Addiction, Mental Health and Society by George Pratt, Ed.D.

The relationship of the government and drugs has a long history in the United States.  In 1794 the federal government attempted to tax whiskey which resulted in what is now called the Whiskey Rebellion.  Ever since, there has been an attempt by the government to tax and control the manufacture, distribution, and use of drugs.  The establishment of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 d drugs and chemicals based on their potential medical use and levels of addiction.  It is interesting to note that two of the most dangerous drugs, alcohol and tobacco, are not even included in the list of Controlled Substance.  Since then the federal and state officials have been responsible for enforcing laws intended to protect the public from those persons who violate these laws.  Numerous approached have been instituted in an attempt at stopping the use and distribution of the drugs to include fines, imprisonment, and social interventions such as reducing poverty and community development.

Addiction to these drugs is not a legal issue but rather a disorder of the brain.  Having an addiction is not a crime.  Treatment for addiction requires a totally different approach and treatment is sorely lacking in many communities but proper treatment at the time it is requested clearly works.  No one intends to become an addict but if one uses too much one can become addicted to many drugs.

Addiction knows no single race, faith organization, gender, or economic group.  Almost every person in America is impacted by the problems of addiction. In 2016, 17,000 people died from illicit drugs.  The same year saw about 30, 000 people die from alcohol related illness and another 48,000 die from tobacco related illness.  About 40% of adults do not drink alcohol at all while 10% of those that do drink, drink around 74 drinks a week.  A few drink a lot. America has a very bad drug problem. And these numbers don’t even include death related to prescription drugs.


It is important to understand that a drug by definition is any chemical that alters the body’s regulation system.  It make little difference from an addiction standpoint whether the drug in legal or illegal as long as it changes the body’s systems.  Therefore we must include alcohol and tobacco in the category of addictive drugs even though both are legal.  As a matter of fact the nicotine in tobacco is as addictive as cocaine.  There are several ways to classify addictive drugs but generally the list includes Central Nervous System Depressants like alcohol, Sedatives or pain killers like Opium and Morphine, Central Nervous System Stimulants like Caffeine, Nicotine and Cocaine, Hallucinogens like LSD and Cannabinoids like Marijuana.  There are certainly other drugs in each of these categories but there are a few.  The drugs in each category have similar effects and addiction to any one of them means addiction to all in that category.


There are about 80 million neurons in the brain and they talk to each other using chemicals called neurotransmitters.  There are over a hundred different of them that do different things to different parts of the brain.  Some cause anxiety, some make us happy, some make us sad, some make us relax and some speed us up.  They are there to make our brain work.

Why are these addictive?  It is because these drugs mimic chemicals already produced in the brain.  When a new chemical becomes present, the brain stops producing the minute amounts needed for proper neural functioning because the larger amounts cross into the brain and change brain functioning.  It is important to understand that once these drugs are present those neurons do not readily begin producing the natural chemicals so the brain begins calling to the drug again.  That is essentially what addiction is all about.  The brain quits producing the natural neurotransmitter because there is a larger amount of a similar chemical being put into the body.


Why do people use drugs that may produce addiction?  The reasons are numerous and include peer pressure, social status, self-treatment, pain reduction, just for fun, to feel better from physical or mental problems.  Many if not most people begin using drugs to self-treat emotional or real psychiatric problems such as depression, bi-polar disorder and anxiety.  With early diagnosis and treatment most of these people would not use alcohol and other drugs for self-treatment.

There is a difference in intervention for drug taking behavior which is a societal, psychological, economic, and legal problem while addiction is a brain chemistry, neurological condition.  Changes in poverty, housing, job availability, school achievement, personal safety, codes enforcement, availability of medical care, and drug treatment on demand certainly reduce the long term process leading to addiction.

A total human being includes at least the following domains:  Behavioral, Social vocational, Feeling, Thinking, Physiological, and Spiritual. Treatment of addiction is difficult because it requires interventions in almost each of these areas at the same time.  While medical and psychological assistance is often helpful one organization, Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) has helped millions of people addicted to alcohol and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) has helped those addicted to narcotics.  Both of these groups are free and many faith organization provide space for these groups to meet.

Help is available in many places but the addict needs to be prepared and willing to change.  And that is unbelievably hard to do.  And it often takes more than a few attempts but change is possible. 

One step at a time and keep coming back!