Understanding Addiction

How can I tell if I'm addicted?

Addiction is defined as the chronic, compulsive and/or habitual use of substances, or repeatedly engaging in a behavior, despite harmful consequences.

There are two categories of addiction. “Substance” addiction refers to ingesting substances and “Process” addiction refers to people who are addicted to certain behaviors like gambling, sports, sex, watching porn, etc.

People always become psychologically dependent when they become addicted to anything because they become over-reliant on the substance or behavior in order to cope or function.

People also become physically addicted by:

1. Changing how their brain functions: Any addiction, whether it be to substances or a behavior, will eventually hamper the brain’s ability to release normal levels of dopamine, which is the main chemical that makes us feel good. Once a shortage of dopamine occurs, the user will only feel good when engaging in the behavior that caused the problem in the first place, thereby creating a dependence on the substance or behavior to feel well.

2. Ingesting substances that eventually the body craves in order to feel normal: In addition to the changes in the brain mentioned above, addiction to substances will also cause the body to crave the substance being abused. When a person doesn’t use for too long of a period of time, the body will go through withdrawal causing different kinds of symptoms. They can range from feeling ill, to shaking to life-threatening seizures.

How does addiction get a hold of people?

How does addiction get a hold of people?

Addiction is both a psychological issue (people use to cope with stress, feelings, etc.) and a physical issue (the brain and the body become dependent on the substance or behavior to function well or feel good). Because people’s psychological makeup and bodies are all different, it’s not possible to say that it happens the same way for everybody. However, no matter what road they take to get there, there are common symptoms and the end results are the same: the addiction gets worse over time; the addict has to use more and more to get the same high; the quality of life and health is diminished; and the addiction starts to take precedence over other matters and become more and more important in a person’s life. Addiction is also always accompanied by denial because the person who is becoming addicted has to avoid looking at the consequences of their actions in order to continue to use. As the negative consequences accumulate, the person has to use more and more in order to escape the feelings of guilt and shame they experience due to the choices they are making. This makes it very difficult for addicts to be objective about what they are doing. They are teaching themselves that it’s better to escape feelings rather than face them, which is the perfect way to become psychologically predisposed to addiction.

There also differing levels of addiction. People can be using problematically, which is not quite at the level of addiction, but their using is causing them problems. When they progress and enter the addicted stage, they can be either mildly, moderately or severely addicted.

As you can see, addiction is a complex issue and it’s no wonder that people struggle to understand it.

Is addiction a progressive disease?

Yes. Addiction is a disease and it is progressive (meaning that it will only get worse over time if left untreated). The progression is sometimes very slow which makes it harder for people to see the changes but over time things do get worse. One of the issues that contributes to clouding people’s objectivity regarding their own addiction is the fact that using drugs is usually a lot of fun at first. Sometimes it’s the most fun they ever had. Because of that, it’s often difficult for people to see how things are getting worse because the negative consequences of their addiction is offset by the amount of fun they are having. Therefore, it appears that overall their lives may not be worse than before. Unfortunately, as a person gets entrenched into whatever habit they have, the fun diminishes (due to the changes of dopamine levels in the brain) and the person has to use more and more to keep feeling good which causes the problems to get worse and worse. All of this explains, in part, why addiction is seen as a progressive disease.

What about tolerance?

Tolerance refers to the fact that anyone who uses a substance habitually will develop an immunity to it and will need to increase the dosage, or switch to a stronger drug, in order to achieve the same high. It is another aspect of how addiction is a progressive disease and an aspect of addiction that is important to understand.

Tolerance can reach astonishing levels. As an addictions counsellor, I’ve worked with clients who consumed 150 glasses of draft beer in one sitting and one who took over 150 Tylenol 3’s a day for years. These amounts would certainly kill anyone who hadn’t built up tolerance and are remarkable examples of the human body’s ability to adapt and maintain equilibrium. Tolerance is one aspect of addiction that will cause the user to become more and more dependent on substances and which causes people to become addicted.

People can also experience reverse tolerance. This is predominantly something seen with alcoholics and occurs when their liver gets damaged by over-consumption and is no longer able to process alcohol as effectively. When this happens, the user reaches intoxication much faster and cannot consume as much alcohol as they used to.

Understanding Recovery

What is Recovery?

Before we discuss what recovery is, we should define what it isn’t. Many people think that recovery from addiction is simply abstaining from using the substance that they’ve become addicted to (or stopping the behavior they’ve become addicted to). This is the biggest and most common mistake people make when they attempt recovery and the main reason why so many people fail at it. In order to understand this thoroughly, you need to understand a few things:

First, addiction affects many aspects of a person. One’s body and mind are affected by addiction as are one’s belief system, values, patterns, who one picks as friends, and what behaviors a person engages in. These are just some of the aspects of a person and his/her life that are affected when someone develops an addiction. When you understand that, then it becomes obvious that recovery from addiction has to address all of these issues and that “just quitting” is a recipe that is doomed to fail. People who do that are referred to as “Dry Drunks”–people who don’t use but aren’t really much healthier because of it and they are “white-knuckling” their recovery–hanging on to their recovery by using sheer will power and determination only. Will power and determination play a huge role in recovery and are extremely important but if they are the main, or perhaps only, thrust of recovery, the odds of being able to “hang on” are pretty small.

Secondly, people make the mistake of thinking that they become addicted to just a particular substance or behavior and that all they need to do is stop using that particular substance or stop that particular behavior. While it is true that people can develop a physical dependency of a very specific substance, they should not make the mistake of thinking in such narrow terms about addiction. This is another common, and costly, error because when someone becomes an addict, they don’t just become addicted to a particular substance, or behavior, they become addicted to mood-altering, period. If they can’t mood-alter using their drug or behavior of choice, they will seek to mood-alter with anything else they can find.

