Why Drugs are a Social Problem

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“One in eight American adults is an alcoholic,” states a study published in JAMA Psychiatry in 2017, which is approximately 12.7% of the population. Furthermore, SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) estimated that 8.4% (20.2 million adults) had a substance use disorder in 2014. Drugs and alcohol can be used to initiate or lessen the anxiety of possible future social interactions, or as a way for social groups to have fun (AAC, Laguna). However innocent their use may seem in the time being, these substances have a high potential of causing their users to become addicted and reliant on them to feel normal and to keep from getting sick (withdrawal). Drug addiction (alcohol included) is thought to occur evenly based on an individual’s environment and genetics (AAC); genetics play approximately a 50% chance in whether someone develops an addiction, which is further influenced by their socialization and environment (social environment, socioeconomic status, stress, parental involvement, and personal history) (AAC).

No matter the gender, race/ethnicity, age, or level of education, addiction affects most of us. A Pew survey found that 46% of Americans knew a family member or close friend with an addiction, past or present (Vox). This statistic may even be higher because the results were gathered from household’s self-reports. Furthermore, the statistic says, “family member or close friend,” which could very well skew results; for example, saying “friend” rather than “close friend” could yield higher numbers. With such high numbers of people being affected negatively, drug use in America can be classified as a social problem. In order to address this largescale social problem, it is important to understand the reasons someone starts using drugs, how it leads to addiction, what happens to the user, and ways to counteract this problem.

Humans have used substances to alter their perception since time immemorial. However, not everyone who takes a drug becomes addicted the first time (and sometimes, after repeated use). This discrepancy in addiction is caused by one’s own biology and their environment, the “classical nature versus nurture” argument. Some people use drugs to self-medicate, to “escape” their problems, they may be impulsive, or they may just be trying to “fit in” (Psy. Today). Overall, stress is the “simplest explanation” (Unity). Other reasons people may start abusing drugs is because of a co-occurring mental illness. In relation to the 20.2 million adults that had a substance use disorder, 7.9 million had a mental disorder as well. Mental disorders can change a person’s thinking patterns, behavior, and personalities (SAMHSA). Those with a co-occurring mental illness are more likely to start self-medicating or experimenting with drugs and ultimately developing an addiction; but how does somebody become addicted?

When somebody takes a drug, if they have a pleasurable feeling (the “high”), their brain starts to build reward networks that want to sustain use of that substance to achieve the same feeling. This reward system, from a biological perspective, influences us to do things, like eating when hungry, in order to sustain life (homeostasis) (Hazelden). This system relies on a neurotransmitter called dopamine; this neurotransmitter reinforces behaviors that are healthy and bad alike. When someone ingests a drug, their brain is flooded with dopamine, causing their brain to want more of it to get high again because of the pleasurable experience, which can lead to repetitive, compulsive use. Prolonged drug use eventually leads to a tolerance for the drug, requiring more of it to achieve the same high.

Without the drug, the user may become anhedonic (lose pleasure) and need the drug to feel “normal,” (Hazelden). However, this is only one part of addiction; when the drug is no longer in the body a person may begin experiencing cravings for the drug, leading to risky and illegal behavior in order to secure the drug, for example, an addict may go to a hospital and fake having pain in order to get opiates, or they may resort to stealing. If the drug is not reintroduced to the body within ranges of 12 hours to 4 days (depending on the drug, the tolerance, and the way the drug is introduced into the body), the user will begin to experience withdrawal symptoms (AAC). People addicted to opiates will begin having flu-like symptoms that can last up to a week.

Benzodiazepines (anxiety medications like Valium and Xanax) cause abusers to have anxiety or seizures, symptoms sometimes lasting months. Cocaine’s withdrawal symptoms cause the user to feel depressed and experience restlessness for around a week. Alcohol causes people to experience tremors and/or seizures, and in severe cases of alcohol abuse/dependence, hallucinations. To avoid withdrawal symptoms, drug addicts must keep the drug in their system to maintain what their body now deems as homeostatic functioning (despite whatever physical pain the drug may cause to them).

Whatever the reason, prolonged drug use leads to a chronic battle of addiction that affects the addict psychologically and physically. Drug abuse can dramatically alter the brain’s chemistry and structure (AAC), and, according to Joe Hernazek, once someone has been addicted to a drug, they no longer have control over their use (i.e., even if they had not used the drug in years, using it again would cause them to lose control) (Hernazek). Avoiding triggers (stress, areas, situations, isolation/loneliness etc.) can further ensure that a former addict does not relapse and end back up in the cycle addiction (The Cabin). If someone does relapse, it is best to immediately enter back into a treatment program, so that the patient can identify what caused them to relapse and what they can do better next time to avoid a future relapse (The Cabin).

