People can become addicted to almost any drug. Whether it’s alcohol, heroin, cannabis, or a combination of several substances, addiction is a mental illness that harms its victims along with their friends and family.
The following substances all work on the same principle: they bring pleasure to the brain, people begin to crave this pleasure and, eventually, lose control over their ability to choose whether or not to use the drug. Over time, the person’s body becomes tolerant to the drug and he or she ends up using more and more to achieve the same “high” and, once the addiction has taken over, just to feel normal.
Alcohol is, of course, available everywhere you look from the grocery store to the neighborhood bar so it’s no wonder it’s such a common drug of addiction. Additionally, the societal acceptance of drinking (and pressure to drink) can make recovery from alcohol addiction very difficult.
In a recent study, 24.6% of adults in the United States reported binge drinking in the last month and 7% of adults reported having an alcohol use disorder (defined as alcohol abuse or dependence which causes harm). Men with an alcohol use disorder represent 9.4% of the population while women represent 4.7%.
Nearly 88,000 people die from alcohol-related deaths annually, making it the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States and a very deadly drug of abuse.
Prolonged drinking has many negative effects on the body including liver damage, damage to a fetus, heart disease, cancer of the mouth, throat and liver. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a cluster of neurological symptoms typically seen in long-term, heavy drinkers whose symptoms include loss of memory, disorientation, and confusion. This, and many other problems associated with alcoholism can be traced back to vitamin deficiencies, common in those addicted to alcohol.
Narcotics: Opiates And Opioids
This class of drugs primarily includes heroin and prescription opiates such as codeine, Vicodin, Hycodan (hydrocodone), MS Contin Kadian (morphine), Oxycontin, Percoset (oxycodone), Dilaudid (hydromorphone), and Duragesic (fentanyl). Opiates (also sometimes known simply as narcotics) are used to treat pain and are considered highly addictive due to the euphoric feeling they often create. In this class of drugs particularly, it’s important to remember that it can become a drug of addiction even though it’s prescribed by a doctor. Many people say they became addicted after only one or two uses.
In 2012 it was estimated that almost half-a-million people in the United States were addicted to heroin. About 1.9 million people had a substance use disorder related to prescription opioid painkillers in 2014. The number of people addicted to prescription painkillers continues to increase dramatically due to a rapid increase in prescriptions.
Opioids caused about 23,000 deaths in 2013 and were responsible for 5% of all hospital admissions in 2007. 259 million prescriptions for opioid pain medications were written in 2012, and more Americans die from drug overdoses than from motor vehicle accidents each year.
There are both acute and long-term harmful effects to using opioids. Ingesting an opioid causes a comatose state and severe respiratory depression that can eventually cause death. They also lower the seizure threshold and can cause convulsions at high doses. It’s been estimated that about 2% of heroin users die every year due to these immediate effects, and most of these deaths are in people with 5-10 years of experience with the drug.
Chronic effects from using opioids include constipation, cancer (particularly bladder cancer), a decrease in fertility in men, and pregnancy complications in women.
Stimulants: Cocaine And Amphetamines
This group of drugs is known as psychomotor stimulants due to the way they act on the body and brain. Primary stimulants are those derived from amphetamines and cocaine (including crack cocaine).
Cocaine use has decreased over the last few years, but 1.5 million people age 12 and over (about 0.8% of Americans) used the drug in the past month. About 0.16% of people used crack cocaine in the past month, which is a particularly addictive drug due to its extreme and short high. This drives people to want it more and more frequently.
In 2013, about 5,000 people died of cocaine overdoses,a 29% increase over the number in 2001.
Cocaine’s addiction numbers may be small compared to some other drugs of abuse due to its cost. Also likely due to its high price, cocaine- and crack cocaine-seeking are elements of a disproportionate number of crimes in the United States today.
Amphetamine abuse generally centers around street methamphetamine (“meth”) use or illegal use of legal amphetamine stimulants, typically those used to treat sleep disorders or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). About 0.2% of adults have used methamphetamines in the past month.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, amphetamines, like those used to treat ADHD, are the most commonly used type of prescription drug in people ages 12-19.
These medically prescribed drugs are often diverted for abusive uses such as to get high or simply stay awake to study longer in the post-secondary population. According to the Centers for Substance Abuse Research, the estimated number of emergency room visits related to methamphetamine, phencyclidine (PCP), and amphetamine use ranges from 71,000-103,000 per year.