When somebody does that, when they switch from using one mood-altering substance or behavior to another, that’s not recovery. That’s just switching (e.g. going from smoking crack to taking speed; drinking beer instead of hard liquor; smoking pot instead of drinking; etc.). Now in some cases, switching is a good thing because the damage the using causes is reduced. For example, someone who goes from smoking a lot of crack to smoking a lot of pot is likely going to significantly reduce the amount of chaos in their lives and also spend a lot less money. However we should be clear that this is not recovery, this is a “Harm Reduction” strategy. While it has its place in dealing with addiction, it is not recovery because the person is still abusing substances and they aren’t actively working on changing their behaviors, their patterns, their belief system, their social network, etc.

When all of this is understood, then you are in a better position to understand what real recovery is. Recovery is changing every aspect of yourself and your life that supported your addiction to whatever is needed to support your recovery for the rest of your life.

The last point I wish to make about this is that once a person has become an addict, they will always be an addict. Meaning that they can never be someone who just uses substances (or engages in old behaviors-like gambling) socially or just for fun. Once they have crossed that line, they will have to abstain from engaging in any behavior or activity that feeds the addictive part of themselves. It’s like the old saying: “Once a cucumber has become a pickle, it can’t go back to being a cucumber again”. While that may be discouraging to some people, it’s simply one of the prices one has to pay for having allowed oneself to cross a line that never should have been crossed. Anyone who doesn’t respect this limitation is likely going to relapse back into addiction again and when that happens the addiction doesn’t start off slowly again, it picks up right where it left off and often with a vengeance, as if it’s trying to make up for lost time.

What can I expect in recovery?

It’s best to be truthful about this as you need to be fully prepared. You can expect it to be difficult and perhaps even extremely difficult. For many people it will be the most difficult challenge they will ever undertake. The odds are also against you. While there is no agreed upon statistic for the percentage of people who succeed in beating an addiction once it’s set in, the most favorable estimates say that only 1 person out of 3 will succeed at overcoming their addiction. More pessimistic estimates says it’s only 1 person out of ten. The average is probably somewhere in between.

This is not to say that recovery from addiction is not within your reach. It is. Thousands of people all over the world manage to overcome their addiction every day and go on to lead happy, healthy, productive lives. You can too. But you need to understand what you are up against if you want to have any chance of succeeding.

How hard it is depends of a number of factors:

  • How severe the addiction is and how long it’s been going on: Someone who is severely addicted to anything and has been for years will have a more difficult time recovering than someone who just recently developed a mild addiction.
  • What they are addicted to: Someone who is an intravenous heroin addict is likely to find it much harder to kick the habit, compared to someone who drinks too much wine with dinner.
  • Type of person they are: Some people are able to follow through with whatever they decide to do and succeed. For them it is often a question of pride and there have been many times in their lives where they’ve taken on difficult challenges and succeeded. Others find it nearly impossible to be that decisive and strong and therefore may not have had a lot of success at succeeding at difficult tasks.

How strong, clear and determined you are about succeeding in recovery will likely be the biggest factor affecting your chances of success.

Why is recovery so hard?

Recovery is hard because it involves making difficult changes in a number of areas:

Changes in the brain: someone who becomes addicted to anything, whether it be to substances or to a process (like gambling, sex, porn, etc.) has effectively changed how their brain functions. The things that normally would bring pleasure to someone (like being loved, getting a hug, eating a nice meal, etc.) don’t bring as much pleasure as they used to because the reward center of the brain, which is responsible for releasing chemicals to make us feel good, primarily only activates when the person indulges in their addiction. Recovery from addiction involves resetting (or rewiring) the brain so that it responds to normal stimuli again and that takes time and a lot of effort.

Psychological changes: when a person develops an addiction, a number of psychological changes occur that keep the person stuck in their addiction. Their values change (e.g. they believe that partying with friends is more important that family). Their sense of ethics change (e.g. they said they would never hang out with drug dealers or steal from their parents, but they eventually did). Their belief systems change as well (e.g. they believe that they need to get high in order to enjoy themselves). There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of powerful psychological changes that occur when a person develops an addiction. Denial is chief amongst them. In recovery, a person has to discover all of those unhealthy changes and replace them with healthy ones (e.g. there are many ways to enjoy myself without the use of drugs) and that takes a really long time and a lot of work. It’s like erasing 100,000 hours of dysfunctional programming and replacing them with something healthier.

Lifestyle and Social changes: In addiction, users eventually surround themselves with people who are into the same things they are: getting high or drunk. This change is often gradual as persons becomes more and more entrenched in the lifestyle that nurtured their addiction. Eventually they are so immersed in the lifestyle and conditioned to only engage in the activities that feed their addiction, they can’t even conceive of the idea that they could have fun being clean and sober; nor can they believe there would anyone to socialize with if they quit. Most addicts will say “What else is there do to and who would I do it with?” when it is suggested to them that they should quit.

While it is undeniable that recovery from addiction will bring huge changes in how you spend your time and who you spend it with, the belief that fun is impossible without indulging or that there won’t be anyone to have fun with is simply a product of a distorted belief system and has no basis in reality. Will it be hard at first to find healthier ways to spend your time and safe people to socialize with? Absolutely! In fact it will be one of the hardest things about recovery. But it will eventually become easier as you get into the habit of doing things differently and finding safe people to do those things with.

What are the hardest parts of recovery?

