Frequently Asked Questions
What is drug addiction?
Drug addiction is a complex, and often chronic, brain disease. It is characterized by drug craving, seeking, and use that can persist even in the face of devastating life consequences. Addiction results largely from brain changes that stem from prolonged drug use—changes that involve multiple brain circuits, including those responsible for governing self-control and other behaviors. Drug addiction is treatable, often with medications (for some addictions) combined with behavioral therapies. However, relapse is common and can happen even after long periods of abstinence, underscoring the need for long-term support and care. Relapse does not signify treatment failure, but rather should prompt treatment re-engagement or modification.
Does prevention work?
It all depends on what you mean by "work". There is no doubt that prevention efforts are making a difference to young people's lives at different levels. A prevention initiative has to be addressed in relation to the objectives of a particular piece of prevention work and in relation to the target group for whom it is intended. It is very difficult to show a "cause and effect" response. We are dealing with a complex issue that should not expect simplistic or black and white solutions. There are many areas of grey that have to be addressed in prevention work. Trying to show that you have achieved something "not happening" is very difficult. A comparison would be road accident prevention. Accidents still occur but the belief is that many more would occur without investing in safety and prevention measures.
There is an increased need to focus on evaluation of activity in order to identify whether efforts in prevention have achieved their objectives their intended outcomes. We also evaluate the process so we can learn what "works" and what "does not work" in the way we tackle things. This will increase awareness of "evidence-based best practice". This needs to be shared and disseminated so that others can adapt and build on this rather than waste time and money on duplicating efforts on ineffective work.
The important thing is that each prevention initiative has to be clear in its objectives and intended outcomes and in its target group selection. When all initiatives are put together and when there is a breadth of objectives for a breadth of target groups the foundation for the ultimate success of preventing drug use and promoting the health and well-being of children and young people can definitely "work".
What should prevention programs aim to do and achieve?
Prevention programs have the ultimate aim of contributing to a world where people, particularly children and young people, do not feel the need to resort to using drugs as part of their behavior.
They are about addressing the factors that make people feel they need to use drugs. They are about enabling people to make positive and healthy choices about their behavior without necessarily using drugs. They are about helping people to make informed choices that promote their health and well-being and the health and well-being of others.
Can we ever win the "drug war"?
Some would argue that the analogy of the "war on drugs" is not a useful one. They would suggest drugs are a reality for most people and what we have to do is to focus on enabling people to live and operate in a healthy and appropriate manner in relation to life in a society where drugs have and will always exist.
If the question means can we make it more possible for people to make positive and healthy choices that does not include the need to misuse drugs, I think that there can be significant achievements towards this end. However we need to commit ourselves to prevention and to promoting the health and well-being of children and young people whether it be in our role as a parent, teacher, media person or politician. However this means a need for that commitment which will cost time and money and the need to enable and allow ourselves to be better educated and informed about how we can best achieve this objective.
Does the media have an impact on drug use?
It depends on the meaning of "impact". The research does indicate that media campaigns can be very useful in raising public awareness of an issue - placing it on the public of political agenda - but it has its limitations in changing or effecting behavior. Media campaigns can also be very expensive.
Some people would argue that the media plays a role in promoting drug use. Many would certainly argue that the dominant youth culture is media created or is it merely reflected through the media? The $64,000 question.
The media does often offer an "alternative" view on drug related issues and many of the youth idols or stars are less than positive and healthy role models in this regard. Whether the young people are able to see this for what it is may depend on what else is presented to them in real life and whether the media offers the range that reflects reality and the breadth of alternatives.
What do drugs make you feel like?
Depending on the drug, some people might say they feel pleasant or relaxed. However, in many cases, these feelings may be followed by even more powerful sensations, such as depression, anxiety, nausea, confusion, lack of control, paranoia, guilt, embarrassment, hangovers, loneliness, and cravings for more drugs. People who use drugs to have fun or to forget their problems may never really learn how to find things in their lives that truly make them fulfilled or find ways to cope with difficulties, and they may keep returning to drugs because they haven't learned other ways to be happy.
What damage do drugs cause the teenage brain?
This important question is starting to get studied by scientists. Now that there are new brain imaging technologies, scientists are beginning to discover that drug use has deleterious effects on the structure and function of the brain.
There is already a lot of information about how drugs affect the body and the brain, and how these effects can turn drug use into addiction.
Now evidence is accumulating that alcohol, and perhaps other drugs, impact brain function and behavior differently during adolescence than during adulthood.
Preliminary data suggest two findings. One is that adolescents might be less sensitive to internal signals that tell us when we are intoxicated, such as the feeling of drowsiness and the experience of motor clumsiness. These signals help us to recognize that we are drunk and to stop drinking.
The other preliminary finding is that teenagers may be more vulnerable than adults to impairments following repeated alcohol exposure. Some studies have shown that this damage may particularly affect the hippocampus, the region of the brain associated with memory and learning.
What are the short-term effects of drug use?
Drugs are chemicals. Every drug is different, but generally, drugs interfere with your nervous system's basic functions. They work by tapping into the brain's communication system and interfering with the way nerve cells normally send, receive, and process information. Some drugs, such as marijuana and heroin, can activate brain neurons because their chemical structures act like natural neurotransmitters that are found in the brain. This similarity in structure "fools" receptors and allows the drugs to lock onto and activate the nerve cells.
