In the interest of being subjective, it’s important to see addiction from a more medical, scientifically-accurate point of view. An addiction occurs on two levels – usually when we describe an addiction, it’s a behavioral issue that has to do with compulsive consumption or a substance despite clear harm. For example, an alcoholic might be endangering the lives of their loved ones and causing problems at work, but that might not stop them from drinking. There’s a mental wall created where the addiction isn’t to blame, and addicts may try to shift the blame for problems on other things.
There’s a reason addiction correlates more highly with emotional and mental vulnerability, especially in cases of mental disorders like depression, anxiety, and ADD. It’s natural to want to feel better, especially with a condition that implies sadness. And addictions are often – not always – developed to cope with those negative feelings.
Addiction isn’t just purely something of the mind. Another “kind” of addiction is physical dependence, which is an entirely chemical process that doesn’t have much to do with behavior, or emotional vulnerability.
Drug Use Isn’t Addiction
Since we mentioned being medical, it’s also important to note that drug use isn’t addiction. It’s too easy to vilify substances and become single-minded in a crusade against drugs, but that isn’t a great solution to the society-wide issue of addiction. You don’t solve addiction just by attacking poppy farmers, opium producers and drug dealers. It’s a deeper issue.
As an example: there are many reasons not to do cocaine. One is the possible damage it causes to the nasal cavity. Another is the risk of overdose, especially in a social setting where peer pressure is high, or where it’s easy to lose track of time and consumption. There’s also the very glaring issue that cocaine is highly illegal, and possessing it is a criminal offense.
However, not all instances of cocaine use predict addiction. For example, heroin, an extremely potent form of opium usually injected, has a first-time addiction rate of about 23%. Going back a few decades, cocaine use in the 1970s was culturally glamorous. The drug and related paraphernalia had its own commercials, and one popular publication even asserted that cocaine was not an addictive substance. Today, cocaine remains a valid medical tool, used topically in limited forms. As such, it’s classified as Schedule II – a U.S. Controlled Substances Act classification which makes it medically-relevant, even if restricted.
It’s better to understand addiction without the implication of illegality or criminality – just from a purely chemical standpoint. Consider this: caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, cocaine, opium and amphetamine are all addictive substances, with varying levels of legality and associated morality. It’s possible to get addicted to certain behavior, as well – and people can develop a nasty sugar addiction to feed their emotional needs just as much as others abuse nicotine to destress. The sugar-drug analogy even has some merit, as we’re evolved to look for relatively sugar in the food around us to consume as many calories as possible (in preparation for possible periods of involuntary fasting, for example).
However, not all smokers, not all coffee drinkers, and certainly not all cereal fans are addicts. Some drugs are far more potent in creating addicts than others. Crystal meth and heroin come to mind as extremely dangerous drugs, but cigarettes, benzodiazepines and prescription drugs are also alarmingly addictive. Alcohol is more addictive than cocaine, and coffee makes the list somewhere low.
Addiction Is Addiction
Our definition of criminality and addictive substances is based partially on culture, partially on politics, and partially on facts. As an example, cocaine is far more addictive than a substance like marijuana, and has extremely limited use as an anesthetic.
Yet despite the medical and pharmaceutical potential for cannabis, especially valid in the light of studies that show marijuana’s use in seizure and epileptic treatment, it continues to be a Schedule I drug and accounts for over 620,000 arrests per year, with no known overdoses and limited documentation on related traffic accidents. Alcohol, on the other hand, is more addictive than cannabis, accounts for roughly 88,000 deaths per year, yet we’re much laxer about its use. We’ve tried banning it before, with historical failures.
The idea is not to advocate any addictive substance. Neither do we propose any legal solution, or advocate for the banning of all addictive substances/the legalizing of all addictive substances. Instead, it’s to be subjective. Addiction is an individual matter, and the substance is only partially to blame – other more worrying factors include mental disorders like anxiety and depression, socioeconomic conditions, and uncontrollable factors such as being at the wrong party at the right time. When we talk about addiction, it’s important to understand how complicated getting addicted really is.
The Clear Distinction Between Emotional & Physical
Going back to the split between addiction as a behavioral affliction and a coping mechanism, and physical dependency, someone struggling with an addictive substance can develop one or the other, or both. And both require different yet combined treatment models to overcome.
Physical dependency happens with the body builds a tolerance to a specific addictive substance, and to overcome that tolerance and feel the full effects of the reward – the high – you take higher doses. Eventually, the body relies on the drug to feel good at all. Without it, you undergo withdrawal. Depending on the drug, withdrawal can range from discomfort and nausea to death. In this case, addictiveness isn’t a reliable factor for danger – opium withdrawals are tame compared to the dangers of an alcohol withdrawal, for example.
The medical treatment for a dependency is a detoxification – and rehab. Highly experienced drug users know how to “come down” from their addiction to avoid the worst of a withdrawal and at the same time avoid building too much of a tolerance, balancing their drug use responsibly to survive their addiction. In other cases, the curse of tolerance leads to the inevitability of a fatal overdose, or enough of an overdose to warrant hospitalization and forced detox.
It’s a deadly cycle, and not many have the resources or knowledge to survive it for very long. One way or another, an addiction will get to you in the end. Unless, of course, you end it first.