Drug addiction has plagued individuals, families and communities throughout the duration of modern history. While it is obvious that this issue must be properly addressed, it is even more starkly evident that the modern war on drugs and many mainstream methods of treatment are broken and failing.
In America and most other countries, drug addicts are punished, isolated from society and forced to endure modes of treatment that may or may not be effective. Logically, this has not resulted in lowered rates of drug use; in fact the punitive measures have caused the USA to become host to the world’s largest prison population, the majority of whom are jailed for non-violent drug-related offenses.
Alternately, Portugal has taken a controversial and groundbreaking approach to intervening with drug users: they have stopped casting them in the role of criminal, essentially legalizing certain aspects of drug use. This approach has reduced drug use by about half of what was witnessed in the 1990’s. As more progressive views are increasingly being given the spotlight in the field of chemical dependency treatment, exciting discoveries are being made.
Cutting Edge Scientific Discoveries Related to Addiction
Addiction is a disease that has been proven to be rooted in biological, psychological and social causes. Given that it is a systemically derived disease, meaning that it does not spring from one easily identified cause, scientific research gives us a unique perspective as to the physical changes that occur with chronic drug or alcohol use. It is still debatable as to whether addiction is caused by inherent differences in the brain of an addict or if substance abuse causes these changes to happen – a classic chicken-or-the-egg scenario.
Addiction’s Biological Components
Researchers at the Scripps Institute have found that a peptide called ghrelin, which plays a role in appetite stimulation, was present in higher levels in alcoholics compared to non-alcoholics. This suggests that addicts may experience an ever-present and nagging feeling of insatiability due to increased levels of appetite-inducing peptides. Although the study does not clarify whether this biological difference is caused by chronic alcohol consumption or is predetermined by genetics, it does offer a valid reason as to why addiction is not an existential hunger, but a real and physical sensation that is difficult to deny.
Another interesting study, conducted by renowned addiction researcher Nora Volkow, has also implicated the abnormal function of hunger and reward proteins in the development and continuation of addiction. Volkow has found that D2 receptors, responsible for determining an individual’s sensitivity to the pleasure-giving neurotransmitter dopamine, seem to be more sparsely distributed throughout the neurons of addicts, leading to decreased overall sensitivity to pleasure. This may explain why the stimulation of excessive dopamine production precipitated by drug use hooks people with a lack of D2 receptors. Interestingly, this deficiency is also related to obsessive-compulsive disorders, further reinforcing the thought that drug use can be partly accredited to compulsive, hard to control behaviors.
Psychological and Social Causes of Addiction
Although there are strong biological indicators that contribute to addiction, not everyone who possesses certain genetic markers will develop a problem with alcohol or drugs. Related psychological and social issues support the fact that addiction is not based in a moral or physical deficiency of any sort.
Author Johann Hari has sparked an important and thoughtful conversation regarding the true causes of addition with his new book, “Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.” He points out that despite the common assumption that drugs are the root and cause of addiction, the proverbial alarm that awakens a sleeping demon within a person’s genetics, the actual impetus is not lurking within the individual or substances. Instead, Hari argues, addiction is an socially derived adaptation to survive stressful and isolated situations.
A study by psychology professor Bruce Alexander perfectly illustrates Hari’s idea. In this study, rats were divided into 2 groups and given different environments with identical access to choose unadulterated water and water laced with addictive drugs. One group was placed in a luxurious cage, full of food, entertainment and other rats. The second group was placed into solitary confinement within individual barren cages, with only the water as a source of stimulation. Not surprisingly, the isolated rats who lived in the spartan environment became heavy users of the drugged water. The engaged and socialized rats experimented with the drugged water, but ultimately did not engage in continued use of it.
When the isolated rats were eventually placed with the happy and socialized rats, they soon ceased their heavy drug use and went back to living a well-adapted and normal rat life. This behavioral observation directly conflicts with the current view on drugs and addiction. Our society views addiction as either a moral deficit, physical flaw or sometimes a combination of the two. Systems isolate, punish and reject the addicted individual because of their behavior.
Drug users are jailed at extremely high rates causing further emotional trauma and social isolation. Upon release, they are largely shunned by society and often experience difficulties gaining employment and obtaining secure housing. In other words our current system adds insult to injury, further disconnecting those who have experienced isolation and putting them at increased risk for continuing their addictive behaviors.
Intelligence and Addiction
Children who possess above-average IQ scores seem to experience higher rates of alcohol and drug use as adults, but why?
How Do We Define Intelligence?
An IQ score is not representative of emotional intelligence, creativity, empathy or other factors that help people benefit from social situations. IQ tests measure a person’s ability to acquire, process and utilize new knowledge, but scores are not representative of emotional adaptability or versatility. As was noted in Alexander’s rat experiment, addiction seems to be largely predicated upon emotional isolation, lack of stimulation and of social connections.
Perhaps the subtler influences upon a person’s psyche are overlooked by common intelligence assessments. People who possess high IQs may suffer from cultural factors that those of average IQs do not experience, such as greater isolation, being misunderstood, intellectualizing their drug use or boredom. We are so very focused upon measurable achievements that we are overlooking the concept of holistic intelligence; the set of skills that allow us to navigate life happily and healthfully.
Addiction has historically been misunderstood, but individual, political and law enforcement views are slowly evolving to understand and treat this growing problem. Although many countries still have a lot of progress to make in terms of appropriately addressing drug abuse, intrepid researchers and progressive lawmakers are helping to break new ground in the realization of intrinsic problems that must be addressed in order to appropriately treat this important social issue.
Addiction is not a legal issue, it is an issue of disconnected individuals who lack social, employment, economic and familial support. Although helpful to individuals, twelve step programs nor medication will solve the problem of perception and addiction, only concentrated and compassionate efforts exercised on an individual level will yield any amount of measurable progress.