Addiction, by the way, is not the inevitable result of drug use. Addiction depends on the drug, the user, and the society in which the user lives. Rather than defining addiction in terms of the how much of or how often a drug is used, it is more useful to think in terms of behavior. If someone uses a drug, has clear and obvious problems as a result, and uses again, we think of this person as an addict. Problems may emerge with health, family, friends, work – even morals and values.
This process is sneaky. Users do not plan to become addicted, and usually they do not realize that they are becoming addicted until it is too late. Once someone is addicted, it takes a lot of effort to quit. To stop, an addict often needs help from family, counsellors, and the medical profession. Luckily, it is possible to recover from any addiction, no matter how long the drug has been used. That said, the less time the person has used the drug, the easier it will be to quit. It also helps to have plenty of friends or relatives who are non-users.
When someone uses a drug of this sort, it works on the brain to give a feeling of pleasure. The nature of the pleasure varies depending on the drug. Marijuana often makes people relaxed. Heroin gives a sensation of peace and withdrawal from pain and problems, while cocaine and crystal meth make the user feel powerful, successful and sexy.
After a drug has been used once, two things happen. First, if the experience was pleasant, the person will want to use it again. This is natural – if you try skiing and like it, you will want to ski again. Second, the brain will start to modify the experience. It is as if the brain says, “I should not be feeling this good – I’ll find a way of reducing how good I feel.” Various mechanisms kick in, and the drug no longer makes the person feel quite as satisfied. Usually, the reaction is to take more of the drug to recapture the feel of the first time. Of course, the brain then says, “I turned the volume down, and I still feel too good – I’d better turn the volume down a bit more.”
The user has no power over these adjustments, which are made by mechanisms that cannot be directly controlled. Once the brain has made this adjustment, there are other consequences. First, pleasure centres (reward pathways) in the brain become less able to respond. This means that other things that normally would give pleasure no longer do so.
It is often puzzling to see how an addict can change from being an enthusiastic athlete or devoted to relationships to someone who doesn’t care about sports or family. The reward pathways are now only sensitive to stimulation provided by the drug. Other activities no longer give pleasure. When a drug is first used, it produces a very good feeling. Once the user has become addicted, the drug is needed just to feel normal.
When an addict finally tries to stop using the drug, the experience is often very uncomfortable. At this point, nothing can stimulate the brain to make the person feel happy. Since normal activities no longer work, the only thing that gives pleasure is the drug that the addict wants to stop using. It is not surprising that early in recovery addicts feel hopeless! However, once the brain starts to heal, the recovering addict begins to take pleasure in normal experiences again.
Still, recovery takes a long time. Even if the brain has made a full recovery, the addict will remember how good the drug felt at the beginning. It is common for recovering addicts to feel bored, depressed or isolated. They are not weak or bad. Since the brain has been rewired, it takes time and effort to recover.
Recently, the problem has taken on new dimensions. For a long time, we thought the brain finished developing by the age of about eight. All it needed to become fully mature was teaching and experience. We now know that many major changes take place in the brain during adolescence. Using drugs can affect these changes and have a bad influence on behavior for the rest of one’s life.
Most adolescents experiment and it is likely that a brief experience with alcohol and other drugs will not do any lasting harm. However, there is still a risk. If the experience feels good, it is easy to try the drug again. Teenagers who use any mood-altering drug heavily may impair their ability to function later in life. Once they decide to quit or cut down, it is often far more difficult than they imagined.
What about specific drugs? Here is an interesting statistic: the total cost of drug abuse in Canada is about $18 billion per year, $4 billion of which is direct health care. Of this, 90 per cent is from the use of alcohol and tobacco. In other words, heroin, pot, meth, ecstasy, crack and other drugs only amount to 10 per cent of the total financial problem.
Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse (CCSA):
The US National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA):
Some may find these sites a bit alarmist but the information is sound and useful.
For provincial treatment resource information contact:
your area health authority
Alberta - Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission
www.aadac.com or 1-866-33AADAC
for Alcohol & Drug Services contact your
regional health authority or
Addictions Foundation of Manitoba
Of the illegal drugs, the most widespread is undoubtedly marijuana. The drug is significantly more potent than it used to be. Despite this fact, most people who smoke marijuana use the drug like social drinkers and would not be considered addicts. If they have trouble, it is more likely to be legal than mental or physical. Some people assume this means marijuana is safe. It is probably true that someone who smokes occasionally will not suffer mental or physical harm. However, daily or continuous use is risky, especially for adolescents. Some users do become addicted to marijuana but deny it, although everyone else can see their reduced ability to function.
While most users who are addicted to other drugs may have tried marijuana first, it is unlikely that it is truly a gateway drug. When it comes to the legal issues surrounding marijuana, the question is not whether the drug is safe; it is not. Rather, think about whether the proposed laws will make the situation better for both the user and society in general.
There is a wide range of other drugs, each of which carries its own risks. Recently, the use of ‘crystal meth’ (methamphetamine) has jumped. This is an ugly drug. The early effects are very pleasurable and it is easy to become addicted. Crystal meth can seriously affect mental and physical health. Some of the problems last for long periods of time. This drug and ‘ecstasy,’ which is chemically similar, may produce brain damage.
In general, those who have experimented with street drugs and become addicts need help more than anger and rejection. An addict once told me, “You don’t need to beat up on drug addicts – they spend most of their lives beating up on themselves!” Plenty of agencies can help. They are often staffed by those who have been there and recovered. Health care providers are also becoming better trained in the area of addictions.
If you have trouble controlling your use of any drugs (remember, alcohol is a drug!), or if a friend or relative is having problems, get help. A professional agency, especially those run by provincial governments, can advise you. Of course, the best advice is that offered by the old trout to the young trout – ‘If you don’t bite, you’ll never get hooked!’