Illicit drug addiction may be one of the most dangerous types of addictions. In general, illicit drugs are those that are illegal to make, sell, or use. They include things like cocaine, amphetamines, heroin, and hallucinogens. Many illicit drugs are highly addictive and pose serious health risks, even when taken in small doses.
This type of drug addiction usually starts as experimentation. The user tries something out of curiosity and over time becomes hooked on the mental and/or physical effects of the drug. Over time, as with many mood or physically altering substances, an individual will typically need more of the substance to get the same effects. Without help, a person with addiction will often put their health and safety—or the health and safety of others—in grave danger.
It’s important to remember that addiction is not a weakness or choice. Studies over the last few decades have highlighted the fact that addiction is a brain disease—a chronic relapsing-remitting disease characterized by abnormalities in multiple critical pathways in the brain.
The effects of illicit drugs depend on the type of drug. However, there are main categories: stimulants, opioids, hallucinogens, and sedatives. Drugs are grouped into these categories by their effects.
- Stimulating drugs, like cocaine or methamphetamines, tend to bring the user to a state of hyperactivity. They increase heart rate and brain activity.
- Opioids, like heroin, are painkillers that also affect chemicals in the brain that regulate mood. They can also depress or slow down the central nervous system, which affects breathing.
- Hallucinogenic drugs, such as marijuana, psilocybin mushrooms, or LSD, alter the user’s perception of space, time, and reality.
- Depressants/sedatives aren’t always illicit or illegal drugs. If someone becomes addicted to prescription medications, they may end up stealing to maintain their supply, or taking the drugs in a way that they weren’t prescribed.
While an illicit drug addict might mix several different substances at once or alternate between them, certain behaviors may indicate an addiction:
- significant, unusual, or sudden change in energy level
- aggressive behavior or violent mood swings
- preoccupation with getting and using the drug of choice
- withdrawal from friends and family
- new friendships with other users or attending social events only where the drug will be present
- chronic health problems or continued use of the drug despite physical risks
- behavior which violates ones personal morals or values in order to obtain drug of choice
- legal or professional consequences from illicit drug use such as an arrest or loss of job
Signs of stimulant drug abuse include:
- increased blood pressure or body temperature
- weight loss or diseases related to vitamin deficiencies due to malnutrition
- skin disorders or ulcers
- consistently dilated pupils
Opioid addiction can cause:
- immune system weakness through malnutrition
- infections passed through blood
- gastrointestinal issues
- problems breathing
Drugs like heroin make you drowsy, so abusers will “nod off,” as if they are extremely tired. When the person does not get enough of the drug, they can experience chills, muscle aches, and vomiting.
Hallucinogen abuse is more common than hallucinogen addiction. Signs of abuse or intoxication can include:
- dilated pupils
- uncoordinated movements
- high blood pressure
- in some cases, suicidal or violent mood
Treatment for illicit drug addiction is typically a multi-faceted process, with inpatient or outpatient treatment, and then maintenance treatment. Often, it can be difficult for the addict to stop using or to maintain sobriety without professional help. As illicit drug use can pose dangerous health problems during the period of withdrawal, people often need to be under medical supervision for the first few weeks of sobriety, so they can detox safely. A combination of the following treatment options may be necessary for a recovering addict:
Inpatient Rehabilitation Program
An inpatient program is often the best start for a person with an addiction to illicit drugs. In this setting, doctors and therapists monitor the person to ensure their safety. In the beginning, the person may have several negative physical symptoms as the body adjusts to being without the drug. After overcoming the physical withdrawal from their drug of choice, they can focus on staying clean in a safe environment. The length of inpatient programs can vary, depending on facility, the situation, and insurance coverage.
Outpatient Rehabilitation Program
An outpatient program may work for some people with addictions. In this setting, people attend classes and counseling at a facility but continue to live at home and attend daily activities like work.
Programs like Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and Drug Addicts Anonymous (DAA) follow the same recovery method as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and can provide ongoing support for people with addiction. These programs are centered on principles known at the 12 steps. These steps involve the person confronting many aspects of their addiction head-on and developing new coping behaviors to manage the obsessions and compulsions of addiction. Also, they feature support group meetings with other people with addiction.
Psychotherapy or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
A person with addiction may also benefit from individual therapy. Drug addiction often coexists with substantial emotional issues that need to be dealt with in order to change self-destructive patterns. Also, a therapist can help you cope with the many emotions that may be present during the recovery process. A person with addiction may have to deal with depression as they come to grips with the pain that his or her drug problem has caused. Guilt and shame are also common feelings that can be worked through in therapy.
In some cases, medication is necessary to help overcome cravings or urges. Methadone is one drug that is used to help heroin addicts beat addiction. Recently, buprenorphine (Suboxone) has become available to help opiate addicts manage cravings. Sometimes, a person first turns to drugs to deal with mental health issues. This is called self-medicating. Properly prescribed antidepressants, for instance, can potentially play a role in recovery. Illicit drugs can often alter brain chemicals, complicating or uncovering preexisting mental health conditions. Once the regular substance abuse has stopped, these mental health conditions can often be effectively managed with appropriate psychiatric medication.
Illicit drug addiction can be treated, and it is possible for users to be in recovery and abstain from the drugs. Users may need to suffer grave consequences before they are willing to seek help. Experts call this “hitting bottom.”
People close to the person with addiction often deal with stress of their own during their loved ones’ active addiction. Families and friends may benefit from programs like Al-Anon/Alateen, where loved ones of someone suffering from addiction can find support and resources.
People with addiction often say they are never “cured,” but learn to cope with their disease. Treatment is often a multifaceted process that can include periodic relapses. It’s important to develop a strong support system of other clean and sober people to help aid in long-term recovery.
Many professional organizations have more information about illicit drug addiction and treatment options. Much, if not all, of the information is free. The following resources may be helpful:
- Narcotics Anonymous
- Drug Addicts Anonymous
- National Institute on Drug Abuse
- American Council for Drug Education
- National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence