Drug Dependency and the War on Drugs: Where Are We Now?

The War on Drugs campaign was a major political point in the late 20th century, but its results were lukewarm at best, and negligible at worst. Into the 21st century, illicit drugs haven’t gone away, and a variety of new drugs have entered the ring, many of which are legally prescribed.

In fact, courtesy of Big Pharma, some of the most addictive drugs out there are those obtained via a legal prescription. Addictive substances may be prescribed to treat a variety of conditions, from chronic pain to ADHD and depression. Other prescription drugs that can lead to dependency include performance-enhancing drugs, such as steroids.

So, in 2019, where are we in terms of the drug war? The news isn’t great: According to the U.S. surgeon general, one in seven Americans will become addicted to drugs at some point in their lifetime, with an economic impact of $442 billion annually. Here’s what we can do about it.

The Dangers of “Roid Rage”

Performance-enhancing drugs entered the national spotlight en force in 2012, when the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) accused champion cyclist Lance Armstrong of doping, following a years-long investigation. The same year, Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France championships and given a lifetime ban from professional cycling.

But he certainly wasn’t the last pro athlete to take performance-enhancing drugs. In March 2019, UFC fighter Khalid Murtazaliev was suspended for two years after testing positive for anabolic steroids.

While steroids do indeed boost an athlete’s performance, they have numerous side effects, starting with the possibility of dependency. Further, those types of drugs can negatively affect users on a psychopathological level. The overuse of anabolic steroids can cause insomnia, depression, anxiety, mania, as well as aggression, violence, and psychosis. Fits of mania occurring from long-term steroid use are known as “roid rage.” Long-term abuse of steroids can lead to dependency and painful withdrawals.

The Opioid Epidemic Starts With Big Pharma

Dependency is also the name of the game when it comes to prescription opioids. The modern opioid epidemic is so severe that several cities have banned together in an attempt to curb the problem. Their focus is on Big Pharma.

“Big Pharma” is a term used to describe the world’s largest public pharmaceutical companies. And Big Pharma has huge profit margins, totaling $446 billion in 2016 alone.

As for opioids, they saturate the market: Opioids are any drug that is naturally or synthetically derived from the opium poppy, from opium and morphine to heroin, hydrocodone, and fentanyl. Prescription opioids are used to treat various forms of mild to severe pain. When used as prescribed, they are generally considered safe. But they can be, and are, misused by many individuals.

The numbers are disturbing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 400,000 people died from an opioid overdose in the years between 1999-2017. That number includes both prescription and illicit opioids. 2013 kicked off what is called the “third wave” of opioid-related deaths, which was largely saturated with deaths caused by synthetic opioids, especially fentanyl.

Curbing Drug Dependency

With such a wide range of addictive substances out there, treatment must be more versatile than ever. People become addicted to drugs for a number of reasons, and no one is immune. The housewife abusing her prescription opioids is just as likely to develop a dependency as an athlete who is taking steroids to boost performance. Therefore, as addiction has varying facets, so must treatment.

The first step to widespread treatment is to attempt to rid society of some of the stigma associated with drug addiction. Drug dependency is not a choice. It is caused by numerous factors that include genetics and one’s environment, as well as the way the neurotransmitter dopamine affects an individual’s brain. Dopamine causes an individual to feel pleasure rather than pain. For an addict, the continual release of dopamine becomes necessary in order to feel “right.”

Drug dependency also sometimes goes hand-in-hand with one’s mental state. About 25 percent of drug addicts also have a corresponding mental health disorder, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse. Healthcare professionals treating addiction, therefore, must be prepared to make a dual diagnosis if necessary.

Psychiatric nurses often work alongside other healthcare professionals to treat patients with a dual diagnosis. According to Regis College, “psychiatric nursing provides extensive knowledge of addiction patterns and how to combat drug abuse and addiction.” While more research is needed to test efficacy, psychiatric nurses may help bridge the gap between addiction treatment and treatment of mental health disorders.

Final Thoughts

Drug addiction is a complex condition, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to the epidemic. However, the future of addiction treatment crosses multiple disciplines. Healthcare professionals may need to cross fields, as psychiatric nurses have done. In some cases, identifying and treating the root cause of the addiction is the key to curbing addictive behavior, whether an individual is dependent on opioids, steroids, or another substance altogether.

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