Are Our Changing Cultural Norms Redefining Addiction?


New social norms

Part of the holistic approach to rehabilitation is addressing cultural factors related to drug addiction. The increasing availability of information and the growing number of ways to connect with others, while having many positive attributes, also causes many negative effects. To cite one example, online commerce is providing users with easier and more anonymous access to drugs, and social networking gives addicts the chance to communicate one-on-one with other drug users and dealers in a virtually risk-free environment.

Prescription and OTC Drug Abuse

Prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drug abuse is a trend that shows no sign of waning in today’s drug culture – unless something is done about it. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that in 1991, doctors wrote about 5 million prescriptions for stimulants while in 2010 they wrote more than 45 million. The number of prescriptions for opioids more than tripled during the same time period, increasing their availability for illicit use.

According to 2009 data collected by the CDC, more than 20 percent of teenagers in high school admitted to having abused prescription drugs. Tranquilizers are among the most common. Others include:

  • Ritalin
  • Adderall
  • OxyContin
  • Vicodin

OTC medications are easy to purchase and aren’t illegal. Many teens have a fairly good idea that illegal drugs are harmful, but have little enlightenment on the abuse of prescription and OTC drugs. Failing to connect the same negative concepts to prescription and OTC drugs, they equate “legal” with “safe”. Teens who use “legal” drugs for getting high may believe that these medications do not pose the same serious dangers that substances like cocaine, meth and heroin do. Cough syrup, diet pills and sleeping aids are some of the OTC medications that people use for non-medical purposes. Contrary to what users may believe, abusing OTC drugs does put their health at serious risk, just like abuse of prescription drugs.

Opiate Abuse

Abuse of opiates (also called opioids) is also a growing concern in our society. These drugs are not only gaining in popularity but they are also highly addictive, a factor which perpetuates their use. People can get these pain medications in several ways, including:

  • From the doctor, or several doctors by shopping around
  • From relatives or friends who have a prescription
  • On the black market

The CDC reports that deaths resulting from overdoses of opioid drugs, both in the form of pain meds and heroin, are on the rise. In 2011, the number of people who died from prescription opiate overdoses was 2 percent higher than the previous year while heroin deaths spiked 44 percent. Actor Heath Ledger was found to have hydrocodone and oxycodone (both opioids) as well as several other prescription drugs in his system upon his death. Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who also died of overdose, had apparently moved back to heroin use after struggling with a pill addiction. It is well-known that these synthetic and semi-synthetic opioids, such as hydrocodone (Vicodin, Zohydro) and oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet) are basically laboratory versions of morphine and heroin; they all fall under the same general class of drug. To make matters worse, a number of these formulations (Vicodin, Percocet) contain acetaminophen (Tylenol) which damages the liver of the user after extended use.

Psychotropic Drugs in Popular Culture

Psychotropic drugs like Prozac and Zoloft have entered the cultural mainstream over the past several years too. These drugs that affect brain function feature in television, print and online advertising as the answer to a spectrum of conditions ranging from anxiety to depression. Unfortunately, the advertising speaks to anyone who seeks to quell their upset or sadness with a pill or some other quick fix. The ads are also reaching vulnerable people who turn to psychotropic drugs in the quest for a new high.

Benzodiazepines include drugs like Valium, Ativan and Xanax that raise levels of neurotransmitters in the brain, triggering a dopamine reaction that produces a sense of contentment. One primary problem with these drugs is that they tend to build up in the body, making such side effects as dizziness, impaired thinking and memory loss more pronounced and increasing the possibility of overdose.

Abuse of antidepressants puts people at greater risk for suicide, diabetes, immune system issues and neonatal problems for pregnant women. All of these possible effects of illicit psychotropic use not only come at a high cost for abusers but also for society that often must pay for abusers’ medical bills.

Side effects are legion for all classifications of psychotropics, including psycho-stimulants, benzodiazepines, antidepressants and antipsychotics. Evidence indicates that the adverse reactions, including dependence and addiction, far outweigh any perceived benefits. They may succeed in numbing one’s emotions temporarily, but at great cost physically and mentally.

Synthetic Drugs

Another troubling trend developing over the past few years is the influx of artificial versions of marijuana, stimulants and hallucinogens originated in both commercial and home-based labs. Sellers market hem under innocuous names like:

Synthetic Drugs

Synthetic Drugs

  • Potpourri, incense, air freshener and spice in the case of synthetic marijuana.
  • Bath salts, plant food or jewelry cleaner in the case of stimulants that mimic cocaine, methamphetamines or Ecstasy.
  • 2C for hallucinogens producing similar effects to LSD.

These products are readily available online, in “head shops” and even in convenience stores,and are moderately priced compared to the substances they mimic. The law doesn’t prohibit purchasing many synthetic drugs; meanwhile they have caused some serious health emergencies including addiction, psychosis and overdose. As emergency room visits, overdoses and deaths increase, agencies such as the DEA take notice and eventually bans are passed, but it is a constant uphill battle due to the clandestine nature of drug manufacturers who change their chemical formulations in an effort to fly under DEA radar. Some countries such as Japan and Australia have worked to initiate more sweeping legislation in regards to these dangerous synthetic psychoactive substances.

Legalization of Marijuana

The legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington State is an indication of changing cultural views on use of this drug. By taking away the legal sanctions for growing, selling, buying and using personal amounts of marijuana, these two states are giving their tacit approval of the drug. It is interesting to note that this “movement” is not originating solely “from the people”. There are in fact millions (if not billions) of dollars being poured into the campaign by some very wealthy businessmen. The question could be asked: WHY?

One study found that marijuana users were more likely to misuse prescription medication than non-users. This would indicate that the more marijuana use in our country, augmented by legalization, the more widespread and exponential the use of prescription meds. Synthetic cannabinoid pills are also in the pipeline. So what does this mean? It means more drugs sold and higher pharmaceutical stock. Only a theory right now, but we’ll see how it all pans out.

Cultural Norms and Addiction

Unlimited information, easier access, the belief that prescription and OTC drugs are less risky, and the availability of affordable synthetic drugs all contribute to the popular drug culture in contemporary times. We need to take a broad-based, holistic approach to treatment and recovery that addresses the cultural, behavioral, emotional, physical and spiritual factors that contribute to drug addiction.

Recognizing the ways in which societal norms and cultural values affect addiction helps us determine the best approaches for teaching our clients drug-free coping skills. Familiarity with the temptations that both teens and adults must contend with on a daily basis is essential to developing strategies to overcome substance abuse. That’s why staying current with drug abuse trends and the influence society has in shaping them is an important part of our effective, holistic approach to rehabilitation.