Drug Addiction

Drug addiction is a growing concern in the United States. People often use drugs as an outlet for their problems, although drug use creates its own problems over time. Drug addiction not only affects a person’s health and relationships, but also impacts society and the environment. There are numerous treatment options to guide people toward a sober and healthy life.

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Fast Facts: Drug Addiction

22.7 million
Americans needed treatment for a drug or alcohol problem in 2013
2.5 million
Americans received treatment for a drug or alcohol abuse problem at a specialty facility in 2013
27 million
Americans 12 or older were current illicit drug users in 2014
2.5 percent
of Americans 12 or older misused pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants or sedatives in 2013

Drug addiction is a chronic brain disease. It tricks the brain into thinking that drugs are essential despite negative consequences. Addiction compels individuals to go to great lengths to acquire their drugs of abuse.

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In 2013, more than half of new illicit drug users were under 18 years of age, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. While initial drug use is voluntary and typically begins with experimentation, repeated use can affect a person’s self-control, inducing cravings. These cravings often drive an ongoing addiction.

Types of Addictive Drugs

Illicit drug use has been on the rise since 2002.

According to a 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health report, 10.2 percent of the American population were past month users of illicit drugs, with marijuana and prescription opioid misuse leading the charts.

Illicit drugs comprise opioids, depressants, stimulants, hallucinogens and cannabis.


The term opioids describes natural opiates, such as morphine, and synthetic drugs made from opium. These drugs are used medically as pain relievers. They work by binding to opioid receptors in the brain and other organs in the body, reducing an individual’s perception of pain. Opioids include heroin and opium as well as prescription medications such as fentanyl, oxycodone and methadone.

Some commonly abused opioids include:

  • Heroin
  • Codeine
  • Hydrocodone
  • Methadone
  • Fentanyl
  • Morphine
  • Oxycodone

Given the high potential for abuse of opioids, prolonged misuse of heroin or prescription drugs may lead to an opioid use disorder.

Signs of an Opioid Drug Addiction

Nearly 2.5 million Americans 12 or older suffered from an opioid use disorder in 2014, per ASAM. Opioid addiction may weaken an individual’s immune system, and it causes gastrointestinal issues that can lead to malnutrition.

Some symptoms of an opioid addiction include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Constricted pupils
  • Slurred speech
  • Respiratory depression
  • Coma

In some cases, opioid users will experience withdrawal symptoms. These include nausea, sleeplessness, restlessness, pain and drug cravings.

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Heroin, an illegal opioid synthesized from morphine, claimed the lives of 10,574 Americans in 2014. Because it is the fastest-acting opiate, heroin has a high potential for abuse. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), an estimated 23 percent of heroin users become addicted to opioids.

Physical dependence on the drug often causes long-term heroin users to experience traumatic withdrawal effects if they do not get the regular dosage. Heroin also poses serious public health threats; needle sharing and other unhygienic behaviors put people at a higher risk of contracting hepatitis, HIV or AIDS.



Depressants, also known as CNS depressants, slow down brain activity to put the body in a state of extreme relaxation. Misuse occurs when people take high doses to achieve euphoria or use the drugs with alcohol or other drugs to enhance their effects. Sexual predators also use depressants such as GHB and Rohypnol to take advantage of their victims.

Commonly abused depressants include:

Depressant abuse may slow down the user’s breathing enough to cause death.

Signs of a Depressant Drug Addiction

People are quick to develop a tolerance to CNS depressants when they are used for a long time. Abruptly halting their use may lead to severe withdrawal symptoms.

Some side effects of depressants include:

  • Amnesia
  • Reduced reaction time
  • Weakness, headache and lightheadedness
  • Impaired judgment
  • Slurred speech
  • Slowed breathing

Due to the life-threatening withdrawal symptoms of depressants, people should seek professional help to ease themselves off the drug safely.



