Most of those who experiment with drugs are not looking to upend their lives.
Teens, especially, try drugs out of curiosity, to escape boredom or from peer pressure. Unfortunately, 33% of the time, seemingly harmless infrequent use evolves into a drug habit. While technically not addicts, it is hard to argue their drug use does not interfere in their lives. And although only 15% of the total go on to become addicts, this average disguises the higher addiction figure of 17-25% for pernicious drugs like cocaine and heroin, compared to 10% for marijuana.
Brain imaging shows that continued drug intake generates a progressive weakening in the prefrontal cortex required for exerting self-control. Once addicted, quitting alone becomes unlikely. It therefore seems strange to assert that one is exercising his or her free will when using drugs –as legalization proponents would believe– for the nearly one-fifth of users who have lost their cognitive ability to actually make that choice freely.
The physical harms that turn an addict into another sad overdose statistic garner most of the media attention today. Yet, the greatest and most common risk for regular users and addicts is the continuous change to their mental state and behavior.
Adult drug addicts tend to be compulsive and erratic, subjecting their friends, family and colleagues to endless distress. Teens who abuse drugs are more likely to have behavioral and emotional problems and learning disabilities, engage in risky sex, and get arrested. And for highly addictive drugs like opiates, 95% commit crimes to support their addiction. While theft is the most common crime, many go into prostitution to support their habit and a few even commit murder.
Users of highly addictive drugs like cocaine, heroin or meth never conceive they will end up spending 50% of their disposable income on their habit if they become addicted. Cocaine users (see Cocaine Effects), for example, develop a persistent craving for the drug, which often results in sporadic spastic jerks. Long-term cocaine users can suffer from ulcers and intestinal damage. Severe depression, paranoia and memory lapse are the most common problems, and to a lesser extent, violent behavior and even suicide.
Meth users tend to be more violent, and like cocaine users, suffer from depression and attempt suicide. Both suffer from anhedonia –the inability to feel pleasure– when they are not using. Chronic users can experience psychosis, which mimics schizophrenia and a depletion of dopamine and serotonin neurons, common to older people who suffer from Parkinson’s and depression.
Most youth are not deterred by the fact the popular club drug Ecstasy (MDMA) can potentially cause sudden death for 8% of its users because they lack a certain enzyme to metabolize the drug. Fewer are aware that using Ecstasy 20 times or more produces damage to serotonin nerve terminals severe enough to cause long-term disruption in normal brain functioning. And while the majority of American’s are willing to accept marijuana legalization, research shows that its regular use results in cognitive impairment and impacts brain development and various measures of life satisfaction, success, and achievement.
A 2014 study by researchers at Harvard and Northwestern University on 18-25 year-olds found that even those who smoked only a few times a week had significant abnormalities in the brain areas controlling emotion and motivation. Three other separate studies in the U.S., Australia and New Zealand for heavy users found that their IQ’s fell by 7-8 points. Although many have come to the conclusion that marijuana is not a gateway to other drugs, research shows that teens who use marijuana –especially younger aged ones– are statistically more likely to go on to use other drugs.
The challenges of distinguishing between causality and correlation should not preclude the need to examine other facts of drug use. Data from 2012 show that while 6.6% of college graduates are current users of drugs, the numbers are 9.8% for those with only a high school degree, and 11.1% for those who didn’t finish school.
Similarly, the rate of drug use for unemployed adults was 18.1%, twice as high as for those with jobs (8.9%). For those workers who do use drugs, strong correlations were found with absenteeism and chronic health problems. Experts estimate that health care is 300% higher for regular drug users, who are also one third less productive than non-users. And because drugs make learning more difficult, employee training takes longer and adds further to employers’ costs.