After years of research, addiction was officially classified as a brain disease by the American Medical Association in 1956. Since then, innumerable studies conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse have validated this designation based on the impact of chronic drug abuse on the brain. Despite this, the disease concept of addiction remains a very controversial subject as is evidenced by the number of articles and books refuting this designation. Some consider the “disease” classification to be too narrow a perspective to explain the complexities of addiction.
While almost everyone can agree that repeated use of drugs, alcohol and nicotine cause neurological changes that impair functions involved in memory, anticipation and pleasure, it is the initiation into drug use that drives the dispute. This debate matters because it determines treatment of people battling addiction. Individuals behind each argument make valid points however what most don’t understand is that there is a difference between addiction and substance abuse and what sets them apart is the change that occurs after repeated abuse when the individual becomes dependent on the substance. The brain is then changed and therefor has to be treated to no longer need that substance.
There is a distinct disparity between treatment of people in addiction when the condition is viewed as a moral weakness rather than a disease. When viewed as moral failure or character flaw, incarceration and punishment becomes the primary focus and perpetuate the stigma of addiction. As a disease, the treatment of addiction is aimed at healing, restoration and saving lives. When addressing the addiction epidemic sweeping the country, both presidential hopefuls, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton alluded to addiction as a brain disease. As such, Mrs. Clinton laid out a plan of action to fight the epidemic indicating her support of the disease concept.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse describes addiction as a “chronic” relapsing brain disease that affects behavior. They explain that this conclusion is derived from extensive scientific research. Advancements in technology have enabled in-depth exploration of what happens to the brain on drugs. This has led to the identification of the biological, environmental factors and genetic variations that contribute to the development and progression of the addiction condition as well as lend credence to the disease theory.
Based on these scientific outcomes, NIDA scientists say they are better able to develop effective prevention and treatment approaches that reduce the toll drug abuse takes on individuals, families, and communities. The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) also defines addiction as a “primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.” According to a report, they reached this conclusion based on consultations with more than 80 experts. The scientific evidence that shows addiction is rooted in distinct brain changes, and the designation of addiction as a disease has made significant inroads in de-stigmatizing addictive disorders. These groundbreaking discoveries about the brain are revolutionizing people’s understanding of drug addiction, enabling more empathy for people battling this condition and a more positive response to the problem. It has also removed the justification for treating people with addiction as criminals rather than patients.
As a result, policy changes across the nation are redesigning the criminal justice system to break the cycle of addiction, arrest, and incarceration. Additionally, more funding to expand research parameters, implement addiction awareness programs and services has exponentially increased in the last two decades. NIDA scientist are also strong proponents of disseminating information to the general population in order to increase understanding of the basics of addiction. Many people, they believe, still do not really understand why people become addicted to drugs or how drugs change the brain to foster compulsive drug use. Greater public awareness, NIDA scientist explain, will empower more people to make informed choices in their own lives, reduce substance abuse and drug related fatalities, as well as encourage more science-based policies and programs that save lives.
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