What is drug addiction?

There are many theories about drug addiction and how it takes hold of people's lives. The tabloid press tends to talk about addictive drugs such as heroin or cocaine, as if addiction is a property of the drugs themselves.

This approach, while it sounds like common sense, is actually not supported by research. Some substances are more likely to be used by addicts than others, but this falls a long way short of an adequate theory of addiction.

People who work in the drug and alcohol field tend to look for explanations in the person using them rather than in biochemical properties of the substances themselves.

Many professionals argue that people addicted to drugs learn to take them in particular ways that, over time, become habitual and thus hard to change - this is what constitutes what we call addiction.

Other professionals prefer a genetically based explanation - that some individuals are born with an inbuilt vulnerability to drug addiction, sometimes described as an “addictive personality”.

These two approaches represent opposite ends of the traditional nature-nurture debate. In practice, clinicians may adopt elements from both sides of the fence.

Either way, there are two components in the addiction description which are generally agreed. One is dependence - abrupt cessation of the substance of choice leads to withdrawal symptoms. The other is tolerance - when the addict needs to use increasing doses in order to achieve the desired effect.

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