Defining Drug Addiction

Twenty years of scientific research, coupled with even longer clinical experience, has taught us that focusing on this physical vs. psychological distinction is off the mark, and a distraction from the real issue. From both clinical and policy perspectives, it does not matter much what physical withdrawal symptoms occur. Other aspects of addiction are far smore important.

Physical dependence is not that important because, first, even the florid withdrawal symptoms of heroin and alcohol addiction can be managed with appropriate medications. Therefore, physical withdrawal symptoms should not be at the core of our concerns about the substance that you can see here.

Second, and more important, many of the most addicting and dangerous drugs do not even produce very severe physical symptoms upon withdrawal. Crack cocaine and methamphetamine are clear examples. Both are highly addicting, but stopping their use produces very few physical withdrawal symptoms, certainly nothing like the physical symptoms of alcohol or heroin withdrawal.

What does matter tremendously is whether or not a drug causes what we now know to be the essence of addiction: uncontrollable, compulsive drug seeking and use, even in the face of negative health and social consequences. This is the crux of how many professional organizations all define addiction, and how we all should use the term. It is really only this expression of addiction – uncontrollable, compulsive craving, seeking and use of drugs – that matters to the addict and to his or her family, and that should matter to society as a whole. These are the elements responsible for the massive health and social problems caused by drug addiction.

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