Stimulants make people more attentive, alert and energetic. Typically used to treat conditions such as ADHD and narcolepsy, stimulants have a high potential for abuse. A stimulant addiction may lead to dangerously high fevers, cardiovascular failure or seizures.

Commonly abused stimulants include:

  • Amphetamines
  • Cocaine
  • Methamphetamine

Stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin are popular among students, who use them to enhance their academic performance.

Signs of a Stimulant Drug Addiction

Stimulant users tend to develop a rapid tolerance to the drugs. Addiction occurs when people become fixated on achieving the same high they did the first time they took a stimulant. However, this behavior may put them at risk of overdosing.

A few signs of a stimulant addiction include:

  • Dizziness
  • Tremors
  • Headache
  • Excessive sweating
  • Vomiting and abdominal cramps

Long-term abuse of stimulants may cause hostility, paranoia and psychosis.



Naturally or synthetically derived, hallucinogens cause sensory distortions. Although little is known about hallucinogen dependence, prolonged use may cause people to experience hallucination flashbacks long after taking these drugs.

Commonly used hallucinogens include:

  • Ecstasy (MDMA)
  • K2 (Spice)
  • LSD
  • Ketamine
  • Psilocybin (mushrooms)
  • Peyote (mescaline)

Hallucinogens such as LSD and MDMA are popular among high school students.

Signs of a Hallucinogen Drug Addiction

The effects of hallucinogens may start within the first hour and a half of consumption. They can last from six to 12 hours.

Common signs of a hallucinogen addiction include:

  • Dry mouth
  • Spiritual experiences
  • Excessive sweating
  • Panic
  • High blood pressure or body temperature
  • Paranoia
  • Psychosis

Some hallucinogens, such as PCP, can be addictive and present withdrawal symptoms.



Primarily consumed as marijuana, cannabis is a sedative with hallucinogenic properties. Marijuana use has soared since 2007. A SAMHSA survey on drug use found that 19.8 million Americans admitted to being current marijuana users in 2013 compared to 14.5 million people in 2007. More than 50 percent of new illicit drug users start with marijuana.

Researchers have associated cannabis use with brain damage and memory impairment. According to their reports, the continual use of marijuana contributes to slow reaction times and mental processes.

Signs of a Cannabis Drug Addiction

One of the obvious signs of a cannabis use is the smell. Users tend to mask the scent using cologne, incense or perfume.

Some signs of a marijuana addiction include:

  • Daily or long-time use
  • Continued use even when it interferes with daily life
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not taking the drug

Users can experience withdrawal symptoms in the form of mood swings, nervousness, sleeping troubles and cravings.

Signs of a Drug Addiction

The signs of addiction vary from drug to drug. Some drugs take longer to produce noticeable symptoms. In some cases, the symptoms blend in with normal behaviors, making it difficult to tell that the person is addicted. Common signs of addiction include needle marks on the arms of people who inject drugs and constant nose sores on people who snort drugs.

General signs of a drug addiction
Behavioral Symptoms Physical Symptoms
Fluctuation in energy levels Drowsiness and nausea
Aggressive mood swings Slurred speech and memory trouble
Distance from family and friends Lack of awareness and coordination
Questionable new friends Confusion, anxiety and depression
Chronic health issues that worsen with drug use Red eyes with constricted or dilated pupils
Desire to continually use drugs despite consequences High blood pressure and breathing issues
Violation of morals and values to acquire the drug Chills, sweating and tremors
Negative effects on professional and personal life Hallucinations, delusions or paranoia
Cravings and withdrawal symptoms Involuntary twitching of the eye

Identifying a drug problem is often the first step toward recovery. However, because of the severe withdrawal symptoms of some drugs, people should seek professional help to aid in their recovery.

Why Do People Use Drugs?

People use drugs for various reasons, but they do not start taking drugs with the intention of becoming dependent on them. Although the first-time use is voluntary, continual use is often the result of physical changes in the brain.