In addition to the changes mentioned above another very difficult aspect of recovery is having to allow yourself to experience your feelings. For people who have developed an addiction, that is a fate worse than death, and they almost would rather face a firing squad than allow themselves to feel.

This is because people who indulge in addictions learned that drugs, or addiction of any kind, is a good way to avoid having to feel anything they don’t like. If they were stressed, upset, sad or whatever, they simply indulged in their addiction of choice and they escaped having to feel any of that. As their using progressed, the negative consequences piled up and they felt the additional burden of guilt and shame and when they did they turned to their favorite mood-altering strategy: their addiction of choice. So effectively, addicts have spent a lot of time, money and energy avoiding having to feel anything uncomfortable, and they have been “experts in avoidance.”

In recovery, feelings come out with a vengeance. It’s like a pressure cooker that’s been plugged and the steam (the emotions) have not be able to escape. However, the steam, or feelings, have not disappeared, they have just built up inside until something causes them to be released. This is like unplugging the hole (stopping the addiction) and the pressure cooker (you) just blows up because the pressure is too great.

At first there will be a backlog of feelings that will come spewing out; often you won’t know why or even what they are. Try not to worry about that. It’s just stuff in the pot that needs to come out and it’s normal. Eventually the intensity and amount of feelings will diminish and you will begin to learn to live with the ability to feel (rather than slowly killing yourself to avoid feeling). Eventually you will learn about your feelings and find healthy ways to deal with them and learn to appreciate them because you will discover that feelings are “the spice of life.” They add flavor, texture and variety to life. Without feelings, life becomes very bland and boring and we feel half dead. Experiencing your feelings means that you are coming alive again, so try to rejoice and embrace them as best you can because they will be one of the key things that will lead you back to health and life.

How to deal with urges to use?

Urges to mood alter by indulging in your addiction are going to be, at times, very powerful. In fact, resisting them is likely going to be one of the most difficult aspects of your recovery. At times, it may feel like every cell in your body is screaming for relief and every instinct you have is going to tell you that NEED TO USE NOW! It’s your job to resist those urges.

One way to understand this is that within you there are two people. One is the “Addict” who just wants to escape and mood-alter because that’s the only thing it knows how to do. The other is the “Healthy” part who wants to experience health, balance and well-being again. Whichever one you nourish is the one who is going to dominate.

At first the addict will be strong and fight back with everything it has as if its survival is at stake and, in a very real way, that’s the truth. However, the more committed you are to nourish your “Healthy” self, the more you feed it and the more you starve the “Addict”, the more your “Healthy” self will become dominant.

Eventually urges will diminish in frequency, intensity and duration but there is no telling how long that will take, as everyone is different. It’s not uncommon to have “Using” dreams where you have a very vivid dream that you were indulging in your addiction. Those will also eventually diminish.

In terms of how to resist urges to use, there are many things you can do and hopefully we can get members of this site to post some suggestions below. But some common strategies include staying busy (with work or other things to keep you occupied), exercise (physical activity is a good way to combat stress and get your mind off other things), going to a 12 step meeting (like AA or NA), or talking to a friend or your sponsor.

Another good strategy is to do whatever you can to reduce the chances of your feeling an urge. Avoiding driving by your dealer’s house or your favorite drinking hole is a smart thing to do. So is making safe plans and arranging to spend times with safe friends on the weekends. Not carrying a lot of money on you or giving your paycheck to your spouse to deposit are also excellent ways to avoid setting yourself up to get urges.

Basically anything you can do to avoid using is a good strategy.

How long does recovery take?

There are different layers to this question. If recovery is defined as establishing a lifestyle that supports health and the ability to not indulge in your addiction for the rest of your life, then recovery is a life long process. True recovery is where you lead a life where you don’t engage in any behaviors that feed your addiction, and you have made sufficient psychological and social changes to sustain a healthy lifestyle for the rest of your life.

This, however, doesn’t mean that it’s always going to be a lot of hard work. Rather what it means is that you will have to work hard enough and long enough in the early stages of your recovery that you can eventually move into the “monitoring & maintenance” phases of your recovery. This occurs when you have made sufficient changes within yourself, your environment, and your lifestyle that you just have to monitor yourself to ensure that you’re not slipping into unhealthy behaviors or thinking patterns and you have things in place (a support network, a routine, a plan, etc.) to ensure you stay healthy.

It is useful to refer to the pamphlet “Phases of Recovery,” which provides a rough outline of what you can expect in terms of focus and length of time for each phase of recovery. Or course, each person’s recovery is their own, and the timelines provided there are guidelines rather than “hard and fast” rules. Also, if a person relapses along the way, then the timeline is disrupted and they have to take a few steps back to re-establish a good foundation for recovery.

As you can see from the handout, the first 6 months is about quitting and changing your lifestyle, and that is the most intense part. In the first 2 years, you will also be focusing on changing your belief system and your coping strategies and rewiring your brain so that it no longer functions like an addict’s brain (if you haven’t watched the 3-Headed Dragon of addiction video yet, you really need to do that). Then comes the dealing with the root causes of your addiction (wounds or tragic things that may have happened to you that may have caused you to seek an escape from how you felt). Throughout this whole time you will also be learning more about how powerful, cunning and baffling your “Addict Self” is and making it through enough difficult challenges that life inevitably throws at us to build up the strength, confidence and coping strategies needed to handle any situation that may arise.

