Drugs Don’t Cause Addiction

drugs don't cause addiction

by Thaddeus Camlin, PsyD

Saying drugs cause addiction is like saying clouds cause tornadoes.  Tornadoes are caused by a complex combination of factors including warm, moist air, changes in wind direction and speed, and an unstable atmosphere decreasing in temperature rapidly with height.  Similarly, addiction is caused by a complex combination of factors, not drugs themselves.  Let us not forget, drugs are not even a necessary component of addiction, as addictive behaviors manifest in the absence of drugs with process addictions like gambling, video games, sex, food, social media, work, etc.   Just like tornadoes require an unstable atmosphere, addictions invariably grow from unstable, often traumatic environmental conditions.  Clouds don’t cause tornadoes, drugs don’t cause addiction.

The notion that drugs cause addiction is harmful and impedes progress in improving treatment.  The more we promote the false notion that drugs cause addiction the more we continue to pour money into research that seeks to show why drugs are bad or how they hijack the brain (neither of which are accurate).  Single cause etiological explanations for any complex mental or medical condition are woefully inadequate.  Just like there is no ‘addict gene,’ there is no drug that causes addiction and there will never be a brain scan that reveals more about the cause of addiction than an individual’s history.  Overcoming addictive problems is best achieved by making environmental, psychological, and behavioral changes, not by stopping drug use.

We keep focusing on how to stop drug use, which will never happen and nor should it.  Drugs are medicine, so a drug-free society would mean a society without medication.  Surgeries without anesthesia don’t sound pleasant. The delusion of a drug free society is about as realistic as an inert compound causing humans to ingest it or a hamburger causing someone to eat it.  The complex, uncomfortable internal experience of hunger combined with motor movements causes food consumption, not food itself.  Food is not the cause of obesity, just like poker does not cause gambling addiction, having sex does not cause sex addiction, and employment does not make some people ‘workaholics.’ None of the statements in the previous sentence are likely to ruffle many feathers.  However, the statement that drugs don’t cause addiction is considered dangerous and irresponsible to many otherwise reasonable people.

Most people experiment with drugs and few become addicted.  Few people who take opioid pain medication after surgery become addicted.  Even fentanyl, the current target in a long line of misinformed drug panics, is FDA approved and has been safely prescribed since 1960.  Before fentanyl it was methamphetamine, before methamphetamine it was mdma, before mdma it was crack, before crack it was cocaine, before cocaine it was LSD, before LSD it was cannabis, before cannabis it was opium, each of these substances (amongst others) enjoyed the limelight of hyperbolic propaganda campaigns designed to demonize their inert nature and oppress the people who ingest them.  The damage of propaganda campaigns demonizing drugs and those who ingest them is immeasurable.

Thanks to fundamentally misinformed and overly simplistic ideas like drugs causing addiction, society continues to cage humans who ingest them, stifle advancement of effective treatments, and limit access to substances for people they help.  As long as we believe that drugs cause addiction we will continue to focus on how to convince people not to try them rather than helping people learn how to use them effectively, and we will continue to neglect areas of investigation that can deepen our understanding of how to effectively help people who do develop addictive problems.  The statement that drugs cause addiction is about as inaccurate as American addiction treatment is effective, and until we shed outdated, temperance-era thinking about drugs our society will continue to violate the human rights of millions of citizens through unconstitutional restrictions on liberty and the pursuit of happiness while failing to help most who develop addictive problems.