In 2010, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), an estimated three million Americans 12 and older used an illicit drug for the very first time. They may have been given the drug by a friend or family member, or they may have purchased that drug from a dealer on the street. For some of these people, this drug use was a one-time, unique event. They took the drug, and they never plan to use drugs ever again. But for some people, this initial taste of drugs progresses to drug abuse, and that drug abuse can lead to drug addiction.
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The term “drug” can refer to almost anything, including caffeine, nicotine and aspirin. When discussing the word “drug” in an addiction context, however, it’s defined more narrowly as a substance that can cause changes in the user’s nervous system. These changes can lead to addiction.
All of these drugs work differently, causing the user to feel different sensations, both while under the influence and in the days that follow. Some people prefer to use only one drug, while others mix and match their usage of these drugs, trying to build a customized experience.
Starting a Cycle
Whenever a person takes in one of these substances, it’s obviously considered drug use. Crossing the line from drug use to drug abuse can be a bit harder to define. Using the example of prescription medications may help to make this differentiation a bit easier to understand. According to an article published by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a person who takes a prescription medication as it is prescribed by the doctor is simply using the medication. But, there are several instances where that use could become abuse. If the user takes a higher dose of the medication than is recommended, that is considered abuse. Similarly, if the person takes the drug for a condition for which it has not been prescribed, that is also abuse. A person taking painkillers at high doses in order to feel a buzz or high is abusing those painkillers.
This definition is a bit difficult to extend to illicit drugs such as heroin and cocaine. After all, these drugs are never prescribed by a physician, and therefore, there are no real instructions to follow and no conditions to treat. However, the definition might still work with a few modifications. A casual user of an illicit drug may take a small dose periodically on a recreational basis. An abuser of an illicit drug may take extremely high doses of the drug in order to feel an overwhelming response.
To give another example: A person drinking one glass of wine is a user of alcohol. A person who drinks an entire bottle of wine in one setting may be an abuser of alcohol. It’s a matter of degree. Abusers are taking in too much of the substance at each sitting.
People who abuse drugs are flooding their bodies with chemicals, and this flood of chemicals can begin to cause chemical and structural changes in the brain and the nervous system. People who abuse heroin, for example, change the way the body releases and responds to brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. Over time, the body becomes accustomed to functioning only when heroin is present. The body also begins to make adjustments requiring the user to take in higher doses of heroin in order to feel the same impact of the drug. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), this is called drug dependence, and it’s not the same as addiction. Someone who is dependent on a drug has undergone chemical changes that can lead to addiction, but it cannot yet be called addiction.
Someone who is addicted to a drug feels a compulsion to use that drug, no matter the consequences. The person may know that the drug use is harmful, and the person may even want to stop using drugs altogether, but the compulsion requires the drug user to keep using.
These terms are important to understand, as they provide the key to stopping the cycle of addiction. If a user begins by using drugs, then becomes dependent on them and then becomes addicted to them, stopping drug use could lead to stopping an addiction from forming.
Is Addiction Inevitable?
While the link between drug abuse and drug addiction is quite clear, not everyone who abuses drugs develops a drug addiction. The chemical changes caused by drug abuse are compelling, but often, a user needs a variety of other factors in order to develop a true drug addiction. According to the NIDA, a person’s genes account for about half of their susceptibility to addiction. If you have the right set of genes, addiction becomes much more likely than if you do not have this set of genes. Similarly, the environment in which the person lives plays a strong role in whether or not addiction develops.
While addiction may not be inevitable for all people, it should still be considered a serious consequence of drug abuse. People who abuse drugs are making a gamble with their long-term health, and it’s quite possible that this is a gamble that they could lose.
Drug abuse is illegal in the United States. People who abuse heroin, cocaine or other banned substances could be fined or jailed for even having the substances in their possession, as can people who have prescription medications in their possession with no valid prescription to explain their possession. The costs to the community can also be intense, as tax dollars must be spent on finding and prosecuting people who break the law in this manner. To give just one example, people who abuse methamphetamine sometimes manufacture the drug in their own homes. Making methamphetamine is a dangerous and messy process that can contaminate the air, water and ground. According to the U.S. National Drug Intelligence Center, the average cost to clean up a methamphetamine laboratory is $1,900, and an average of 9,777 meth labs are reported each year. The cost to the community due to these illegal behaviors is immense.
Drug abuse also puts the user at serious risk for overdose. People who abuse drugs, and who take in high doses of those drugs as a result, skirt a very fine line between feeling the effects they desire and overwhelming their systems, shutting down their breathing and heart rates altogether. In addition, many illicit drugs come with no sort of purity rating whatsoever, making it difficult for the user to know how much of an active dose he or she is taking in at one time. A user who is accustomed to buying an impure form of heroin, and who switches dealers and buys a pure form, may overdose if he/she uses the same amount of the drug. Since these substances aren’t regulated in any way, it’s difficult to know how much is too much.
- Infections of the heart and lungs
- Kidney failure
Sometimes, it’s relatively easy to identify people who abuse drugs. They may leave drug-related paraphernalia around the house, seem altered on multiple occasions or boast about the experiences they’ve had while using drugs. Other people may abuse drugs in private for years, with their use only coming to light when they’ve been in a car accident or they’ve been taken to the hospital with drug-related health issues.
Anyone who is using illicit substances should stop taking them immediately, no matter whether they’re just casual users or regular abusers. These substances can simply be too dangerous to take even one time, and the threat of law enforcement action is too large to ignore. But motivating someone to stop drug abuse may be difficult, especially if that person doesn’t think that the use is “a problem.”
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration recommends asking the person the following types of questions:
- Are drugs impacting your ability to do your job?
- Is your health at risk due to your drug use?
- Do you feel the need to use drugs to get through the day?
- What would your life be like without drugs?
- Have other people mentioned that you might have a problem with drugs?
These open-ended questions encourage the drug abuser to think hard about the drug use, and how that use might be interfering with the drug user’s long-term goals. It can be an effective way to start the conversation.
Some drug abusers have these conversations with their doctors. Their drug use may pop up on routine blood and urine screenings, for example, or the drug abuser may face health problems due to drug abuse. In a way, this is an ideal place to have a discussion about drug abuse. According to an article published by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, there are a variety of tests that doctors can use to diagnose drug abuse, and these tests often have clear-cut results that are hard to ignore. For example, if a patient answers “yes” to six questions on the Drug and Alcohol Program Quick Screen, most doctors would consider that patient a problem user of drugs or alcohol. For people who don’t believe that they have an issue with drugs, being faced with clear test results could be a great way to break down that denial.
Some people who abuse drugs can simply stop, once they understand that their drug abuse is serious and can impact their long-term health. Other people may need help to move from abusing drugs to living a life without drugs. They may face unpleasant physical symptoms such as nausea or sweating when they stop using drugs, or they may struggle with cravings for the drugs that don’t seem to abate with the passage of time. These people may benefit from addiction treatment programs, provided on a short-term basis. These people may not have true chemical addictions to the drugs, but they may still benefit from working with a counselor, so they can understand how drug abuse works, why it is dangerous, and how they can keep cravings in check using the power of the mind and positive thinking.
Our programs at Axis may help these people get back on track and recover from their addiction concerns. At our beautiful facility, they will step away from their lives and their temptations and focus on getting better. Please call us today to find out more about our programs for drug abuse and addiction.