The War on Morals: A Look into Addiction


Are prolonged prisons sentences, hefty fines, and being deemed a criminal really helping our global drug problem? The war on drugs has led us to believe that drug users suffer from a moral dilemma rather than a medical condition. In June 1971 former United States President Richard Nixon stated that drug abuse was “public enemy number one” and declared an all out offensive on drug users (Vulliamy, 2011).  Since then, the US has spent over $1 Trillion trying to combat the sale, use, and possession of illegal substances (Branson, 2012).  Without intent, Nixon vilified drug users and casted them as outlaws and criminals. People began  to  paint drug users as immoral people who lack the mental capacity of good decisions and will power. But as time goes on, Science continues to link addiction to mental disorder rather than a moral disorder. On the contrary, addiction does not stem from poor choice or character flaws, but rather psychological trauma and physical brain disorders.

Nixon’s drug war has proved that drug users shouldn’t be put in the same category as thieves and murders. Painting addicts as criminals is like painting an overeater as an outlaw. We must look at what causes this problem rather than the person being the problem. Psychologists have continued to link psychological trauma to addiction, in fact, about 2/3 addicts have experienced some sort of trauma in their early childhood (O’Leary, n.d.). Trauma isn’t characterised by the events that concur, trauma is based on our inability to cognitively process what is happening to us at the time (Woolverton, 2012). Evidence has shown that traumatic childhood events can compromise neural structures and function, which in return, renders an individual more susceptible to mental disorders such as addiction (Khoury, Tang, Bradley, Cubells & Ressler,2010, pp. 1-2).  Furthermore, the brain sees its most development at a young age, repeated stress during this developmental stage can seriously inhibit certain brain functions and neural pathways later on in life (Dass-Brailsford & Myrick, 2010, pp. 2-3). In times of stress children will always look to their loved ones for support, but when their loved ones are the cause of the trauma, children will often turn to other means to deal with the pain. Unable to live with the constant stress of having no one around to guide them, kids begin self-medicating in order to escape the pain that is so constant to them. As the void grows bigger addiction begins to flourish. Constantly needing to numb themselves, addicts put themselves in a hole that can seem impossible to get out of. Until recently, some psychologists have started to make arguments against the role of trauma. There is no doubt that trauma does play a role in addiction, but is addiction something we can control or is it an uncontrollable urge? Essentially, some researches have pointed to addicts being able to quit cold turkey as a sign of willpower (Nenn, 2016). Author Gene Heyman discusses our use of the word disease, and brings to light certain voluntary choices we can make against addiction. Heyman argues that while trauma plays a big role in the stem from addiction, we as people have the conscious effort to make a decision that betters ourselves (Heyman, 2009, p.17). Although our capacity to make a choice isn’t completely gone when addicted to a substance, psychological trauma creates a huge burden on our mind that can resemble a jail cell. Although addicts made the choice to try their drugs, they must still be helped to quit a habit that becomes second nature to them.

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence deemed alcoholism as medical illness through the disease model. The disease model of alcoholism is a disorder of the brain only taking into account the physical changes the brain undergoes in its neural structure during addiction (Miller, 2015). Much like alcoholism, substances abuse such as opiates, cocaine, and pharmaceuticals also greatly affect your brains chemistry and neural junctions. The US National Library of Medicine took multiple brains scans of addicted patients of several drugs. The brains scans showed significant changes in brain chemistry, such as Cocaine users containing built up dopamine in certain parts of the brain which, in return, reduces the availability of dopamine later on (Fowler, Volkow, Kassed & Chang, 2007, pp. 8-10). Dopamine is a natural opiate-like neurotransmitter in our brains that are responsible for many neurological functions, one of them being pleasure (Sorensen, 2015). When the brain lacks this chemical, life can become very boring, hence drug users continued use of narcotics to retain that feeling.   On the contrary, certain neuroscientists began to question the disease theory and its validity that addiction is, in fact, a physical disease. Neuroscientist Marc Lewis defines addiction as a habit that can be overcome with willpower and determination (Bydlowska, 2015). Lewis argues that repeated motivating experiences, like snorting a line or shooting up, trigger our brain to go into a routine of substance abuse (Sachgau, 2015). This routine then becomes inherently harder to stop as time goes on, the harder it gets the more one will think it is impossible to overcome. Addiction can be beat with willpower, but Lewis seems to underestimate the power of our brain chemistry. Our brains have an automatic nervous system which contain functions that we do without noticing, also known as habits. As drug using becomes a habit, our brain cannot function properly without attending to that specific habit. The brain is a very complex structure and any sort of damage or change to the brain can greatly affect who we are and can eventually lead to mental disorders such as addiction

All in all, when a person succumbs to addiction they fall victim to all the factors that come with addiction. Addiction doesn’t just stem from poor choice, its stems from neglect and lack of love early on in life. Its important that we take into consideration all the factors of addiction before a judgment is made. Although choosing to take any substance is a choice, the need to take the drug to escape a reality that is to horrible is something that must be accounted for.

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Article by Jimmy Ortiz

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