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Why Are Some Addictions Taken More Seriously Than Others?

By Claire Pinelli ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP

The subject of drug and alcohol addiction is riddled with stereotypes and stigma. Our negative view of addiction and addicts is actually a big part of the reason as to why we have such a terrible drug problem. We refuse to confront this problem as the health crisis that it is. We instead punish it as a “criminal choice,” and so we consistently apply the wrong “solution” to addiction. It’s no wonder the problem persists.

The stereotypes, stigmas, and labels, attached to drug use and drinking become so detailed and involved that people often compare “severities of substance abuse” as though some addictions are worse than others.

What Makes an Addiction “Serious”?

First, all addiction is serious. Having worked in addiction treatment for the better part of a decade, I never really understood the concept that some addictions are worse than others. I’ve seen people who had their lives absolutely devastated by marijuana, a drug that most people (incorrectly) think is not addictive. And I’ve seen people who had struggled under years of opioid addiction finally succeed at recovery.

It isn’t for us to judge how “serious” someone’s addiction is. If someone is using drugs or alcohol, they are going to need help. That’s as far as we need to go with it. Just the existence of addiction, any addiction, is enough to make it “serious.”

We can’t say things such as: “He doesn’t need help, he just uses marijuana”; “He doesn’t really need residential care, he’s only been using heroin for a month”; “He just needs to drink less, it’s not a big deal”; or “It’s not really an ‘addiction’ since pills are legal.” We undercut what it means to have a drug habit when we do so. We don’t assign the condition the seriousness that it deserves. Addiction can be a lethal habit when it isn’t treated, regardless of the person's drug of choice.

If we are going to compare addictions…

To play the Devil’s Advocate, there is one way to compare the severity of addiction. But it has nothing to do with the actual drug of choice. The only way to view drug habits on a comparative scale is to examine how badly someone’s addiction is affecting their life. That would include the effects on everyone in that person’s life too, e.g., that person’s family members, loved ones, friends, coworkers, and so on.

One could argue that someone who uses marijuana every single day, who can’t stop using it, who’s lost jobs because of it, who’s had their kids taken away because of it, and who’s gotten in near-death car accidents because of it, is worse off than someone who drinks alcohol to excess “once in a while.” However, alcohol is a more physically debilitating drug than marijuana and the alcohol user should absolutely cease their “occasional” excessive consumption before it becomes regular excessive consumption.

But in terms of right now, take for example a marijuana user and an alcohol user. At this moment, the marijuana user is having a harder time of it than the alcohol user. Will it be that way a month from now? Maybe not. But for the sake of argument, we can note a difference in the severity of the addiction, one person to the next, at least on a moment-to-moment basis.

All Addiction Is a Serious Issue

At the end of the day, all addiction and drug use is a serious issue and should be treated as such. The fundamental error in trying to compare one addiction to the next is that no habit stays the same for very long. In the example above, we should not ignore the alcohol user and only treat the marijuana addict, because the alcohol user’s occasional habit could evolve into full-blown, highly toxic alcoholism a month from now.

The predictable trend of all drug use and excessive drinking is that, until the person ceases the habit, it will get worse, not better. That’s why it is called the “dwindling spiral” of addiction. No habit stays the same for long. No matter where a person is in their “cycle” of substance use, he or she needs to get help.

Residential Treatment Is the Answer for Any Degree of Drug and Alcohol Abuse

Speaking of getting help for drug use and drinking; the best way to do this is with the help of residential drug and alcohol addiction treatment centers. Whether a person is struggling with an opioid habit they’ve had for years or a marijuana crutch they just adopted due to stress in life, anyone who struggles with any substance abuse needs to seek help at a residential treatment center.

When people try to break drug habits on their own, they almost always fail as they do not know the reasons as to why they started using drugs and alcohol in the first place. If they did understand the intricate pattern of behavior and life issues that contributed to a drug habit, they wouldn’t be addicted.

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