Drug addiction is a compulsive drive to take drugs despite there being potentially serious and dangerous consequences. For decades drug addiction has been seen as negative choice for an individual to make, and has been viewed as a voluntary choice by the addict. However, recent studies have shown that it is not simply a choice whether or not we become a drug addict; it involves many genetic and environmental factors. This relatively new knowledge of addiction should bring about changes in our approach to the prevention and treatment of addiction, and how we as a society should handle addiction.
"Scientific research into addiction . . . has led experts to conclude that addiction is actually a disease, a chronic illness like diabetes or hypertension." (Janet Firshein, n.d) It seems like it has been going on forever, the universal attitude towards addiction has been one of criticism. Addiction has always been seen as a personal failure, one that resulted from the lack of moral principles and willpower, or simply "letting yourself go", and although addiction has not entirely lost its shame, an increase in scientific research has improved many of society’s views on addiction, and has helped to create an understanding of the problem. One major development in addiction research is the theory that addiction is essentially a biological phenomenon. As Alan I. Leshner puts it, addiction is "literally a disease of the brain."(Alan I. Leshner,n.d, Addiction as a Brain Disease: What the Research Shows)
According to the classic definition, addiction refers to the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming, as narcotics, to an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma. (Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition) There are two characterizing features of addiction, firstly is tolerance, the need for higher doses of a substance in order to produce the same effects, and secondly the occurrence of withdrawal symptoms upon quitting.
For over a decade, addiction researchers have insisted that alcoholism has a genetic basis.
Alcohol dependence in humans is clearly influenced by genes as well as environmental factors. There is clearly an increased risk for severe alcohol-related problems in children of alcoholics . . . even if they have been raised without knowledge of their biological parents’ problems. (John Crabbe, n.d, retrieved from: Researchers Find Gene Regions Linked with Predisposition to Drug Addiction)
Although research shows that a person’s genetics contribute to a drug addiction the initial decision to take drugs is a personal choice. However, when a drug addiction takes over a person’s life, an individual’s ability to apply self-control can become damaged. Brain imaging studies from drug-addicted individuals show physical changes in areas of the brain that are critical to judgment, decision-making, learning and memory, and behaviour control. Scientists believe that these changes alter the way the brain works, and may help explain the compulsive and destructive behaviors of addiction. Addictions are a disease, and like any other disease vulnerability to addiction differ for each individual. No single factor determines whether a person will become addicted to drugs, the overall risk for addiction is impacted by genetics and the biological makeup of an individual, it can even be influenced by gender or ethnicity, his or her developmental stage, and the surrounding social environment (conditions at home, at school, and in the neighborhood), one individual can smoke cigarettes and never become addicted to nicotine, while another may smoke once or twice and develop a nicotine addiction, and this can be due to the different levels of stress the individual experiences, home life, school life, and genetics. This does not mean that one person is better than the other, or that one person has more self-control than the other, it simply means that each individual has different environmental and genetic factors that make them more or less susceptible to addiction. (Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction, 2010)
So what does environment have to do with addiction? Is it nature or nurture? Well in the case of addiction it is nature and nurture, research shows that an individual’s health is the result of cooperation’s between genes and environmental conditions. An example of this would be we can become more sensitive to illness such as heart disease if we tend to eat a lot of red meat and dairy. Environmental influences, such as vulnerability to drugs or stress, can convert both gene expression and gene function; these effects may continue throughout an individual’s life, there has also been research showing that genes can also influence how a person responds to his or her environment, placing some individuals at higher risk than others.
While many believe that an addiction is an individual and personal matter, it is also a large concern for society as a whole as well. Canadians estimated that 28 percent of the population is living with an addiction to drugs or alcohol, (Canada Speaks, 2012) and substance abuse and addiction have horrible consequences on our existing social systems; effecting crime rates, hospitalizations, child abuse, and child neglect, and are rapidly consuming public funds. Many families of addicts tend to deny that there is a problem in the first place and unintentionally help the addict and their dependency by providing help so they can continue using drugs (such as providing money to the addict). As the addict continues into a downward spiral of life as a drug dependent, personal relationships are pushed and stretched to the limit, as many members of the addict’s family often feel guilt or anger towards the addict and their behaviours. Drug abuse often becomes too much for family members to cope with, and as a result the addict is usually forced to leave home. Unfortunately the effects do not stop there, as addicts fail to show up for work, costing employers millions of dollars a year due to absence and workplace negligence, and many long-term addicts eventually run out of money to support their habits, as they can no longer find work or keep themselves employed, and thus a life of crime becomes a an alternative to obtaining money, costing society millions of dollars in legal fees and social welfare programs. (Drug Rehab Advice Centre, n.d)
The common misperception (of people with addictions) is that they don’t want to change, that it’s their fault, that they’re like this now and they’ll be like this forever. I think that people don’t see the pain and suffering that these men have. There are reasons why they’ve turned to substances to cope with life." (Dorothée Balladur, n.d, retrieved from: Canada Speaks 2012)
As a society we need to take action to help prevent drug addiction, and aid in the knowledge and understanding of drug addiction, and as a society need to take the responsibility to help people with drug addiction, and provide proper treatment for them. Attitudes in society about prevention of drug addiction have a very wide range, with many people believing that using illegal drugs (and even alcohol) is unacceptable in a society. Other individuals believe that drug use can be an acceptable way to aid in living a smooth sailing life. In most society’s, individuals tend to fall in between the two extremes. What we also see in society is that while some drugs (such as alcohol and tobacco) have been associated with mainstream society, and thus are generally accepted, most other drugs (such as cocaine and heroin) are not openly used, and are associated with the criminal underworld. (Richard Wilson, Cheryl Kolander, 1999) The most effective way to prevent addiction is to primarily protect individuals who have not yet begun to use substances, we can do this by having speeches about addiction done in schools and universities, effectively deal with peer pressure, and find healthy ways to deal with stress. Secondarily is early intervention, this is when we intervene with individuals who are in the early stages of developing a drug addiction, and reduce or eliminate the use of drugs. Lastly is treatment, this is when we end the substance abuse and addiction this is done through treatment and rehabilitation. (Kumpfer, K. L., Williams, M. K., & Baxley, 1997)
In order for we as a society, to strive we must change our views on addictions and people with drug addictions. We cannot continue to live with the idea that people with drug addictions choose to live their lives in that way. Our ignorance needs to stop, and we must develop new and easily accessible means for people with drug addictions to receive and find the help they need. We need to put more time, money, and effort into creating and pursing ways to prevent addictions, if we develop the means to prevent the majority of addictions that occur, we will no longer need to focus on time for the treatment of addictions. The key to preventing someone from developing an addiction is to educate them. NIDA-funded research have shown that prevention programs involving families, schools, communities, and the media are effective in reducing drug abuse, when individuals perceive drug abuse as harmful or are educated on the consequences of drug use, they reduce the amount of drugs they take, or halt the use of drugs altogether. Thus, education and outreach are key in helping youth and the general public understand the risks of drug abuse. (DrugFacts: Understanding Drug Abuse and Addiction, 2011)