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Drug Addiction: Is It a Choice or a Disease?


Drug addiction is a process by which a person becomes dependent on a drug to function normally. Failure to use such a drug causes withdrawal symptoms. The drugs which cause addiction include cannabis compounds, depressants, stimulants, designer drugs and hallucinogens. The most common of cannabis compounds is marijuana. Alcohol is the most used depressant; nicotine is the most common stimulant and opiates include heroin and cocaine. Inhalants such as glue sniffing are also addictive because they help people to stay in high moods (Drug addiction support, 2011). While many people believe that drug addiction is a matter of choice, research has proved that drug addiction is in fact a disease.

The definition of a disease

From the dictionary, a disease is, “a disordered or incorrectly functioning organ, part, structure or system of the body resulting from the effect of genetic or developmental errors, infection or poisons, nutritional deficiency or imbalance, toxicity, or unfavorable environmental factors” (Dictionary, 2011, p. 1). Taking into consideration the above definition is significant as it will be important in this discussion on whether drug addiction is a disease or not.

Why Drug Addiction is a Disease

Drug effect on the Brain

Dr. Stephen Dewey, Aaron White and Leslie S. Prichep are researchers who have spent many years researching the effect of drugs on the brain. They found that drugs have an effect on the brain from the first time of use. The drug causes the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine and the user gets a pleasant feeling. With continued use of the drug the brain becomes adapted to depend on the drug so as to produce and use dopamine effectively: “The brain is changed to the point that he needs the drug just to maintain a minimal or normal level of functioning” (Schloat & Cochran, 2006, p. 1). The brain becomes tolerant with the continued use of drugs. This causes the addicts to need more of the drug so as to function normally. Drug addiction thus means a person will always require more of the drug as he continuously uses it (Schloat & Cochran, 2006). It has actually been argued that “Drug addiction causes permanent changes in brain chemistry” (Drug addiction support, 2011, p. 1). This is what makes it almost impossible to stop taking the drug.

Mechanism of Drug Addiction on the Brain

A team led by Dr. Allan I. Leshner the chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (NIDA) gave facts and showed that indeed drug addiction is a disease. They showed that some of the drugs have similar structures with neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters convey messages via nerve cells. This similarity creates the ability of the drugs to behave like these neurotransmitters. The drugs can also cause overstimulation of the brain. This is the mode of action of heroin and marijuana. Cocaine causes the nerve cells to release excessive neurotransmitters, especially dopamine (NIDA, 2011). Excessive dopamine inhibits the recycling of the natural chemicals which act by stopping the signals across the neurons. The result is that the brain saturates with dopamine which is responsible for the control of movement, emotion, motivation and feelings or pleasure (NIDA, 2011). Drugs such as cocaine can take less than a hundred days to disrupt dopamine. The recompense for this is a response to pleasure behaviors. The overall effect is that the drug users get a craving to use the substance so as to experience the same effect. This ends up in drug addiction (Drug addiction support, 2011).

Physical Harm on the Body

It has furthermore been shown that many people who depend on these drugs experience withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms in drug addicts prove that there is a big problem in their health. The person changes in behavior, physically and mentally. This proves that persistent changes do not just occur, but there is a great change in one’s body that requires comprehensive medical treatment (NIDA, 2011).

Elsewhere it has been recorded that once a person becomes a drug addict, he/she may have abrupt body weight changes where the majority lose weight. Such a person will also tend to neglect their duties and work. Students fail to report to school regularly, lack of coordination and laziness increase. Sleeping behavior changes and they always experience fatigue when they have not used the drug (Drug addiction support, 2011).

Drug addiction and Mortality

Drug addiction is associated with a high mortality rate. Drug addicted victims on average die 22.5 years earlier than those who have no experience with illicit drug use. From research done in Chicago, the results showed that illicit drug use was associated with deaths. People who had stopped using drugs lived longer than those who did seek any medical assistance (Scott, Dennis, Laudet, Funk & Simeone, 2011). Drug addiction is also a major cause of many fatal diseases such as cancer, heart disease, liver disease and respiratory diseases (Scott, Dennis, Laudet, Funk & Simeone, 2011).

Other effects of drug addiction

Opioids are also used in the treatment of arthritis, migraine and back pain. This is known to be the primary source of exposure to drug addiction. When people who have used Opioids use illicit drugs they become dependent on it because of the long-term effects of the opioids. One of the researches which were done on people who had used Opioids for a long time revealed that they had:

significantly reduced concentrations of the neural marker N-acetyl aspartate and glutamine within the d-ACC, failed to show the normal association between d-ACC activity and behavioral performance demonstrated by healthy controls and had relatively increased task-related activation of frontal-parietal and cerebella regions. (Yucel & Lubman, 2007, p. 35)

Why Drug Addiction is a choice

Those who have chosen to view drug addiction as a choice have presented their views by arguing that drug addiction comes about as a result of irresponsibility on the part of the user. There has been a critical argument confronting the view of drug addiction being viewed as a disease especially since it is not genetic. It has been stated that the concept that drug addiction is a disease has negative effects on society and the medical facilities, trying to find an excuse for their irresponsible behavior (Brown, 2011).

The psychologists also believe that classifying drug addiction as a disease would cause the victims to conform to the behaviors and conditions which have been used to classify that disease. The opponents of that drug addiction is a disease believe that drug addicts lead themselves to the consequences and take more drugs out of irresponsibility. They claim that majority of the people who diagnose drug addicts are not professionals who are supposed to carry out this task, rather it is the unqualified counseling personnel (Brown, 2011).

