Are Drugs Addictive Because They Are Drugs? 


I handle drug cases, and because talking about drugs is therefore what I do pretty much all the time, I often wonder whether the source of addiction is the drug itself—something addictive about the drug—or whether addiction is primarily influenced by something supplementary to, or beyond, the drug itself. To be sure, most of the people I know who have drug charges are not addicted to drugs. Not by a long shot.


I wonder, for example, if you gave opiates to a random person off the street for 30 days straight, would the person end up addicted to opiates? I use 30 days in my example because I have often heard the maxim that it takes somewhere between 21 and 30 days to break or create a habit. I realize that no lab would ever pluck a random person off the street and feed the person opiates for 30 days, so it appears impossible to test my question.


Or is it?


Hospitals are full of people who have received opiate painkillers for spans far in excess of 30 days. And, if all goes well, those people are eventually released from the hospital. Even most people reading this have been prescribed a 30 day supply of painkillers after surgery, after having their wisdom teeth out, or some other medical procedure.


Additionally, we all know someone who, perhaps in their youth, tried, or experimented with, drugs. Maybe the person you know even used drugs several times.


Think of these people—who you know in your life who fits the above. Get a group of people who fit the above in mind. Imagine as many people as you can from your own life who fit this, and ask yourself:


Why aren’t all these people addicted to drugs? Why isn’t every single person you are thinking about addicted to drugs now? Why didn’t all the people we know who had surgery a year or two ago, or ten years ago, why didn’t they immediately run out to the street to buy heroin or pills the minute their prescription ran out? Why isn’t the girl we knew from college who took MDMA every other weekend during junior year still taking MDMA every other weekend now?


If there is something about the drug itself that manifests addiction, then any of the above people should be addicted to drugs right now. In reality however, only a small, small fraction of the people above are addicted to drugs now.


There must be some factor other than the drug itself that is responsible for addiction. Otherwise, we would all likely be addicted to prescription medication. We can draw a basic, yet startling, conclusion from this: not everyone who tries a drug becomes addicted to it. Not everyone who experiments with a drug becomes addicted to it. The exact percentage of people who try a given drug and end up addicted to it is a source of some debate. You might be surprised to know, however, that most scientific studies put the average (mean) somewhere around 10%.


Meaning, 10% of people who try opiates or another drug become addicted to them. 90% of people who try opiates or another drug do not become addicted.


So what separates the 90% from the 10%? Whatever this X-factor is, it seems, must be responsible for addiction. Maybe what it is that separates the 90% from the 10% should be the focus of drug law reform. Maybe addressing whatever it is represents the only means to actually end the War On Drugs.