Roughly 72,000 Americans died of a drug overdose in 2017 alone, and that number has been on a steady incline in the past few years. While many drugs have slowly declined in usage, use of prescription opioids like fentanyl and heroin have increased. Meanwhile, alcohol and tobacco continue to claim thousands of lives through alcohol poisoning and related illnesses, from throat and larynx cancer to lung cancer and heart disease.
But drugs don’t typically kill overnight. The road from first contact to last breath can take years and decades, and while thousands of Americans die of drug overdose every year, millions struggle with drug addiction. Rather than being a moral failing or personal choice, addiction is a disease – a disease that can be treated. But it takes a willingness to commit to treatment for it to work.
Today more than ever, drug use is being called into question. After decades of an unsuccessful War on Drugs, many Americans are skeptical of the damage drug use can do. Some teens are misinformed on the dangers of drugs. Others struggle to see the difference between using a drug for performance and using it for medical purposes – leading to the use of Ritalin and Adderall as illegal study aids rather than prescribed medication for ADHD. But it’s important to understand that drug use isn’t black and white. Just because one drug is legal, or because a drug can help someone in a very specific context, doesn’t make it safe or wise to use drugs.
Yes, marijuana is now legal in several states throughout the US. Opioids, benzos and amphetamines are prescribed legally to Americans. THC may be prescribed to cancer patients for pain and inflammation in most states in the US. And alcohol and tobacco can be found in every corner store. But drug use is still dangerous, and often enough, it can lead to disorder and death. Worst of all, you won’t know until it’s too late.
How Drugs Change a Life
For some individuals, drugs can be life-changing in a positive way. Thousands of Americans have benefited from cannabis products prescribed for seizures and nausea, and to milden the side-effects of chemotherapy. Children correctly diagnosed with severe ADHD have been able to better manage their disorder through the careful prescription of amphetamines. And cocaine is an excellent topical anesthetic, to this day.
But that’s not always the case. Many Americans have seen their lives spiraled into years of addiction and suffering due to a prescription of OxyContin. Others abused their ADHD medication, or worse yet, abused their relative’s medication, often at a young age. Some whose access to legal prescription medication has ceased have turned to illegal sources, including fentanyl-laced heroin, and have lost their lives as part of the 40,000+ Americans who lost their lives last year to opioids.
Few factors help determine if someone is at risk for an addiction when they come into contact with a drug, but anybody – even the most privileged and happy of individuals – can turn an ‘occasional’ drug habit into a pervasive and deadly addiction.
Drugs capture the minds of their users through a subtle manipulation of the brain’s neurotransmitters: chemicals used in the communication between cells. Dopamine in particular seems to play a primary role in the development of a physical dependence, as the brain changes after persistent drug use. The result can include lowered cognition, memory problems, neurotoxic consequences (causing anhedonia, or the loss of pleasure), reduced problem-solving, trouble assessing risk, and more.
This is accompanied with psychological suffering, as well as the urge to use whenever a high wears off. Partially, people addicted to drugs need more drugs as way to drown out the reality of being addicted to drugs. Partially, it’s because their brain is screaming for more drugs.
As adaptable and intelligent as our brain is, it’s still only a rudimentary computer. It does its best to adapt to drug use, but in a way that backfires tremendously. While many medicines rely on changing the way the brain communicates – such as antidepressants, which increase the amount of serotonin available in the brain – only few affect the reward pathway in the brain in such a way that the only thing you’re effectively motivated by is the drug that elicited the change to begin with.
This is the basic premise of addiction as a disease. The brain changes to accommodate the effects of a new and foreign substance, by turning the substance and its effects into the new “norm”. It then seeks to maintain that norm by constantly craving more. Without it, you spiral into withdrawal symptoms, accompanied by all the other effects of sobriety – such as a rush of guilt from the stigma attached to abusing drugs. The cycle continues – until it takes your life.
How Drugs Take a Life
When a drug is consumed, the body learns to metabolize it. Often, as drug use continues, the body becomes more efficient in metabolizing the drug. Soon, a dose that used to be effective no longer is. This happens with non-addictive medication, especially when someone has to use a drug for years and decades. Sometimes, the process takes a very long time. Sometimes it happens quickly. Sometimes, a certain drug simply isn’t powerful enough to elicit the same old high, and you move onto something more potent and deadlier.
One wrong dose, or one dose mixed badly or laced with an unknown and dangerous ingredient can be enough to trigger an overdose, causing the body to fail in one way or another. With opioids and depressants like alcohol and benzodiazepine, the body fails to properly breathe, and the brain dies of oxygen starvation. In other cases, the heart beats irregularly, before stopping completely. Sometimes, a person may go unconscious and involuntarily vomit, blocking off their airways.
Sometimes, drugs cause deaths indirectly. Drugs injected may be injected through shared syringes, especially in moments when users simply fail to care enough to maintain proper syringe etiquette. This can promote the spread of deadly infections as viruses, including hepatitis and HIV. Drug use can also coincide with deadly accidents, or illnesses and conditions caused by organ damage and death caused by organ failure.
Addiction Can Be Treated
This article paints a bleak picture of what drugs can do. The number mentioned at the very beginning of the article only refers to the deaths attributed directly to drug overdoses. Countless others died of drug-related illnesses and accidents, as well as drug-related crimes and violence.
But this isn’t an indictment of anyone using drugs. It’s a wakeup call to identify addiction as a harmful disease – one that can be successfully treated, and must be treated, in order to save the lives of millions of Americans currently struggling with addiction on a day-to-day basis. Most Americans with drug use issues do not seek help – but seeking help works.