All of that, obviously, takes time. That’s why it’s not unreasonable to expect that 5-7 years of really focusing on your recovery is going to be necessary to overcome your addiction. So as you can see, recovery is not a sprint. It’s more of a marathon and you need to understand that and be prepared for it. It’s unreasonable to think that recovery from addiction is something that can be accomplished quickly. Think about it. If it took several years to become addicted and then you spent several years being an addict, doesn’t it make sense that recovery from addiction is going to take a fairly long time? Addicts are often very unwilling to accept that, because in their addiction, if they wanted to feel better, they could do so within a few seconds just by using. So they’ve become used to “Instant Gratification” and tend to believe that everything should work that way. If the need for “Instant Gratification” is partly responsible for your developing an addiction, the opposite is going to be needed in recovery: the willingness to make the effort and put in the time required to succeed. The need to let go of making things better quickly is one of the biggest challenges in recovery.

After that, if you’ve done a thorough job, you just need to make sure you monitor yourself for possible relapses and do whatever is needed to maintain a healthy lifestyle and balance.

How to improve your chances of succeeding in recovery?

What are the key things you need in recovery?

  • The need to understand that addiction is both a psychological and physical issue;
  • The need to understand that recovery is much more than just quitting and has to involve major changes in several areas of a person’s life.
  • The importance of willpower, determination, commitment and long term endurance;

There are however many other things that can have a big impact on whether or not you succeed. They include:

Attitude: your attitude toward recovery is going to have a big impact on your chances of success. Someone who is determined to not let anything, or anyone, stand in the way of their success is going to have a much greater chance at succeeding in recovery as opposed to someone who is angry at having to do this and unwilling to work too hard.

Also, someone who isn’t really ready to let go of their addiction is going to have a half-hearted attitude toward recovery and is not very likely to succeed.

A person who is able to surrender, be humble and let go of their ego is much more likely to have the right kind of attitude to help them succeed. Many people approach recovery with a lot of limits about what they are willing to do.

They don’t want to deal with their feelings; they’re not willing to change their friends or their perspective; they don’t want to admit to anyone they have a problem; they don’t want to do to 12 Step meetings, counselling or treatment; or an infinite number of other things. If you are attempting recovery, you need to understand two things:

1. The odds of succeeding are stacked against you;

2. Every time you place a limit on what you are willing to do, the odds that you will succeed get worse;

Therefore, as you can see, having the right kind of attitude, one where you are willing to do whatever it takes to succeed, is absolutely crucial. Knowing this and being able to take on that attitude is probably the single biggest factor that will help to ensure your success. The simple truth is that the majority of people who come into recovery with that attitude succeed, and the majority of people who don’t, fail. It’s that simple.

Working a strong program: Many people make the mistake of believing they don’t need anyone or anything to beat their addiction. They “just need to quit” and stay busy and use their will power and everything will be fine. While there are a few people who actually can succeed at staying clean and sober that way, most (over 90%) will eventually fail and those who do manage to do stay clean will be a “Dry Drunk” (which we referred to earlier).

Doing recovery is one of the most challenging and difficult tasks anyone will ever take on. It makes sense to make sure you are working a strong program, which includes having people around you with experience in recovery, to make sure you succeed.

There are many different aspects to a strong program but generally they fall into 3 categories:

  • People
  • Activities
  • Contingency plans

People: Surrounding yourself with people who can support you in your recovery from addiction is one the best things you can do to increase your chances of success. Friends and family who know what you are attempting to do and are willing to help out when needed (hanging out with you on the weekends, taking you out for coffee when you have an urge to use, keeping an eye on you to make sure you don’t relapse, etc.) can be extremely valuable assets. Being part of some kind of recovery group (like AA or NA) or having a sponsor (someone in the 12 Step program who can mentor you through your recovery) can be hugely beneficial because having people in your life who are into the same thing you are and have experience at recovery is extremely important. Also having safe people to hang out with to have fun is also important. If you are all alone all the time and you have no one to have fun with, it’s usually just a question of time before you’ll be back to using because life it too boring that way. The people who support you in your recovery are the people who make up your Support System.

Activities: When you quit an addiction, it creates a void in your life and it’s important that you fill that void with things that are going to support your recovery. Otherwise the addiction will just come back to fill it. Activities where you concentrate on recovery (attending a 12 step meetings, completing an addiction recovery exercise, going to counselling, going through this program, talking to your sponsor or a friend) are very important. So is filling your time with activities that keep you occupied (because being bored can be a powerful trigger to relapse) and activities that are fun (it’s very important to have fun in recovery because if there is no joy, it’s easy to go back to using). Having a full schedule of activities to keep you busy and out of trouble is an integral part of a good recovery program.

Contingency Plans: Having plans about how you are going to deal with things that threaten your recovery (like urges or old using friends who show up unexpectedly) should be part of everyone’s recovery program. When people aren’t prepared for these things, they often relapse into using and sometimes they never get back into recovery. So having some well thought out contingency plans is a good idea.

You should begin by making a list of the potential triggers that may cause you to have an urge to use. Examples include: payday; old using friends calling you up; seeing someone use; it’s the weekend; an urge comes out of nowhere, etc.

In all likelihood all of these things, and more, are going to happen to you in your recovery. Making a clear plan and following it when triggers manifest will greatly increase your chances of staying clean. Rehearsing what you might say when old friends pressure you to come and use, or making sure your paycheck gets deposited in the bank for you, can literally make all the difference in your recovery. The more you prepare and the harder you work, the more likely are your chances of staying clean. The less effort you put into it, the worse your chances are.

What role can 12 Steps programs play in recovery?

Twelve Step programs are a fellowship of people who get together to work on recovery using 12 key steps that can be taken to overcome whatever problem a particular group is focused on (see Pamphlet section for more details). The most popular groups are AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and NA (Narcotics Anonymous) although there are 12 step programs to deal with practically any kind of addiction.

