The definition of drug addiction has changed in recent years. The term was previously applied only to such ‘hard’ drugs as heroin, where there are obvious signs of tolerance and physical dependence in regular users, and a painful or even life-threatening physical withdrawal syndrome when drug use is stopped. Psychiatrists now use the term ‘substance dependence’ to include both psychological dependence (where there may be no obvious withdrawal syndrome or tolerance) and physical dependence.
Drug addiction is a disease. Although initial drug use might be voluntary, drugs have been shown to alter brain circuitry, which in turn can affect human behaviour. Once an addiction has developed, these brain changes will interfere with an individual’s ability to make voluntary decisions. This can lead to compulsive drug craving, seeking and use.
Use of drugs can be classified as:
- Abstinent - No use is made
- Controlled - People have made a conscious decision, have evaluated the risks and can stop if they want
- Impulsive - Use is unpredictable and can lead to unexpected accidents and harm. However there is not continual use or dependency
- Habitual - The use of drugs have become a significant and important part of the person's life-style. Stopping would not be easy
- Dependent - There is a high degree of physical and psychological addiction. Drug use disrupts or rules the person's life. Stopping is not possible without considerable support.
Illegal drugs are divided into three different categories, or classes : Class A, B and C.
Ecstasy, LSD, heroin, cocaine, crack, magic mushrooms and amphetamines (if prepared for injection) are categorised as Class A drugs.
Amphetamines, Cannabis, Methylphenidate (Ritalin), Pholcodine are Class B drugs.
Class C drugs include tranquilisers, some painkillers, Gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB) and Ketamine.
There are physical, psychological and social problems associated with drug use:
Physical complications of drug use include brain damage, lung damage, stomach damage, and damage to all the internal organs of the abdomen. Drug use can also cause skin, muscle and nerve damage. A whole range of illnesses are associated with drug use including cancers, infections, trauma, ulceration, diabetes, cirrhosis and others. Effectively, the list of physical illnesses caused by drug use is endless.
Psychologically, drug use can precipitate all kinds of psychiatric illnesses from schizophrenia to manic depression (bipolar disorder) to depression, anxiety and panic attacks. Dementia may also occur as a result of drug use.
In terms of social problems, drug use may be responsible for relationship breakdown, unemployment, financial problems and legal problems. More than this, addictive drug use will tend to predominate over all other social activity, leading to loss of all previous hobbies and interests.
There are a number of different forms of treatment available to help someone to cease drug use. These include medical treatments for drug use, psychological treatments and social treatments for drug use. However the saying that admitting you have a problem is half of solving the problem is very applicable. The next step is to get support.
If you're physically addicted, it may be dangerous just to stop - especially if you're using alcohol or tranquillisers. Even if it isn't dangerous to stop abruptly, a doctor may be able to prescribe medication to help you through the first phase of withdrawal.
Not all family doctors are happy to help with this problem, so if yours isn't, it is probably best to approach your local drug dependence unit (DDU), as well as getting other forms of support and counselling from the Support Groups listed above.