These stimulants are not considered physically addictive but are most definitely psychologically addictive. There are few immediate health consequences of stimulant use, but long-term use tends to alter a person’s lifestyle such that it is centered around obtaining the drug. This causes both personal harm and harm to friends, family, and even strangers. High-dose amphetamine users are suspicious, antisocial, and prone to violence.
Tranquilizers (also known as benzodiazepines) include drugs like alprazolam (Xanax), diazepam (Valium), and lorazepam (Ativan). There is also a class of tranquilizers known as sedative-hypnotics (sleeping pills, also known as z-class benzodiazepines), which includes drugs like eszopiclone (Lunesta). Barbiturates such as phenobarbital are also in this class, but other classes of tranquilizers are more common. Benzodiazepines are legal and, initially, were not considered addictive. We know now that they are highly addictive, sometimes even when used as directed, and many people are addicted to tranquilizers alongside other drugs. Mixing tranquilizers with other drugs (such as heroin or alcohol) is extremely dangerous and can lead to death.
Tranquilizers are the second most common prescription drug abused (behind painkillers) with about 2.2 million people in the United States abusing them.
The majority of these pills are obtained legally through a friend or relative. Many people, including youth, are addicted to tranquilizers because they are “available everywhere,” are “easy to get from parents’ medicine cabinets” and because “they are not illegal drugs.”
Harmful effects of tranquilizer abuse include death when combined with other drugs, and possible harm to the fetus.
Hallucinogens, Club Drugs, And Designer Drugs
Hallucinogens include drugs like d-lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD or “acid”), peyote, and phencyclidine (PCP). These drugs have drastically different effects on different people and this unpredictability can make them particularly dangerous. Club drugs tend to be used by young people and include drugs like 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA) or “ecstasy”), ketamine, and others. Hallucinogens are also sometimes referred to as club drugs. Designer drugs are typically synthetics of other drugs such as in the case of synthetic cathinone, which is known as “bath salts.” Early research suggests that bath salts are highly addictive.
More than 1.1 million Americans age 12 and over report having used hallucinogens in the last month and 1.1 million report having used LSD within the last year.
PCP use is less common and no numbers on peyote use have been collected. As noted above, drugs like MDMA are used more by youth—3.5% of 18-25 year olds in the last year—and less by adults. Only 0.5% of those 26 years and older used MDMA in the last year. It’s difficult to say how many people take so-called designer drugs, but almost 23,000 emergency room reports mentioned bath salts, often in combination with other drugs, in 2011 alone.
Hallucinogens and club drugs can induce acute psychosis, which can be very frightening although it is rarely medically dangerous. One of the more concerning effects of hallucinogens is that some of their effects (such as hallucinations) may be experienced long after the drug has worn off. Chronic MDMA users experience sleep disorders, depression, persistent anxiety, impulsiveness, hostility, and impairment in memory and attention. These effects may continue for years after the drug use has stopped. MDMA can also cause death, even at recreational dosages. People who use synthetic drugs have a variety of experiences but in the case of bath salts, common reactions that require medical attention include racing heart, high blood pressure and chest pain, paranoia, hallucinations, and panic attacks. Intoxication with bath salts can be fatal in some instances.
While it used to be that cannabis (marijuana, Mary Jane, pot, weed) was not considered addictive, in recent years that line of thinking has changed. And now, with increasing potency of marijuana strains and the ease with which many people can obtain cannabis (it’s legal in some states), addiction numbers are likely on the rise.
Cannabis is a widely used drug, with 19.8 million Americans being past-month users.
While many consider it benign, cannabis use was noted (not necessarily the cause) in more than 450,000 drug-related emergency room visits in 2011. Cannabis use disorders are now listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)—the reference guide for all mental illnesses)—and account for 4.2 million of the 6.9 million Americans using illicit drugs.
Harmful immediate effects of cannabis include anxiety, paranoia, and even psychosis. Cannabis use is linked to schizophrenia, major depressive disorder, and anxiety disorders. The risk of these illnesses continues into adulthood even if the cannabis use was only in adolescence. Cannabis can also lead to impaired coordination and sleep problems. Long-term consequences of cannabis use include a potential loss of intelligence (IQ), possible brain damage, increased risk of bronchitis and chronic cough, and a lack of motivation. Cannabis may also increase the likelihood of use of, and even addiction to, other drugs.
Treating Drug Addiction
It’s important to remember that no matter which drug or drugs you have used, getting clean and sober is possible. Many people have done it. It can be hard, but you can recover from each and every substance, and you can lead the life you want. Hope is real and so is recovery.