Several possible solutions have been thrown around for ways to curb the ever-increasing problems of drug use. One way is to incarcerate more people; however, this puts more of a strain on the economy (less people working, more tax money spent on prisons) and does not truly solve the problem of addiction. Alternatives include providing people with cheaper mental and medical health services—this would help those who are less financially able to afford treatment programs. Also, providing safe spaces for people to use drugs can have a profound impact. Areas in Canada and Europe have safe-injection sites, where drug users can inject with clean needles and be monitored by health personnel (these sites often allow other types of illicit drugs to be used) (NYT).

This greatly reduces the risk of contracting diseases, like HIV, and preventing overdoses. Opening areas like this around the country could help connect addicts with treatment programs and professionals. Allowing the public access to drugs that are used in detox (methadone for opiate detox, benzodiazepines for alcohol), or preventing overdoses (naloxone, to reverse opiate overdose) (AAC) can also ease the strain of having to enter a rehab center, which can be costly, and allow people to detox from home or a local community center. Of course, the public should be informed about these drugs, such as how to use them, how much to use and/or take, and they should have a medical advisor to guide them through the processes of withdrawal, detox and the application of medication.

The best solution of all is to educate people. There does not have to be a “Say No to Drugs” or “All Drugs are Bad” campaign. Many drugs have beneficial properties; drugs like LSD, ecstasy, and psilocybin mushrooms have been used in therapy for those with PTSD, depression, eating disorders, and substance use disorders (NBC). The key takeaway is to be aware of the dangers. Telling a teenager not to do something often has the opposite effect. Educating them about drugs and the consequences of drug use and subsequent abuse is the best way to help people, being there for them in their time of need if an addiction develops is just as beneficial (isolation being one of the reasons someone starts using or relapsing).

Functional Theory and Conflict Theory both provide great insight into the use of drugs, however, I believe that Symbolic Interactionism provides greater knowledge towards why people start using drugs. Symbolic Interactionism says that drug use is learned; from the text, people can learn how to properly use marijuana through interacting with friends who have used before; for example, the correct way to smoke a joint, the feelings after getting stoned (high), the reassurance through friends that being stoned is a “pleasurable experience” (Barkan).

Symbolic Interactionism explains that use of drugs is learned over time through what we may already know what a drug may do to us and through interacting with our peers, as well as being influenced from social media, television, and on the Internet. I also think Symbolic Interactionism fits best with drug use because having an idea of what is going to happen after using a drug makes us either more open or cautious to the effects of said drug. The first time I smoked marijuana with a friend, I was beyond terrified.

Thankfully, I did not truly enjoy it. My family has a lot of problems with drugs, mostly tobacco/nicotine products and alcohol. The naïve teenager I was back when I first tried an illicit drug would have most likely tried other drugs as well, as long as I was reassured that I would be okay. Nowadays, I am warier towards drug use; if I do smoke marijuana, it is during times I am depressed or extremely stressed (even then, I most likely will abstain from use), I only drink when I have a reasonable amount of time to do so (no work or school obligations), and I am terrified to try any drug that can be tampered with or manmade through chemicals (cocaine, heroin, MDMA, etc.).

The reason why I specifically chose to talk about this social problem was because my mother died from a fentanyl overdose in September 2017, most likely from laced heroin or what she falsely believed was heroin. It had a profound impact on my life. It made me question my existence, my worth, everything I have believed. I wanted to venture into drug use, wanting to die, to feel nothing. I was shaken to my core and have not recovered. I never did try anything to harm myself, but I am still affected by what happened and the afterthoughts.

I believe that people have the wrong idea about drug use and towards addiction. Addicts and users need to be educated and given some leeway. This class has shown me that it is not always a choice, extenuating social, economic, and cultural factors play a role into what happens in someone’s life. Sometimes we are left with very few options, and sometimes we make the wrong choice. People should face consequences, but not to the extent that their lives are ruined or drastically changed.

It is impossible to rid the world of drugs. We use them every day—from headaches to post-op surgeries, we need drugs to ensure that people maintain healthy lives. Unfortunately, drugs can be used for malicious reasons, causing people physiological harm and leading to potential addictions and untimely deaths. Punishing people for using drugs does not help them; if someone wants to take heroin they will find a way. Educating the public and providing safe networks for people helps ensure that they can recover and live full lives.

Cite this paper

Why Drugs are a Social Problem. (2021, Jul 27). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/why-drugs-are-a-social-problem/

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