Most People Who Use Drugs Don’t Become Addicted — And Why That’s Important


The former CEO of the UK’s National Treatment Agency explains in The Conversation why the vast majority of people who use addictive drugs don’t ever become addicted, and why that’s important when it comes to developing social policy.

“Addiction, unlike use, is heavily concentrated in our poorest communities – and within those communities it is the individuals who struggle most with life who will succumb,” writes Paul Hayes. “Compared to the rest of the population, heroin and crack addicts are: male, working-class, offenders, have poor educational records, little or no history of employment, experience of the care system, a vulnerability to mental illness and increasingly are over 40 with declining physical health.”

“Unfortunately the strong relationship between social distress and addiction is ignored by politicians and media commentators in favour of an assumption that addiction is a random risk driven by the power of the drug,” comments Hayes. “It does happen. But the atypical experience of the relatively small number of drug users from stable backgrounds who stumble into addiction and can legitimately attribute the chaos of their subsequent lives to this one event drowns out the experience of the overwhelming majority of addicts for whom social isolation, economic exclusion, criminality and fragile mental health preceded their drug use rather than being caused by it.”

Many people use drugs – but here’s why most don’t become addicts (The Conversation, January 6, 2015)


  1. There is an out-of-fashion sense of addiction as a “bio-psycho-social” disease/disorder.

    We are currently fighting against an over-emphasis on the biological sense of addiction as a neurological, brain disorder. My concern with the direction of the article is that it seems to focus only on the social aspect. Governmental policy decisions should see addiction holistically—as biological, psychological AND social.

    Report comment

  2. I’ve always been enraged at the DEA and laws surrounding opiates, drugs so natural that we literally evolved around them to the point of being born with opiate receptors in our brains. Our government has no problem with millions of children being forced to take permanently brain damaging psychotropic drugs for what are truly only social and behavioral purposes, but damned if they wont get out of peoples adult business when it comes to managing their pain or wanting a relatively safe drug to have fun with.

    Report comment

    • You’re inaccurate here: we didn’t allowed the “receptors for opiates”. There are receptors for endogenous substances such as endorphins and exogenous substances happen to bind to them and elicit an artificial response.
      While I’m essentially for drug legalization/decriminalization I don’t see much difference in legal and illegal psychoactive substances. They are all quite dangerous even if some of them can have some beneficial uses.

      Report comment

      • B – I worried about appearing to take a pot shot at someone who was not a native English speaker, but risked it in order to challenge the Just Say No message in case it was from someone who might have just happened upon the site here or was looking to distract and silence the rebels. I couldn’t see that it was someone–that it was you– who already presents their views and who could be addressed in more friendly terms. That is because the the new format sometimes hides usernames completely, at least for my browser.

        Nevertheless, let’s take a second look here before I go into the explanation I was prepared to make for sounding off in the tone of rebuke, if it’s OK with you. I’ve gotten a chance to look here and there (and downloaded the first two papers which seemed most interesting and involve this argument) about what’s dangerous and what’s natural and who’s right on the opium question. I have my nose in a book ten hours a day and actually just logged on because of not wanting to forget to explain myself appropriately to whoever was espousing abstinence, which is often the smart personal choice.

        Anyway, think about it: none of these basically mainstream publications carry the zero tolerance implication that leads to defining opiate receptor stimulation as artificial. They’re all reliably anti-drug abuse, maybe even allies of the War on Drugs, as hateful and stupid as that is, but they don’t try to spin the story so that narcs can say that ingesting opiates leads to an artificial high. I think they would if they could, don’t you? Are you sure about your source for the idea of no evolutionary connection to opiates in nature as to how we developed these receptor sites? Maybe it’s a competing hypothesis…. t-v.

        Report comment