Substance abuse and addiction are complex problems that few individuals truly understand. Obviously drugs can change how individuals feel and act, but the reasons why individuals would want to participate in drug use can seem complicated at best, and it can be very confusing for family members and friends to watch a loved one, who is apparently healthy, happy, well-loved and successful, turn to substance abuse and addiction. Drugs obviously destroy the individual’s health, relationships and life, so why would they choose to use them? Assuming that it’s simply a matter of willpower and choice is the first error one can make when trying to comprehend the problem that is addiction. Understanding Drugs Drugs are chemicals that are designed to interfere with the normal functions of the human body, especially the brain and central nervous system. Whether it is a prescription or illicit drug, use normally begins when the individual encounters a physical, mental or emotional problem for which they have no other solution. These problems could be pain, insomnia, stress or anxiety, among others. One important fact that few people recognize is that drugs do not solve the problem for which they are taken. An individual who finds that narcotic painkillers eliminate their excruciating back pain may argue this point, but the fact remains that drugs do not actually get to the root problem and solve it – they only suppress the symptoms of the problem. Narcotic painkillers, for example, are designed to block opioid receptors in the brain and central nervous system that communicate pain. Much like cutting a phone cord does not mean that no one is trying to call, blocking pain receptors does not mean that pain is not still present in the body, it simply means that the communication channel has been interrupted. Some individuals who fall into substance abuse and addiction do so through the use of prescription medications, which can be all the more confusing to them and to others around them. After all, doctors are charged with preserving their patient’s health, and should not therefore make recommendations that could possibly lead to health problems. Doctors who prescribe medical drugs are supposed to weigh the benefits with the risks and determine that the drug will provide more benefits. However, how often do doctors fully and thoroughly outline both the benefits and the risks to their patients, allowing the individual himself to have the final say? Individuals may be cautioned about taking their prescription exactly as directed, but without constant medical supervision in the home who is to guarantee that they will always do so? The fact is that the abuse of many prescription medications can be as dangerous as the abuse of illicit drugs, and the drug chemicals in both prescription and illicit drugs work in much the same way once ingested. In order to alter the functions of the human brain, most drug chemicals perform in two basic ways: by mimicking the natural chemical messengers in the brain and by overstimulating the reward circuits in the brain. Drugs like marijuana and heroin are designed to be similar to neurotransmitters in the brain and can therefore fool receptors in the brain, causing them to send abnormal messages. Drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine overstimulate the brain’s nerve cells, causing them to relieve neurotransmitters like dopamine in high volumes, and it also interrupts the cell’s ability to recycle these neurotransmitters. The result is a flood of dopamine, which is linked to emotion, motivation, reward and pleasure feelings. This creates the euphoric effects that many users desire when taking these drugs. Regardless of an individual’s specific reasons for turning to drug use in the first place, the fact that drugs provide them with some, albeit temporary, relief is usually the reason for why they continue using drugs. After some time, the body grows to tolerate drug chemicals, and no longer responds to their ingestion in the same way. As an example, the constant overproduction of dopamine as caused by certain drug chemicals can cause the brain to stop producing the same volume of dopamine or dopamine receptors it once produced naturally. This in turn means that the individual no longer experiences the same euphoric effects or relief they once did. Since the individual’s entire purpose for taking drugs is to experience the numbing and relieving effects, they may handle the problem of tolerance by taking larger quantities of drugs or by taking more powerful drugs. Eventually, the human body can grow to depend on the constant interference of drug chemicals and the individual becomes addicted. It is at this point that the individual’s choice or willpower no longer matters and they are driven to continue taking drugs through powerful cravings and the threat of painful withdrawal symptoms. Many drug addicts describe dependence and addiction as a demon that controls their every thought and action, and over which they have no power. They may desperately seek freedom from drug use, and may even recognize many of the damaging effects drug use has had on their health, relationships and life, and yet cannot control the urge to continue using. Because drug chemicals interact directly with the human brain, it can change many other brain functions and circuits that affect the individual’s ability to function normally. For example, the neurotransmitter glutamate is involved in an individual’s ability to learn, and it is altered and interrupted by drug use. Individuals who suffer from substance abuse and addiction problems can have difficulty in showing good judgment, wise decision making, learning, memory and behavior control. Those who believe that drug addiction does not affect them is considering only a limited view of drug addiction – the part that affects the individual himself. However, the truth is that since drug addicts are focused only on obtaining and using drugs by any means necessary, their addiction problems affect others around them, including their community and society at large. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has reported that substance abuse and addiction problems in the United States cost over $600 billion each year in costs related to lost work productivity, healthcare and crime. Handling Addiction While it is true that very successful methods have been developed to help individuals resolve their problems with substance abuse and addiction, the most successful and effective way to handle substance abuse and addiction is to prevent it from occurring in the first place. Many individuals may be able to make the statement, “Drugs are bad”, but the fact is that few individuals would be able to explain why. Drug education programs that use scare tactics to implore individuals not to use is making the same mistake – it’s not explaining why drugs are bad, it’s simply scaring people with some of the more frightening effects of drug use. Individuals who understand what drugs are, how they work to suppress symptoms and reactions in the body and the many effects that can result from continued drug use are empowered with the information they need to make the wise decision and abstain from drug use. Prevention programs can include families, schools, communities and the media, and can be highly successful in helping to handle addiction problems by preventing them from occurring in the first place.