Twelve Step programs have helped more people overcome their addictions and their problems than anything else ever invented. There are 12 Step meetings in the majority of the cities around the globe and literally thousands of online 12 step meetings every day of the week which makes this program highly accessible.

Twelve Step programs have been running for over 80 yeas now which means that their programs, their literature, and their organizations are very well developed and their extensive materials and publications are well refined. Because of this, their programs are highly effective and very well attended.

One of the best things about 12 Step programs is they have sponsors. A sponsor is someone who has experience in recovery and who can mentor others through the process of getting clean. When a sponsor commits to you, he/she will make themselves available (often 24/7) to take your calls, answer your questions, guide you in your recovery, take you out for coffee if you’re feeling vulnerable and challenge you on any behavior or thought process that’s likely to lead you to a relapse. They can be an INVALUABLE resource. Sponsors are one of the key reasons that 12 Step programs are so successful.

Joining a 12 Step program is free and people can attend as often, or as little, as they want. They can attend several meetings a day or just go occasionally. This structure makes it easy for people in recovery to include a 12 step component to their recovery plan and, because of how good these programs are, it’s helpful to include being part of a 12 step program in every recovery plan.

Information about various drugs

How has the drug scene changed?

The drug scene is radically different than it was 20 years ago. Things really started changing when Crystal Meth emerged on the streets about 25 years ago. It was cheap to produce, it was very powerful and addictive and it could be manufactured anywhere with ingredients that could be purchased locally. This made it very popular with drug traffickers because they didn’t have to rely on having connections that could import narcotics into the country, and they could take control of the production, which increased their profit margins and gave them control over the quality of the drugs they sold.

Until Crystal Meth appeared on the scene, crack cocaine was considered to be the most addictive drug on the planet. It released 300 ppm (parts per million) of dopamine in the user’s brain. (Scientists measure dopamine levels to determine how addictive a substance is). In contrast, Crystal Meth releases 1100 ppm of dopamine, which is almost 4 times as much as crack cocaine. The fact that this drug was so addictive and the high lasted for many hours (whereas a crack high would only last a few minutes) made this drug the drug of choice for dealers and drug users alike who wanted the combination of a great high for very little money. Crystal Meth gradually took over the drug scene around the globe and is now considered a pandemic by many experts.

The rise of this drug signaled a shift on several fronts. First, drug dealers/manufacturers realized that greater profits could be made with synthetic (or designer) drugs. Consequently, they started creating new synthetic drugs in an attempt to find the next “gold mine” in the drug dealing business. In the last 20 years there have been over 200 new drugs that have hit the streets that never existed before then.

Second, it marked a turning point in terms of how powerful the drugs were. When dealers saw how much profit was generated because of how powerful Crystal Meth was, they sought to create other drugs that were equally potent. Several, if not most, of the new drugs to hit the streets were in the same range of potency as Crystal Meth.

Third, for the first time ever, a drug that was created using extremely poisonous and toxic substances (lye, acid, drain cleaner, lithium from batteries, camping fuel, etc.) became one of the most popular drugs on the planet. The fact that it would poison the users and give them horrible side effects (festering sores, rotting teeth, severe brain damage, terrible paranoia, horrific hallucinations, etc.) didn’t matter to either the dealers or the users. All of a sudden it became widely acceptable to get high even though what people were ingesting was poison. Never before had such a shift in consciousness occurred.

Yet a fourth way that Crystal Meth changed the drug scene was that anyone could become a drug manufacturer and make a lot of money. All they needed was a little money and access to the internet to download the recipe for making Crystal Meth. Soon there was a massive explosion of people who wanted to manufacture illegal drugs. It used to be that the only people capable of doing that were people with advanced degrees in chemistry–people who knew what they were doing. Now anyone, with any skill or intelligence level, could manufacture a very powerful narcotic. Consequently, quality control vanished, the purity level went down, and the toxicity level went up. Again this is something never seen before.

The other way that Crystal Meth changed the drug scene was how it changed the people and the drug-using community. Suddenly, drug users and dealers became much more aggressive, dangerous, and ruthless in their quests to get high or sell their drugs. People who’ve been on the streets for many years often talk about how “everything changed” when Crystal Meth hit the street. Whereas street people used to “stick together” and support one another, with Crystal Meth things became more dangerous (violence erupted a lot more easily and more often) and the attitude of “every man for himself” came to dominate the street community.

Drug dealers also became more willing to do whatever it took to recruit customers. They had “Dial a Dealer” sort of services where you could call up your dealer and get them to deliver drugs to you. They would be willing to pass out free samples of drugs in the hopes of getting you hooked. They started marketing their drugs to children by, for example, dipping candies into Crystal Meth and selling them on the school grounds. The extent to which they would go to deceive users into making them think their drugs were safe reached new heights. For several years now, some raves have had “testing facilities” where drug users could bring the drugs they bought to be “tested” to ensure that what they had was Ecstasy and not Crystal Meth. Sadly, these people supposedly “testing” the drugs were actually working for the drug dealers and would lie to people, telling them that their drugs were not Crystal Meth when in fact they were. They would also send people out to the dance floor with spray bottles laced with Crystal Meth to cool people down in order to get them hooked.


The marijuana that is sold and consumed today is radically different than what was available a generation ago. First of all, pot today is much more powerful than anything available back then. Marijuana today routinely contains over 20% THC levels (which is the compound that gives users the high they seek). A generation ago, pot with 5% THC was considered exceptional. Consequently, marijuana is a much more powerful drug than it’s ever been and this impacts how addictive the drug is and its potential to disrupt people’s lives.

