Is Drug Addiction a Disease or a Choice?

What is Drug Addiction?

Drug addiction is a chronic and potentially relapsing condition that causes the addict to use drugs compulsively, regardless of the consequences. What may have begun as a voluntary decision to experiment with drugs becomes an involuntary and uncontrollable monster over a short span of time, impairing a person’s self-control and decision-making ability, and leading to eventual death.

Drug addiction is a complex phenomenon. Drugs interfere with the brain’s communication system and disrupt the manner in which nerve cells exchange and process information. Drugs such as marijuana and heroin imitate the neurotransmitters produced by the brain in fooling the brain’s receptors, activating nerve cells and sending abnormal messages. On the other hand, cocaine causes the nerve cells to emit an unusually large amount of natural neurotransmitters. All drugs release dopamine, a brain neurotransmitter naturally present in the brain, to produce euphoric responses to drugs.

Causes of Drug Addiction

A person has a propensity for drugs due to a combination of biological, social and environmental factors.


Heredity plays an important role in fermenting drug addiction. Some people are pre-disposed to addiction due to their genetic constitution, besides the chemistry and structure of the brain.


Environment factors such as family background, peer pressure, socio-economic status and quality of parenting have a major bearing on drug addiction in an individual’s life.

Growth and Development

Every human being progresses through successive stages in the development cycle, culminating in adulthood, and these determine a person’s vulnerability to addiction. Drug use at an early age can lead to prolonged and severe addiction, and adolescents carry a heightened risk of drug addiction as their brains are still to reach complete maturity.

Symptoms of Drug Addiction

A drug addict tends to betray a variety of physical, psychological and behavioral symptoms.

Physical symptoms

  • Chills
  • Sweats
  • Red eyes
  • Dry mouth
  • Difficulty in memory and concentration
  • Decreased in coordination and reaction

Psychological symptoms

  • Craving for the drug
  • Nervousness
  • Anxiety
  • Delusions
  • Mood swings
  • Depression and irritability

Behavioral symptoms

  • Erratic and reclusive behavior
  • Decline in academic and work performance
  • A momentary sense of euphoria, followed by a ‘crash’

Types of Drugs

Drugs can be classified into stimulants, depressants and hallucinogens. Stimulants speed up the bodily functions, while depressants cause dependency, cravings and withdrawal symptoms.


Stimulants act on the central nervous system, triggering momentary feelings of well-being and a rise in mental and motor activity. Some examples of stimulants are cocaine, crack and amphetamines.


Depressants cause a slowdown of the central nervous system. The most common depressants are cannabis, barbiturates and benzodiazepines.


Hallucinogens orchestrate changes in perception of reality, prompting individual users to see, hear and feel things that are unreal, and driving them into violent psychosis in some cases. Some commonly used hallucinogens are cannabis, LSD, ecstasy and psilocybin.

Treatment for Drug Addiction

Any drug addiction treatment should be comprehensive, holistic and tailor-made for each individual, taking into consideration the physical, psychological and social conditions.

Detoxification is the first step in any drug rehab process. It helps people to withdraw from drugs and tide over physical dependency. Since every addiction has a psychological and physical component, psycho-therapeutic treatment is of immense help in dealing with associated cravings. Detoxification and psycho-therapy should be combined with behavioral therapy as without behavioral changes, de-addiction can neither be achievable nor sustainable in the long run.

Counseling should supplement the other approaches. Counseling can assume various forms viz. individual, group and family counseling. At an individual level, the counselor would help a recovering addict to identify the root cause of addiction and design strategies to cope with the situation. In group counseling, other recovering addicts act as a support system to prevent a relapse into addiction. Family counseling involves the joint participation of the addict and family members in therapeutic sessions, to heal psychological wounds and rebuild broken relationships.

Prevention is the key to handling the menace of drug addiction. A community-based approach that involves and educates all the stake-holders, viz the family, educational institutions and media, can effectively prevent and reduce the incidents of drug addiction.

Is Drug Addiction a Disease or a Choice?

There is a raging debate on whether drug addiction is a disease or a cure. Some believe that drug addiction is an uncontrollable illness that calls for immediate medical treatment, while others postulate that drug addiction is not a disease as it flows from a person’s choice to use drugs.

The predominant view is that drug addiction is a disease like any other. It is caused by a confluence of behavioral, environmental and biological factors as is the case with lifestyle illnesses such as diabetes, cancer and heart diseases. Drug addiction follows a pattern akin to chronic diseases such as asthma and diabetes. The patient goes into multiple remissions and relapses in the course of the disease and treatment cycle. And like other diseases, addiction can be managed and treated.

Others are of the opinion that people can exercise greater control over their behaviors than they think. Addiction is a behavior and all behaviors are choices made by free humans, they contend.

To conclude, a drug may well have been consumed for the first time as a matter of choice. But in a genetically predisposed person, the first exposure itself may generate far-reaching changes in brain chemistry as to leave no room for the power of choice and control over subsequent behavior. Irrespective of whether drug addiction is a disease or a choice, it continues to be an unremitting global scourge that needs to be tackled on a war-footing by governments and individuals alike.

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