Dr. Schaler Jeffey has a strong conviction that people choose to be addicted. In a review of his book Addiction is a Choice, Dr. Schaler (2011) expressed concern over addiction researchers and therapists for not carrying out their research in a convincing manner. For instance, it has been pointed out that drug addiction researchers do not use absolute terms. Dr. Schaler (2011) read an ill motive in the medical practitioners labeling drug addiction as a disease. He argued that the medical practitioners are seeing an added market in the drug addicts and hence the endless efforts they are injecting to label drug addiction a disease. Dr. Schaler (2011) strongly warned that the continued labeling of drug addiction will finally have adverse effects on society as drug addicts will be absolved of the mistakes they engage in intentionally (Schaler, 2011).


Drug abuse which leads to drug addiction is a major problem worldwide. There are about 200 million people who frequently use illicit drugs. From research which was done by National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2007 about 19.9 million people were using illicit drugs in the United States. Drug addiction affects many biochemical processes in the body. This poses a great challenge in the treatment of many infections including HIV and Hepatitis C Virus (HCV): “Adverse health effects related to drug interactions between therapeutic agents used to treat these disorders, or adverse effects related to continuing substance abuse medications prescribed to treat these conditions are possible” (Khalsa & Elkashef, 2009, p. 96). The interactions of different drugs i.e. cause other health problems.

Drug addiction is a brain disease and not a choice. Drugs cause the dysfunction of the brain, thus the addict’s brain differs from the non-addict brain. They act by affecting the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain. Drugs also make addicts vulnerable to other diseases, thus deteriorating their health. However, the disease can be treated on a long-term basis. Drug addiction treatment is essential and has been seen to yield benefits to the addict as well as to the family and society. The first step, in this case, is to have the drug removed from the body system. This, however, does not heal the addiction and the patient needs to get comprehensive treatment which includes “Cognitive or behavioral therapy, medication or a combination” (Drug addiction support, 2011). Treatment of drug addiction is a process that requires a person to make decisions. It does not happen instantly but it is a long-term process. The nature of the disease is that it is highly related to physical and mental health. This requires that each person’s needs are accessed so as to determine the most appropriate means of treatment: “Substance abuse treatment is as effective as a treatment for other chronic conditions, including diabetes, hypertension and asthma” (Policy, 2002, p. 1).

Drug addiction is a preventable disease. It is not a matter of choice. Drug addiction does not affect all drug users. It is determined by several factors. A person’s biology which includes the genes that one has, gender and ethnicity are determinant factors of drug addiction. The environment in which a person lives determines accessibility. For example, having friends who use these drugs may expose an adolescent to start abusing the drugs (NIDA, 2011).

Some life experiences such as sexual harassment, parent’s behavior or stress can expose one to use drugs which might end up in addiction. The age at which a person starts using the drugs highly determines the effect of the drug on the person. When a person starts using the drug at a younger age the disease of drug addiction may easily get into his or her brain. This is because the brain is at its developmental stages when the brain parts of decision-making are still developing (NIDA, 2011).


The debate of whether drug addiction is a choice or a disease has much significance in society. Those who argue that drug addiction is a disease have hinged drug addiction with the disease symptoms. Drug addiction has been shown to exhibit characteristics that affect the normal operation of the body in the same way as diseases do. Drug addiction has been shown to affect brain functioning adversely. The normal body functions have been shown to be equally affected in the same way diseases affect the body.

Those who oppose the classification of drug addiction as a disease have heavily relied on the fact that people get themselves into drug abuse and that it is a habit that can be avoided. There is a further argument that the treatment given to drug addicts is just a waste of money as it does not work effectively. Actually, the proponents of drug addiction are classified as a disease have been associated with a scheme of milking from the families of drug addicts in the form of counseling services among other services.

In conclusion, I must point out that there are usually factors that push a person to get into abusing drugs. The characteristics exhibited by drug addicts are very similar to those exhibited by people suffering from disease and therefore drug addiction has causative agents and produces symptoms that are similar to those of diseases hence drug addiction is a disease and not a choice.


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NIDA. (2011). Understanding Drug Abuse and Addiction. Web.

Painkillers. (2011). Painkillers fuel growth in drug addiction: Opioid overdoses now kill more people than cocaine or heroin. Harvard Mental Health Letter, 27(7), 4-5.

Policy. (2002). Policy Issues and Challenges in substance abuse treatment. Web.

Schloat, A. W., & Cochran, P. (2006). Addiction and The Human Brain. Web.

Scott, C. K., Dennis, M. L., Laudet, A., Funk, R. R., & Simeone, R. S. (2011). Surviving Drug Addiction. American Journal of Public Health. 101. 4, 734-744. Retrieved from EBSCO host.

Yucel, M., & Lubman, D. I. (2007). Neurocognitive and Neuroimaging Evidence of Behavioral dysregulation in Human drug Addiction. Drug and Alcohol Review. 26. 1, 33-39. Retrieved from EBSCO host.

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StudyKraken. "Drug Addiction: Is It a Choice or a Disease?" March 21, 2022.


StudyKraken. 2022. "Drug Addiction: Is It a Choice or a Disease?" March 21, 2022.


StudyKraken. (2022) 'Drug Addiction: Is It a Choice or a Disease'. 21 March.

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