The changes in potency came from advances in how we grow marijuana. Today’s marijuana is based on cloning, hydroponics technology and genetic engineering. Marijuana users can enter any pot dispensary and select from over a dozen different strains according to the type of potency they seek. Today, growing marijuana is a highly advanced, high tech business so the old adage that “Pot is God’s own herb” and that “it’s completely natural” is a farce. There is nothing “natural” about a plant that has been genetically engineered, cloned and grown in artificial conditions using chemical nutrients and artificial lighting.

As with other drugs, manufacturers are looking to increase the potency and addictiveness of the drugs they sell in order to get more people hooked and make more money. The street drug Shatter, which hit the streets a few years ago, is a good example of that. It is a concentrated form of THC that resembles peanut brittle and can be 100 times stronger than marijuana.

Another big change that has taken place regarding marijuana is its decriminalization and how much more widely available it is. We’ve also seen an explosion in “edibles” (food products that contain marijuana). While cookies and brownies laced with pot have always been popular, today users can buy, amongst many other products, “potcicles”, “reef jerky”, macaroons, truffles, and chocolates laced with marijuana. Putting pot in food products has shifted public perception. By associating pot use with edibles treats, the use of marijuana has become, in the eyes of many, much more benign, which masked the fact that people are still consuming a powerful and addictive drug.

Yet another big shift in the marijuana business is that “big business” is now wanting to cash in on what they see as the next “gold mine” with unlimited potential for profit. Many mega-corporations such as tobacco companies, major drug store chains (like Shoppers Drug Mart) and high-tech giants such as Microsoft, all want to get into the business of selling pot. This will dramatically change the landscape and move pot consumption into the realm of “acceptable and normal.” It will just be one more product that is available to consumers. This shift in perception has the very real potential of causing a huge increase in the percentage of people trying marijuana which could cause a spike in the number of people who develop an addiction problem.


When crack cocaine (which use to be called freebasing) became popular about 30 years ago, it was, along with heroin, considered to be the most addictive drug on the planet. That is no longer true due to the introduction of drugs like crystal meth, which releases four times as much dopamine into the brain as crack does.

Since then, the biggest change is that drug manufacturers from South America, where the cocaine is produced, are now cutting their product themselves rather than letting the drug dealers at the distribution level do it. This greatly increases profits as the products they cut the drugs with are much cheaper than the cost of producing cocaine. One such cutting agent is Levamisole, a cattle deworming agent. Not only does it have the same white powdery consistency as cocaine does, it also acts on the same part of the brain, effectively giving the user a “cocaine-like” high. 

Unfortunately, Levamisole kills all the white blood cells (which fight infections) in a person’s system. Eventually, the person can develop infections that don’t heal, which can, in turn, lead to symptoms similar to flesh-eating diseases. Amputations of limbs are common in habitual cocaine users. Because cocaine producers are doing this at the source, in the jungles where they produce cocaine, it is pretty much impossible to get cocaine that isn’t cut with Levamisole. Thus, anyone who is doing cocaine is doing Levamisole and severely damaging their immune system.

Crystal Meth

See “How has the drug scene changed section”.


Heroin is a powerful opiate derived from the poppy plant and is considered to be one of the most addictive drugs on the planet because of the tremendous euphoria users experience when first taking the drug. It is one of those drugs people can become addicted to the first time they try it (crystal meth and crack are also in this category). When people get wired on heroin, they quickly build up tolerance to the drug and have to up their doses in order to keep experiencing the same level of euphoria they had when they first started using the drug.

Unfortunately, heroin causes some of the most painful and unpleasant withdrawal effects of any drug. Chronic heroin users need to get their fix on a regular basis or they start experiencing the aforementioned withdrawal symptoms, known as getting “Dope Sick.” Symptoms vary from mild shaking and cramps to having bone-racking seizures and agonizing pain equivalent to being burned alive or having all your bones breaking at once. The severity depends on the physiology and health of the user, and how much and how long they have been using. This can also be accompanied by extreme flu-like symptoms and a crushing depression.

Symptoms can appear as soon as a few hours after the last fix and can persist for days (and get worse over time) until the user either succeeds in cleaning up or they get high again. Not surprisingly, most heroin addicts do not manage to get clean and will do anything to avoid experiencing these withdrawal symptoms. Unfortunately, this keeps them stuck in a cycle of addiction that is nearly impossible to escape.

Like many other drugs, heroin gets cut with other drugs or products in order to increase profits. What drug dealers cut their drugs with is anyone’s guess so there is no telling how potent or toxic a drug is. For many years a common practice was to distribute batches of heroin that were highly potent in order to get more people hooked and recruit customers.

In the last few years, however, drug dealers have started cutting heroin with Fentanyl, W-18 and Carfentanyl (an elephant tranquilizer), all powerful tranquilizers used by veterinarians. Since heroin is a drug that is considered a “downer,” meaning it slows down your metabolism (cocaine and other stimulants are considered “uppers”), tranquilizers like Fentanyl are favored by drug dealers who want to increase the potency of the drugs they sell using a drug that affects the user’s body in the same way heroin does. Because Fentanyl is cheaper to buy than heroin and is 100 times stronger, dealers can add a small amount of Fentanyl to their supply of heroin, then cut it with some inexpensive inert substance in order to increase the amount of product they have for sale while, at the same time, increasing the potency of their product. They do this in order to increase customer loyalty (customers who find a good source of their favorite drug tend to continue buying from that dealer) and get more people hooked on these powerful opiates.