Erik, a student in recovery from addiction, discusses why he used drugs.

Drugs affect the brain’s reward system by producing an excess of dopamine, the chemical responsible for pleasurable feelings. Our brains are wired to make sure we repeat rewarding activities, including those associated with drug use. Feelings of pleasure from drug use cause the brain to associate drugs with rewards, which causes cravings.

Some reasons for drug use include:

  • Feeling good
  • Self-medicating
  • Enhancing performance
  • Fitting in

Over time, drug use can diminish self-control, making it difficult for people to stop.

Environmental Factors

Drugs provide a temporary sense of accomplishment, euphoric sensations and an overall feeling of self-confidence and satisfaction. Numerous factors at home or school can promote drug abuse.

Parental behaviors play an important role in whether a child experiments with drugs later in life. An unstable family environment with a lack of parental supervision often leads to neglected children. Quality of life can also influence drug addiction. Living in an impoverished community can increase the risk for drug abuse.

People ridden with stress and anxiety may feel the need to self-medicate with cannabis, stimulants or other drugs to lessen their worries. They assume that regular consumption of a drug will alleviate their problems. Similarly, some students and athletes take performance-enhancing drugs to keep up with the pressure of consistently playing well.

Adolescents are vulnerable to social pressure from their substance-using peers. Teens are impressionable and spend a lot of time with their peers. Those who use drugs often push their peers to experiment. According to NIDA, the majority of first-time drug users are in their teens.

Biological Factors

According to NIDA, genetic factors are responsible for 40 to 60 percent of a person’s vulnerability to drug addiction. Studies show that a person’s predisposition to drug addiction positively correlates to their degree of genetic similarity to a relative who has a history of drug dependence or addiction. Mental disorders and medical conditions are also risk factors.

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Consequences of Drug Abuse

Substance abuse has negative consequences that affect more than just the individual. Illicit drugs cost the United States about $193 billion every year in lost productivity, health costs and crime-related costs.


The most direct repercussion of drug abuse is a decline in health. Death is the ultimate price of a substance use disorder. There is a drug-induced death in the United States every 13 minutes, according to a 2014 report by the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

One of the major health concerns related to drug use is a lack of hygienic practices, which can lead to the contraction of HIV, AIDS and hepatitis.

Other health-related issues drug users may experience include:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Stroke
  • Cancer
  • Lung disease
  • Mental disorders
  • Neonatal abstinence syndrome (withdrawal symptoms in the babies of drug addicts)

In 2011, more than 1.3 million patients visited the emergency department for a drug-related incident. Cocaine was involved in more than half a million visits.


Illicit drug use and production have a negative impact on society and the environment.

Methamphetamine drug labs are responsible for:

  • Chemical toxicity risks to people who live nearby
  • Risk of fire or explosion to houses in the immediate vicinity
  • Long-term effects of toxic waste on the environment

Cleaning a laboratory that produces methamphetamines is costly. Rehabilitating children who have been exposed to chemicals used to make meth requires special training and resources. This takes time and labor that officials could spend on other issues.

Drug users rarely consider the dangers of improperly disposing of drugs or paraphernalia. The disposal of needles and drug-related materials contributes to environmental pollution.

Illicit drug users need intensive treatment after prolonged drug use. In 2012, 23.1 million substance users needed treatment, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Treatment for drug addiction can affect the cost of social services and government resources, increasing the burden on taxpayers.


New behavioral patterns that stem from drug use can harm relationships. Procuring their drug of choice becomes the drug user’s primary concern. This often leads them to steal from their friends, family or workplace to afford more drugs, which damages trust among their peers.

Parents who use drugs often neglect or abuse their children. Poor familial conditions are harmful to children and may pave the way for future drug use.

Teenage drug abusers rarely graduate from school as a result of poor academic performance. Their academic and social skills suffer, causing tension within the family. They often distance themselves from friends and gravitate toward their substance-using peers.