Other drugs, such as amphetamines or cocaine, can cause the nerve cells to release abnormally large amounts of natural neurotransmitters or prevent the normal recycling of these brain chemicals, which is needed to shut off the signal between neurons. This disruption produces a greatly amplified message, ultimately disrupting communication channels. The difference in effect can be described as the difference between someone whispering into your ear and someone shouting into a microphone.
This is what causes the user to feel different — the signals coming and going from the brain have been altered from the way that they naturally function, leading people to have unfamiliar sensations. This can cause temporary euphoria. But it can also cause hallucinations, anxiety, paranoia, and uncontrolled behavior. It can also affect your muscles and how they function because the signals from your brain that control your movements can be altered. This can cause your respiratory (lungs) and cardiovascular (heart) systems to malfunction or fail.
Some abused substances, such as glue or butane, can cause immediate death. Cocaine, ecstasy, and methamphetamine can give even healthy people a heart attack on the spot.
In addition to these mental, behavioral, and health-related effects, drugs also have social consequences. These can include lying to and losing the trust of friends and family; performing poorly in school; quitting academic, athletic, or social activities; losing self-control, making bad decisions like drugged or drunk driving; getting pregnant; becoming violent or placing yourself at risk to be a victim of violence; and abandoning old friendships in order to be around people who also use drugs.
What are the long-term effects of drug use?
It depends on the drug, but all drugs can cause negative health effects and can lead to addiction.
Addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. It is considered a brain disease because drugs change the brain - they change its structure and how it works. These brain changes can be long lasting, and can lead to the harmful behaviors seen in people who abuse drugs.
Individuals who suffer from addiction often have one or more accompanying medical issues, including lung and cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer, mental disorders, and obesity; and drug use can also make them susceptible to contracting HIV, hepatitis, and other diseases. Imaging scans, chest x-rays, and blood tests show the damaging effects of drug abuse throughout the body. In addition, some drugs are toxic to nerve cells and may damage or destroy them either in the brain or the peripheral nervous system.
Some of these effects occur when drugs are used at high doses or for prolonged periods of time. However, some may occur after just one use.
In addition to health effects like those described above, drugs can also have negative social consequences that can really hurt people - being unreliable, forgetting things, telling lies, stealing money for drugs, sometimes even getting violent with people they love. Their biggest ambition becomes getting high.
While addiction may result from any drug use, there are unique health effects for each drug. Learn more about a specific drug and how they affect your body.
Can you get addicted even though you only do it once in a while?
No one wakes up in the morning and says, "I'm going to be an addict." Addiction is a process - not an event. Most people who start using drugs do so with the intention of only using once or occasionally. However, drugs affect the brain; even with only occasional use, changes are happening and you could get addicted. The "occasional" use of drugs can quickly change to frequent use and then to constant use. No one knows when the "chemical switch" goes off in your brain or who will get addicted. It's a lot like playing Russian Roulette - you just never know. The only thing we do know is that if you don't do drugs, you definitely won't get addicted.
How many times does someone have to take a drug to become an addict?
No one knows. A person's genetic makeup plays a role. That's why some people seem to get addicted almost immediately, but for others, it takes more time. There is a lot we still don't know about who becomes addicted and why, and after how much drug exposure. We do know that each person is different, so it's a little like playing a game of chance if you choose to use drugs. But, if you do, the earlier you stop, the more likely you will be to avoid addiction and the harmful brain changes that lead to it.
Here's the science behind it: With repeated drug use, dopamine function in a drug abuser's brain becomes abnormal. Because dopamine is involved in feelings of pleasure and motivation, the person feels flat, lifeless, and depressed when they are not taking the drug. Without drugs, an abuser's life seems joyless. Now the abuser needs drugs just to bring dopamine levels up to normal levels. They need it just to get them close to where they were before they even tried drugs in the first place. Larger amounts of the drug are needed to create a dopamine flood or high, an effect known as tolerance.
By abusing drugs, the addicted person has changed the way his or her brain works. Drug abuse and addiction lead to long-term changes in the brain. These changes cause addicted drug users to lose the ability to control their drug use. Drug addiction is a disease.
Are there reasons other than physical addiction why people keep taking drugs?
Some people keep taking drugs because they become addicted to them. They want more - in fact, they feel like they need more. Eventually, trying to get drugs becomes the most important thing in their lives - using up their time, money, and energy, and hurting people they're close to.
However, those people who don't become addicted to drugs may continue to use drugs for the same reasons they started, including feeling bored or wanting to fit in with a particular group, even though drugs aren't helping them. But whatever the reason, these people need to find healthy and constructive ways to be happy without drugs. They can do this by finding friends who share similar interests, finding healthy activities that make them happy, talking about their concerns, and finding friends who enjoy their company when they are not altered by drugs and alcohol.
Marijuana is just a plant... is it really that dangerous?
Yes, marijuana is a plant but it has real health consequences, including addiction. While some people or Web sites may try to convince you that "it's no big deal," the real science shows a different picture. More teens are in treatment with a primary diagnosis of marijuana dependence than for all other illicit drugs combined. Young people who use marijuana weekly have a greater risk of depression later in life. This risk is even higher for girls; the odds that a female who uses marijuana daily will be depressed at age 21 are higher than the odds of non-users. The odds that a heavy marijuana user will be diagnosed with schizophrenia later in life are higher than the odds of non-users. And the odds that a teenager who use marijuana will drop out of school are more than the odds of non-users.