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Addiction: Yeah, it's an actual problem

By Victoria Kallsen
On February 3, 2014

In the wake of Philip Seymour Hoffman's death by probable heroin overdose this past Sunday, perhaps the idea that addiction is an actual disease, a medical problem that has to be treated, rather than a choice, should be revisited. Though the great Bill O'Reilly would disagree and passionately spit out that drunks and addicts chose their own path to destruction, perhaps understanding the disease and biological model of addiction can resolve these ramblings. There is a complicated debate of addiction versus personal responsibility. I posit that addiction has basis in biological causation and should be treated like any other disease rather than framing addicts as degenerates.
Addiction is characterized as a brain disease and relates to a person's brain chemistry the functioning of their "reward center." There is often a "voluntary" choice to try a drug or other addictive substance, or as voluntary as the decision can be in certain environments. Psychology Today describes it as a compulsive behavior issue often in terms of reaction to an "emotionally significant event," according to Dr. Lance Dodes. Before you start blaming, let's also remember than many become addicted to perfectly legal substances like alcohol; addiction happens where it wants to happen.
Regarding brain chemistry, the "reward center" is the non-medical term for the limbic system. It reinforces beneficial behavior for our bodies such as eating, drinking or having sex, all for survival. Unfortunately, substances like cocaine and methamphetamine ramp up the number of natural neurotransmitters (like dopamine) in one's brain and overindulges the reward center for using drugs. Because of this boost to the system, the brain becomes accustomed to higher levels of dopamine. As a result, it stops producing as many of those neurotransmitters, and previous activities that made one happy no longer have as strong an effect. More of the drug is needed to achieve the high. Over time, drugs can affect "areas of the brain that are critical to judgment, decision making, learning and memory and behavior control" according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, further exasperating the problem.
Is this an article to get you to be anti-drug? Not quite. I'm merely endeavoring to provide a more scientific understanding as to why addiction happens and why it can be so hard to overcome. When O'Reilly declares on Fox News, "If you're an alcoholic or heroin addict or a drug addict and you can't hold a job, alright, and you can't support your children...then it's your fault, you're bringing the havoc," you have to ask yourself, do you really believe people are asking to be addicted? Thinking of both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Cory Monteith, both individuals had been to rehab in the year before their death to treat their addictions. Hoffman had been sober for approximately 22 years before succumbing. Both had families and loved ones. They weren't asking to relapse or remain slaves to their addictions.
Is there a personal responsibility component? Sure. But when you're in your 20s and at a party and someone offers you coke, or maybe you're 16 and you start drinking for the first time and then can't stop, you're not thinking you're going to be one of the 38,239 deaths that occur due to drug overdose, the leading cause of accidental death. You think you can survive it because some people do survive it, tiger's blood or not. We're seeing minorities getting punished and thinking this is just an African American problem-it's not my problem. According to the NAACP, "African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of whites," but 14 million whites have reported using drugs compared to 2.6 African Americans, so about a 5-to-1 white to African American ratio of usage.
So what is the problem? We're seeing victims of addictions and thinking, "pathetic." We're forgetting what is happening to their brains and throwing them in prison. We are constantly neglecting the individual wrapped in addiction's chains who may want to escape. It's time to stop standing on the moral high ground simply because we were able to avoid addiction or that we only tried pot that one time, so we're cool. It's time to stop acting like there's a huge divide between us, when it all comes down to biology, environment and development. It's time to take morality out of it and help those in need.  

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