Drug addiction can predispose people to commit crimes. It is illegal to acquire or possess illicit drugs, and people often resort to theft or other crimes to pay for them.

Research shows drug use is more common among arrestees than the general population. The Office of National Drug Control Policy reported that 63 to 83 percent of people arrested in five major metropolitan areas in 2013 tested positive for at least one illicit drug. The three most common drugs present during tests were marijuana, cocaine and opiates, and many people tested positive for multiple drugs.

Furthermore, a 2004 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey among inmates in correctional facilities showed that 32 percent of state inmates and 26 percent of federal prisoners revealed that they were under the influence of drugs when they committed the offense for which they were arrested.

Quiz: Am I a Drug Addict?

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Seeking Help for Drug Addiction

Treating a drug use disorder is not easy. Long-term drug use can change the brain in such a way that it becomes incapable of discerning when it needs to stop. Specialized treatment can break the cycle of drug abuse and the dangerous behaviors that ensue.

Nanci Stockwell of Advanced Recovery Systems explains the importance of receiving professional treatment for drug addiction.

Treatment extends far beyond stopping drug use. In some cases, the withdrawal period may be life-threatening, hence requiring medical supervision.

  1. Detoxification
  2. Behavioral counseling
  3. Medication-assisted treatment
  4. Evaluation and treatment for co-occurring disorders
  5. Long-term plan for relapse prevention

Every patient has different treatment needs, so it is important to have a specialized treatment plan.

Some people may resist drug treatment and refuse to go to a rehabilitation facility. If necessary, family members, employers or the criminal justice system can require them to get treatment.

Drug addiction behavioral therapy and counseling session

Behavioral Therapy

Behavioral therapies are beneficial to recovering patients because they can help change one’s perspective regarding their former drug use and life. Therapists also promote healthy and positive life practices and recommend medication when necessary to aid in detox and treatment.

Outpatient Behavioral Treatment

Outpatient programs can be beneficial for people who want to be around their friends and family while they receive substance abuse treatment.

These programs offer individual and group counseling, including:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy: This therapy teaches patients how to identify and react to addiction triggers in a positive way.
  • Multidimensional family therapy: This family-based approach focuses on adolescent drug use and involves parents to promote group healing.
  • Motivational interviewing: Using this approach, therapists help patients explore their inner motivations to change their drug-using behavior and disregard for the dangers of substance abuse.
  • Motivational incentives: Therapists use positive reinforcement to encourage patients to stay away from drugs.

Outpatient programs typically occur several times weekly; however, they can decrease in frequency depending on the patient’s progress.

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Inpatient Treatment

Inpatient treatment, also known as residential treatment, provides severely dependent patients with a safe haven and round-the-clock services. Daily therapy sessions may be beneficial to people suffering from co-occurring disorders.

Residential treatment may involve therapeutic communities where patients stay at the facility for six to 12 months. A treatment staff and other patients in recovery provide the appropriate support to deter future substance use.

Another option is a short-term residential program where patients undergo detoxification and receive intensive counseling to steer them toward a community-based treatment program.

Recovery housing provides monitored and short-term stays for patients who are transitioning to an independent life.

Support Groups

Support groups are paramount to successful treatment. Groups such as Narcotics Anonymous follow the 12-step model and provide those in recovery with a platform to share their experiences. Patients meet other people in similar situations, and the group holds everyone accountable for maintaining sobriety.

With the appropriate support and treatment, a person suffering from drug addiction can recover and enjoy a substance-free life.

Sonia Tagliareni
Author, DrugRehab.com
Sonia Tagliareni is a writer and researcher for DrugRehab.com. She is passionate about helping people. She started her professional writing career in 2012 and has since written for the finance, engineering, lifestyle and entertainment industry. Sonia holds a bachelor’s degree from the Florida Institute of Technology.
Medical Reviewer
Ashraf Ali
Psychiatrist, Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health

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