What Is Drug Addiction?


Drug Addiction and Substance-Related Disorders

It was once widely thought that a person was a drug addict or an alcoholic only if he needed the drug daily or if he went through withdrawal symptoms (vomiting, seizures, cramps, death) when he abruptly stopped using the substance. Alcoholics and drug addicts were also perceived as individuals that were poor, unemployed and from the inner city.

These are serious misconceptions of drug addiction substance-related

disorders. Many drug addicts do not use drugs or consume alcohol on a daily basis and do not necessarily experience physical withdrawal symptoms when they stop using. In fact, the majority of addicted individuals are employed and seem to be functioning normally.

Characteristics of Drug Addiction

Three aspects that characterize addiction are:

1. Loss of control: The user cannot predict what will happen when he uses the substance. One day he may be able to stop after one drink, or after one line of cocaine; the next day he may not be able to control his use at all.

2. Compulsive preoccupation: The addict spends a great deal of time thinking about the substance.

3. Continued use despite negative consequences: If drinking or drug use causes problems but one continues to do it, one is tempting addiction or is already addicted. The person has lost voluntary control of the use of that substance.

A nonuser or casual alcohol/drug user may have difficulty understanding why addicts don't just stop. Use and abuse of psychoactive (mood-altering) drugs seem to be voluntary; addiction seems to be characterized by involuntary, compulsive use. In most cases, drug addicts don't stop because they are addicted. They cannot stop on their own.

What Causes Addiction?

There has been controversy over the cause of addiction. Historically, it was thought that addiction was caused by lack of willpower, by poverty, moral weakness, mental illness, genetics, family socialization, and societal problems. Some scientists believe drug addiction is a disease, although the evidence to support this theory is weak.

The Drug: Some drugs are more addictive than others. This is due to the pharmacology of the substance, and how it affects the mood of the user.

The Addict: People who have low self-concepts, who feel bad about themselves, have a higher rate of addiction. People with low self-concepts use psychoactive substances either to enhance or create pleasure in their lives, or to decrease the constant emotional pain they live with. The better a person feels about himself, the less likely he will be to use or abuse psychoactive substances. A society that has easy access to drugs, that has a population that is "addiction-prone" due to physical or emotional pain, and that has pro-use or unclear norms, is a society prone to addiction.

The Environment: In our biochemical society, we hear mixed messages about the use of psychoactive drugs. Some, such as alcohol, are accepted, while use of hard drugs is condemned. Some drug use is glamorized in the media, while different parts of the country have different standards for public intoxication. All of this makes it easier for people to accept drug use as "normal".


Drug abuse is the excessive use of legal mood-altering substances and the use of illegal drugs. Drug addiction is the extreme end of a continuum that starts with the first use of drugs or alcohol, and progresses through experimentation and abuse to addiction.

Professional treatment and prevention programs and community-based organizations are available to help the addict and his family. These resources can help with education, intervention, and treatment.