The term "drug" has two definitions:
1. Medical / Pharmacological definition of "drug": A drug is any synthetic (man-made), semisynthetic, or natural chemical substance used in the treatment, prevention, or diagnosis of disease, or for other medical reasons.1
2. Law / Recreational definition of "drug": A drug is a chemical substance taken for the pleasant effects it produces.1
Drugs come in many different forms, are made in many different ways, and have different effects on a person depending on the particular drug and their personal background.
- Synthetic Drugs: Some drugs are made in medical labs, whether legally by pharmaceutical companies or illegally by home-based or underground labs, by combining various chemicals to achieve desired results.
- Semisynthetic drugs: Some drugs are semisynthetic, meaning the base of the drug is from a naturally occurring element, but needs to be altered by synthetic materials and chemicals.
- Natural drugs: Some drugs are naturally occurring and do not need to be alerted by chemical or synthetic substances in order to achieve desired results.
There are thousands of drugs that cause different reactions in the human body. When a drug is put into the body, whether by smoking, inhaling, swallowing, or injecting, the drug is dissolved in the person's blood stream and transported to different parts of the body, causing various reactions, depending on what the drug is chemically programmed to do.
Once in the body, drugs produce a variety of reactions such as intensifying or dulling a person's senses, altering his/her mood, sense of awareness, or energy level, or to decrease physical pain.2
Drugs have both helpful and harmful effects that vary depending on what kind of drug is used, how much is taken, how often it is used, and the effects that the drug has within a person's body.2 No matter what, any drug that is used in excess is potentially harmful and can cause serious health threats and potentially lead to abuse and addiction.
Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Dr. Nora Volkow, defines addiction as "a result of adaptations in the brain that leads to changes in behavior that translates, among [other things], in the inability to control the intake of the drug."3
When speaking with ABC News about dependency on pain pills, Russell Portenoy, MD, of the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York has given another definition of addiction:
"Addiction is not the same as physical dependence. Physical dependence means that if you stop a medication, you have withdrawal. That is a normal response. Every patient presumably will become physically dependent. It is not a problem in practice. Addiction is not that.
Addiction is when a patient develops an abnormal craving for the medication and loses control over the medication and begins to take it compulsively, even though it begins to harm them."4
Although addiction, both drug and alcoholism, was classified as a disease by the American Medical Association in 1950,5 it was not until recently that doctors have been able to produce images of the brain and analyze the specific areas that drugs affect, how they affect them, and why.
This new research and information about how the brain's function contributes to how and why a person becomes an addict is changing the way doctors and treatment centers look at addiction. This is especially important in terms of understanding that a person's propensity for addiction, his/her ability to overcome cravings, and stay on a path of recovery is not simply based on a person's willingness to not use. Rather, the brain has a role in chemically hampering the decision-making abilities of the user, which is beyond of the user's chemical control.
That may be a reason why Dr. Volkow links the psychological manifestations of addiction as a disease to the physical function of the brain: "Is drug addiction a psychological or physical disease? I would say drug addiction is a disease of the brain that translates into abnormal behavior."3
Below are the main elements that contribute to why some people become addicted to drugs and/or alcohol. This is according to the research done on makers of the HBO documentary, Addiction, which brought together the nation's leading experts on drug and alcohol addiction, including director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Dr. Nora Volkow.
Personal elements that contribute to drug addiction:
- Mental illness
- Early use of drugs
- Social environment
- Childhood trauma 6
2) “The Deal on Substances.” TeensHealth from Nemours. Date downloaded: June 23, 2010.
3) “What is Addiction?” Addiction. HBO. Date downloaded: June 18, 2010.
4) “Addiction to Pain Pills.” ABC News. Jan 25, 2008. Date downloaded: June 28, 2010.
5) Lemonick, M.D., How We Get Addicted. TIME. July 05, 2007. Date downloaded: June 23, 2010.
6) “Why do some people become addicted?” Addiction. HBO. Date downloaded: June 23, 2010.
7) “Drug Abuse and Addiction.” National Institute on Drug Abuse. Date downloaded: June 23, 2010.