Some of the biggest myths about addiction have been produced by the war on drugs propaganda, while others come from a misinformed minority of people who have no medical training or firsthand experience with addiction.
Whichever is the case, misinformation surrounding addiction does more harm than good by fueling the stigma surrounding addiction and can stifle successful attempts at treatment.
1. Addiction is a Problem of Willpower and Abstinence, Which is Why Medications Don’t Work
This may be the biggest addiction myth of them all. Essentially all major medical organizations around the world agree that addiction is a disease of the brain and should be treated like any other disease. Wishing it away through sheer willpower won’t help a person overcome an addiction any more than it will help a diabetic or a person with cancer.
Medical treatment specializing in addiction is the recommended course of treatment.
Often times, medication is required for addiction just like other diseases. Someone with asthma might need an inhaler, a diabetic might need insulin, and an addict might need Suboxone or Methadone to overcome cravings and stay clean.
There’s no shame in using medication to treat a disease and medication assisted treatment for addiction is finally getting the respect it deserves.
2. Addicts Should Be Punished for Using Drugs and Drinking Too Much Because in the End, They Know Better
Going back to Myth #1, it’s not a crime to have a disease and we shouldn’t punish addicts for using drugs just as we shouldn’t punish people for using an inhaler or insulin.
Many will argue that drugs are illegal and addicts often break the law to get their drugs but that somewhat misses the point. An addict will do anything possible to get a fix to avoid being sick, which is what happens to many of them if they don’t get their “meds.”
In 1962, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote, “drug addiction is an illness and not a crime and punishing someone for an illness violates the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”
From the standpoint of society, it’s much cheaper to treat a person with addiction than put them in jail, and the outcome is much more effective and valuable to both society and the also the addict. Instead of punishing people, we should be helping them get better. In the end, it works out best for everyone.
3. Alcohol is Different from Other Drugs Because it’s Easier to Control and You’re Less Likely to Become Addicted to It
This is simply not true. Alcohol is the most commonly abused drug, and according to the National Institutes of Health, nearly 88 percent of people over the age of 18 have reported using alcohol at least once in their lifetime.
In addition, almost 90,000 people die each year from alcohol-related deaths and it is the fourth leading preventable cause of death in the United States.
The U.S. Department of Justice reports that 40 percent of violent crimes were related to alcohol. While it may not be as addictive as other drugs such as heroin or opioids, it is still a very addictive substance and causes more deaths each year than all other drugs.
It can also be the most difficult to treat because it acts on multiple brain receptors instead of just one or two, like most other drugs.
4. Virtually Everyone Who Uses Meth or Crack Will Become Addicts
Most meth or crack users never become addicts and they stop using before it becomes a problem because they simply don’t like it.
There is no pharmacological difference between crack cocaine and powder cocaine, except crack is a solid form of cocaine that is usually smoked or sometimes injected making it more intense.
The same is true of methamphetamine. Because users snort, smoke or inject these drugs, they can be highly addictive, but that’s not the same thing as saying all users will become addicted.
5. People Addicted to One Drug Are Addicted to All of Them
Certainly there will always be some overlap of drug use where a user might use two or more drugs regularly, sometimes at the same time. But for most, the drug of choice that they become addicted to corresponds to their individual brain chemistry.
Some users will smoke pot and use alcohol at the same time while another person will only smoke pot but not like the effects of drinking alcohol, and vice versa.
An alcoholic who is addicted to alcohol, might also use cocaine or any number of other drugs occasionally, but that doesn’t mean they are addicted to those drugs as well.
6. Prescription Pills are Safer Than Illegal Street Drugs Because They’ve Been Prescribed by a Doctor
Not only is this a myth but it’s a dangerous one. Most people trust their doctor and they take medications prescribed by their doctor, which are generally safe if taken as prescribed. The problem begins when people misuse those prescriptions and take more than they were prescribed or continue taking them after the prescription runs out.
Some will even go “doctor shopping” to get multiple prescriptions.
According to the CDC, in 2013, of the 43,982 drug overdose deaths in the United States, 22,767 were related to pharmaceuticals, notably opioids (prescription painkillers), stimulants, and tranquilizers.
in 2014, the FDA and DEA reclassified Hydrocodone, Vicodin, and other painkillers to make them more difficult to prescribe. These and other efforts worked well to reduce the number of prescriptions available, unfortunately many people were already addicted and they started using drugs like heroin because they’re cheap and readily available on the street. That is one of the main reasons we’re in the midst of an epidemic.
7. Today’s Marijuana is Extremely Powerful and a Leading Cause of Drug Overdose
It’s true that today’s marijuana is more powerful than it was years ago, but that’s the only part of this myth that’s true. People simply do not die from overdosing on marijuana like they do from opiates and other drugs.
Cannabinoid receptors are not located in the brainstem, which controls breathing; so lethal overdoses are not possible like with other drugs that are affected by respiration.
Because marijuana is stronger today and edible forms act differently than smoking it, there is cause for regulation, specifically in the area of creating standards regarding dosages. Many times people have no idea how much THC they’re getting when they eat it because the package either doesn’t contain dosage information or the user has no idea what it means in the first place.
Ingesting too much THC can cause panic attacks, and impaired cognitive and motor skills, which can be dangerous for driving. Small children might also eat brownies or other THC-infused treats which could be very problematic. For these reasons, we definitely need some oversight.
8. Heroin is Mainly a Ghetto Drug
Not any more. Even if heroin was once confined to the backstreets, today it has hit mainstream America and is being used by those from all walks of life. What began as a prescription pill epidemic has become a heroin epidemic.
Let’s face it, many of today’s heroin users had good jobs, families, and paid healthcare, which is how they got started on prescription medications. Not many ghetto dwellers living on the street have access to healthcare and can afford to see a doctor and pay for prescriptions.
The new face of heroin isn’t what it was ten or twenty years ago. Today it’s everywhere.
9. Alcoholics and Addicts Have to Hit Rock Bottom Before They Can Be Treated Effectively
There is no medical evidence anywhere that supports the idea that addiction can be treated only after somebody has wrecked their car, ended up in a hospital or jail, or ruined their job or family life by hitting rock bottom.
Rock Bottom may be a motivator for some people to finally get help, but the fact remains that early intervention is not only more successful at treating addiction, but it alleviates a lot of the pain and damage done from addiction by treating the problem early. Nobody should wait until they hit rock bottom to seek help.
10. Treating Addiction with Medications Won’t Work Because You’re Just Substituting One Drug for Another
Addiction causes the reward pathways in the brain to stop functioning properly because of over-stimulation. From a medical perspective, the best way to treat this is to stop the over-stimulation so the brain can return to normal. The addictive behavior and cravings can be halted through the use of pharmaceutical medications that are proven to be effective.
Buprenorphine (Suboxone) is an FDA-approved medication that works well for treating addiction to opioids.
When a person switches from heroin to Buprenorphine, the addictive behavior usually stops because the new drug’s ability to cause a high has a ceiling.
Some people stay on buprenorphine for years under the guidance of a doctor and they can function normally and get the quality of life back that was missing while addicted to other drugs.
While medication assisted therapy is still not in wide use or acceptance among treatment centers, medical experts understand that it is the future of successful addiction treatment.
Note: The Anatomy of Addiction by Dr. Matthew Torrington, MD devotes an entire chapter to “The Ten Biggest Myths of Addiction.”