Drug dealers often do this without telling their customers and the practice has become so commonplace, that some detox and treatment centers are reporting that up to 80% of the users admitted to their programs are testing positive for Fentanyl, even though many of them had no idea there was Fentanyl in the drugs they were buying.

The practice of lacing Fentanyl, and other similar drugs, into drugs of all kinds, is responsible for the enormous spike in overdoses we’ve seen since 2015. This has gotten so bad that health officials around the globe are calling it a pandemic.


Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid used as an analgesic and pain killer for people who’ve had surgery. It is extremely powerful (up to 100 times stronger than heroin or morphine). Drug manufacturers unfortunately discovered it and are now synthesizing it in large quantities and are either selling fentanyl as other drugs (like heroin and oxycontin) or lacing many of their other drugs with it in order to boost the potency of the products they wish to sell, recruit more customers, and get people hooked on these powerful opioids.

An estimated 80% of all the heroin and oxycontin sold on the street today is now believed to be synthesized fentanyl. About ¾ of the people checking themselves into detox centers today are testing positive for fentanyl despite the fact they had no idea that there was fentanyl in the drugs they were using.

Fentanyl is responsible for the biggest spike in overdoses in the history of drug trafficking ever. Since 2013 there has been up to a 1000 percent increase in the number of overdoses caused by illicit drug use. Many health officials are calling it a pandemic and communities and governments everywhere are struggling to respond to this crisis and find some way to reduce the impact on emergency services which are now stressed to the breaking point.

A lot of people wonder why drug dealers would purposely traffic a drug that is killing so many of their clients. The reason is because the profit margin on fentanyl is just too good to pass up and it’s a very easy drug for dealers to manufacture synthetic fentanyl themselves. Dealers can easily go online and purchase $1000 worth of pure fentanyl from chemical companies in China, receive the package in a plain envelope within 48 hours, and with that synthesize several kilograms of synthetic fentanyl in 24 hours. By doing this just once, a dealer can make enough money to retire for the rest of his life. So dealers are all getting into the “fentanyl selling business” because the profits generated are unlike anything they’ve ever seen before.

The reason that fentanyl is causing so many deaths is because of how potent the drug is (100 times stronger than heroin-the equivalent of 2 grains of salt is enough to kill you) and dealers cannot perfectly control how well the fentanyl is distributed within the drugs they sell. Whether it’s sold in powder form or pills, there are always some concentrated pockets of fentanyl in what people buy. When someone who isn’t used to such a strong drug, ingests fentanyl, it’s enough to kill them even if it’s just an average dose. When the person hits “a hot spot” where there is an overconcentration of fentanyl, then they overdose regardless of how tolerant they are to drugs. Only pharmaceutical companies with very expensive equipment and sophisticated controls can ensure that the drugs they produce are all equal in strength. Drug dealers simply don’t have that kind of equipment and are simply focused on producing drugs for profit and if it kills people along the way, they don’t care.

What is even more frightening is that fentanyl is likely to become obsolete very quickly because dealers are now using even more potent drugs like Carfentanil and W-18. These drugs are 100 times stronger than fentanyl which makes them ever deadlier and even more profitable for dealers. Because greed is what is what is motivating drug dealers, it’s inevitable that they will seek up the highest profit margin they can regardless of the consequences for the consumer.

What is even more terrifying is that W-18 is not an opioid and therefor Naloxone (or Narcan) which is the first line of defense against people overdosing won’t work anymore. When someone OD’s on an opioid-like heroin, fentanyl, and oxycontin, they stop breathing. This eventually causes brain damage and their heart also eventually stops. Naloxone blocks the effect of the opioid so that they can start breathing again. With W-18, Naloxone doesn’t work so the main tool we have to prevent people from dying is not going to work anymore and that could mean an astronomical rise in overdoses death that would make the spike we’ve seen in the last few years seem like child’s play.

Fentanyl and what is happening on the streets today is, without a shred of doubt, the most terrifying development in the screen scene ever.

Designer Drugs

In the last 20 years, over 200 new designer drugs have hit the streets. Almost without exception, they are considered to be amongst the most toxic and addictive drugs available. Drugs such as Krokodil, K2 and Bath Salts have killed thousands of people and ruined countless lives. This trend illustrates all too clearly that drug dealers are always seeking to increase their profits by distributing stronger drugs. The fact that many of these designer drugs are poisonous is of no consequence to dealers.

Below you will find a partial list of some of these drugs.

  • GHB
  • Krokodil
  • Aminotadalafil
  • Hydroxy acetildenafil
  • Prostanozol
  • Norbolethone
  • CP 47,497
  • JWH-250
  • AM-1220
  • Etizolam
  • Gamma-valerolactone
  • Diphenylprolinol
  • Geranamine
  • MDPV
  • Buphedrone
  • PMA
  • MDEA
  • AET
  • BZP
  • Ethyl-ketamine
  • TMA-6
  • AMT
  • ALD-52
  • Ketamine
  • Khat
  • Aildenafil
  • Thiosildenafil
  • Methasterone
  • AB-001
  • HU-308
  • AM-1241
  • 1,4-Butanediol
  • Phenazepam
  • 2-Methyl-2-butanol
  • Methylenedioxypyrovalerone
  • Methcathinone
  • Mephedrone
  • PMEA
  • MMA
  • MDMA
  • Butylone
  • MCPP
  • Methoxyketamine
  • TMA-2
  • DIPT
  • Nortilidine
  • Bath Salts
  • Oxycontin
  • Sulfoaildenafil
  • THG
  • Madol
  • RCS-8
  • JWH-167
  • RCS-4
  • Mebroqualone
  • Phenazepam
  • Dimethocaine
  • Flephedrone
  • Naphyrone
  • Pentylone
  • PMMA
  • Methylone
  • 4-MTA
  • IPA
  • Tenocyclidine
  • Bromo-dragonfly
  • 2CB-FLY
  • LSB
  • Dimetamine


What do I need to understand?

