brain, liver, kidneys and heart.
The highly addictive characteristics of drugs such as heroin, cocaine and various amphetamine compounds may take away any control you have over the continuation of self-inflicted damage. The cost of feeding an inevitable addiction that regular use will cause, may mean ordinary people finding themselves needing to be involved in serious crime, facing a lengthy jail term, and dealing with serious health problems including permanent mental illness, the risks of communicable diseases like HIV/AIDS, and overdosing. This sometimes results in losing the support of family and friends along the way.
Drugs have been part of our culture since the middle of the last century. Popularized in the 1960s by music and mass media; they invade all aspects of western society.
An estimated 208 million people internationally consume illegal drugs. In the United States alone, results from the 2007 National Survey on Drug Use and Health showed that 19.9 million Americans (or 8% of the population aged 12 or older) used illegal drugs in the month prior to the survey.
The most commonly used illegal drug is marijuana. According to the United Nations 2008 World Drug Report, about 3.9% of the world’s population between the ages of 15 and 64 abuse marijuana. In Europe, recent studies among 15 to 16-year-olds suggest that use of marijuana varies from under 10% to over 40%, with the highest rates reported by teens in the Czech Republic (44%); followed by Ireland (39%), the UK (38%) and France (38%). In Spain and the United Kingdom, cocaine use among 15 to 16-year-olds is 4% to 6%. Cocaine use among young people has risen in Denmark, Italy, Spain, UK, Norway and France.
According to the Australian Drug Foundation “Drug Info” (http://www.druginfo.adf.org.au/topics/statistics) in Australia 15% of the population used an illicit drug (including using a pharmaceutical drug for non-medical purposes) in the previous 12 months of 2013. To day “ice” is the most damaging drug in common use across Australia, expanding in epidemic proportions across the major cities. Professor John Saunders, consultant to South Pacific Private Hospital, reports that over 90% of his new clients in Sydney are addicted to ice. In concert with Australian’s winning formulae in taking on our hard problems, a savage, confronting and fearful campaign is being waged. TV ads showing ice users being violent in emergency hospital units and in family home situations is striving to suppress the manufacture and trafficking of ice. The ads points out that parents have the most important role to play in guarding their children against this highly addictive drug. But at the end of the day, it’s the demanders and suppliers that makes an epidemic cycle.
Today 41.8% of Australians aged 14 years and over had used illicit drugs in their lifetime. People aged 20-29 were more likely to have used illicit drugs than other age groups, with more than a quarter (27%) reporting illicit use of drugs in the previous 12 months. However, older people are increasingly using illicit drugs. In many regards its about attempting to rekindle their lost youth or take their minds off the anxiety of what their future holds.
The most common drug used by people aged 14 years and over, both recently and over the lifetime, was cannabis. People who use cannabis or meth/amphetamine were more likely to use these drugs on a regular basis, with most people using them at least every few months (64%). Ecstasy or cocaine were more likely to be used infrequently, with many people only using the drug once or twice a year (54% and 71% respectively).
Among ordinary people who had used an illicit drug in their lifetime, most people aged 14 years or older reported trying illicit drugs because they were curious to see what it was like (66%).
In summary, Australia has a serious drug use problem that is responsible for many of our other big hard problems. The breadth of the destructive impacting upon our public health has to be seen to be believed. And then there are the safety implications of drug abuse and addiction, such as family disintegration, loss of employment, failure in school, domestic violence, and child abuse. The list goes on.
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