Seeing someone you care for get caught up in addiction is extremely difficult and painful. It can be very disturbing because, to a large degree, your loved one is creating the crisis by the choices he/she is making. To the observer, the problems caused by addiction are obvious and the solution is clear: the user has to stop using.

However, the person using is usually unable to see any of this because denial is a key component of addiction. So much so, that addiction cannot progress unless denial deepens along with it. Added to this is that the user is developing a psychological and physical dependence on the substance they are consuming, and as the addiction progresses, they become more and more unwilling/unable to go without it. All of this makes trying to help someone who is developing an addiction an extremely, often impossible, task.

Do Interventions Work?

We’ve all seen television shows where people who have addictions are confronted by their families, bosses and co-workers and then the user agrees to go to treatment and things get better. This gives people an unrealistic picture of how successful interventions can be. While it is a fact that interventions can have a positive effect, the reverse is also true. However, that is not usually shown on television. They rarely show how an intervention can just as easily tear families apart because of the tension between family members who have differences of opinions about how to handle the situation. It also can cause the user to cut off all ties with their families because they do not want to be controlled and want the freedom to make their own choices. Also, if the addict leaves their support network, their lives are likely going to become much more unmanageable and things will get worse which is exactly what others are trying to prevent.

Additionally, the fact that these “television interventions” are being filmed and shown nationally, increases the pressure on the user to comply as he, or she, does not want to appear hopelessly addicted on television. In a normal intervention, this additional pressure does not exist.

There is an old saying regarding recovery which is “You can’t do recovery for someone else. You have to want to do it for yourself.” Anyone considering an intervention would do well to remember that adage, because the types of consequences that can be imposed for non-compliance with the intervention are most often external. Thus, the user would be attempting recovery not because they really want it, but for the sake of others or because of imposed consequences if they don’t (the spouse will leave, they will lose their job, etc.). Either way, the addict is not internally motivated, and that is likely to fail in the long run. True recovery is a lifetime commitment and because external motivations eventually lose their potency they are not nearly as effective as someone who really wants recovery for themselves.

So before anyone decides if they want to try an intervention, they should be aware of these issues so that they can make an informed decision.

What is codependency?

The term codependent was first used to describe how families of alcoholics were involved in keeping the addiction going by reinforcing the behavior of the alcoholic in various ways. In the last 30 years or so the term has been used more broadly to refer to how certain people have an overdependence on others for their psychological and emotional well-being. For the purpose of this discussion we will use the original definition of the term.

Reinforcing the patterns that allow the addict to stay stuck in his/her addiction can take many forms. However, it must be said that these codependent behaviors, while often being unhelpful, are always initiated from a place of concern, love, or self-preservation. Most people do not intend to support the addict to stay stuck in their addiction. This is simply an unfortunate consequence of how they’ve chosen to try to help. So the people engaging in these behaviors must be forgiven as their intentions are generally pure.

There are many ways that people can reinforce an addiction. They include:

  • Making excuses for the user/addict: Spouses making excuses for their partners to minimize the visibility or impact of the addict’s behavior (e.g. wives calling in sick for their alcoholic husbands, dad telling the kids that mommy is just stressed and that’s why she is so grumpy, etc.)
  • Trying to mitigate the impact of the addict’s behavior in some way. This can be spouses taking extra work or a second job to help stay afloat financially when the addict loses their job or spends their money on using. Taking extra responsibilities around the house can be another form of codependency.
  • Caretaking the addict. Parents, family, partners, friends and spouses often wind up caretaking the person who is abusing substances. They carry them home after a night of partying; they keep an eye on them to make sure they are ok; they try to set limits with them saying that it’s time to go home or they’ve had enough to drink. Spouses will try to control how much money the addict has on them to make sure they don’t spend too much. Parents will try to monitor what their children do and who they spend their time with; or they become preoccupied with making sure their children’s school work is done, and the list goes on. In all of these examples, the people surrounding the addict take on extra responsibility and feel stressed about what the addict is doing. They worry excessively and they feel, understandably, that they have to ensure that the situation does not get more out of control. Unfortunately, while these behaviors can minimize the impact the addict has on those around him, it also ENABLES the addict to continue to indulge in addiction because he/she is not bearing the full brunt of the consequences for their choices. So it makes it easier for the user to keep using because the consequences are minimized. If an addict is to change and get into recovery, they have to get to the point where the negative impact of their choices outweighs the benefits of using. If the impact is being “cushioned” by others, then they will be longer in their addiction. So in the long run, these behaviors will only make things worse because the longer a person abuses substances, the worse their addiction and its impact. This is why people who engage in these behaviors are known as codependents and enablers.

One of the most challenging aspects of being an addictions counselor is getting people to see how their codependent behaviors are not helping and how they need to change what they do and how they think about the situation. Most people who seek help for loved ones who have addiction issues will simply refuse to even look at how their own behavior is not helping because they see themselves as what has prevented things from getting worse. It is a sad fact that a majority of them will simply cease coming for help once they hear that they have to change what they are doing.

The basic concept to understand here is that addiction is unhealthy, making it easier for the person to keep using is unhealthy, experiencing stress and taking on extra responsibilities because another person is dropping the ball is also not healthy. So the whole situation is unhealthy and the solution is to inject “health” if there is to be any hope of things getting better.