Is Drug Addiction a Disease or a Choice?

Make no mistake, drug addiction takes a toll on the user and everyone close to them. It can lead users to lose their jobs, abandon their friends, and steal money just to buy drugs and alcohol. When people choose to try substances, they are taking a huge risk. This has led many to ask the question, “Is addiction a disease or a choice?”

Although science has confirmed that addiction is indeed a chronic disease, some individuals and groups still believe that it’s a path that you choose. We’ll explore both of these views and explain the reasoning behind them. We hope that you gain a better understanding of how drug addiction affects the body and brain.

We Understand the Need for Drug Detox

is addiction a disease or a choiceDrug addiction, or substance use disorder, is the inability to quit using a substance like drugs or alcohol despite negative consequences that come with it. The more someone uses a substance, the more their brain changes to accommodate it and crave it more and more. 

While some people dabble in drinking and smoking marijuana occasionally, people with substance use disorder need drugs just to function daily. Alcohol, prescription drugs, and illegal drugs like heroin tend to fuel addiction. 

Although you can also be addicted to behaviors like gambling and shopping, the term “addiction” here is reserved for substance abuse. This is why many medical professionals tend to use the term “substance use disorder” to describe it.

Signs and Symptoms of Drug Addiction

To avoid developing an addiction, you should look out for the following signs. If you see these and other symptoms in a loved one, you might want to consider an intervention. 

Signs of addiction include:

  • Tolerance (you need more of the drug each time you use it to keep getting the same high)
  • Abandoning old friends to hang out with new friends who use drugs
  • Loss of motivation
  • Increased aggression, anger, or irritability
  • Sudden involvement in criminal activity

Symptoms of addiction include: 

  • Poor hygiene or appearance
  • Drastic weight gain or loss
  • Problems with motor coordination
  • Slurred speech
  • Constricted or dilated pupils
  • Extreme paranoia for no reason
  • Rapid mood changes

Causes of Drug Addiction

There isn’t one single cause of addiction. There are many reasons why people decide to try drugs in the first place. Curiosity and peer pressure are the two main causes of drug addiction. 

Many people want to fit in, be accepted, and try new things. Unfortunately, this can lead you down a dark path.

Other causes of addiction include:

  • Wanting to feel good: Drugs can provide you with energy, relaxation, feelings of power, a euphoric high, and increased confidence. 
  • Wanting to feel better: People with depression or high stress and anxiety might find drugs appealing for relieving symptoms.
  • The desire to do better: Some people might see drugs as a way of keeping up or getting ahead since some have a reputation for increasing strength or academic performance.

Once you experience how good drugs can make you feel, the foundation for addiction is set. However, some people can try drugs a couple of times and not become dependent.  

Risk Factors

Some people are more predisposed to developing an addiction than others. A few risk factors of drug addiction include:

  • Genetics: People with a family history of addiction are more likely to develop substance abuse as well.
  • Environment: If you grew up in a tumultuous environment with abusive family members, you might be tempted to use drugs and alcohol to drown out your troubled feelings. Other environmental factors include friends and school. 
  • Age: Trying drugs as a teen or young adult, while your brain is still developing, can increase your chances of developing a substance use disorder. 
  • Ethnicity: People of certain backgrounds might be predisposed to having an addiction to substances. 

Biological factors like gender, age, and ethnicity count for 40 to 60% of addiction risk. 

Protective Factors

While risk factors put someone in danger of becoming dependent, protective factors minimize this danger. Protective factors include:

  • An involved and supportive family
  • No family history of drug addiction
  • Good physical health
  • Healthy relationships in the community and at home
  • Strong impulse control
  • Access to community resources like recreation centers and playgrounds

Is Addiction a Disease or a Choice?

Even though many agree that addiction should be treated like other conditions like cancer or diabetes, it’s still regarded with a stigma and shame. When you’re thinking “Is addiction a disease or a choice?” there’s a lot to consider. Read the following to learn about these different ideologies.

Why it’s A Disease

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) all define addiction as a relapsing, long-term condition. They also say it’s characterized by someone seeking out substances compulsively despite negative consequences.

These three organizations describe addiction as a disease/disorder because:

  • Substance use disorder changes how the brain responds to certain situations, like those involving stress, reward, and self-control
  • These are long-term changes and can continue long after the individual stops using.

To make this clearer, we’re going to compare addiction to heart disease. These conditions both can lead to a higher risk of early death and a poor quality of life. They’re also preventable by avoiding poor choices and living a healthy lifestyle, and they can be treated, too. Heart disease and addiction both affect the regular function of organs in the human body as well.

It can also be argued that addiction is a disease because, like Type 2 diabetes and hypertension, it’s a condition you’ll have for life that needs constant treatment. You can relapse if you don’t make your recovery a priority every day. 

Tolerance and dependence are another large part of why addiction is considered a disease. The more you take a drug, the more your body becomes used to it. As a result, you need higher and more frequent doses to get the same feeling. This isn’t something you can help. Some people become so addicted that they depend on just to get through each day, too. 

Why it’s A Choice

There are people out there who believe that drug addiction is a choice. Those who hold this belief say that addiction isn’t transmissible like a virus; it isn’t degenerative or hereditary; and it’s a condition you give to yourself, not something that’s acquired. 

People who believe addiction is a choice put emphasis on its environmental and social factors. There is one belief that putting substance abusers in a cell without any drugs will “cure” them. 

Unfortunately, these people aren’t considering addiction’s biological factors. Although substance abuse does indeed begin with making a choice, sometimes it stems from using medication prescribed by a doctor. Patients addicted to prescription drugs from a doctor didn’t mean to become dependent on them.

It’s hard to believe that someone would willingly ruin their lives just to drink or do drugs. If substances were so easy to quit, people would be stopping more often. Relapses would be less common and addiction would be much easier to address. 

Even if you chose to try a drug or drink, you didn’t choose to become dependent on or tolerant to it.

What Makes Drugs Addictive?

Although drugs are made from many different chemical compounds, they all do one thing: They make us feel good. We all like to feel pleasure and happiness. Drugs make this happen with frequent use, but it comes at a price. 

Even though we tend to feel pleasure after finishing a workout, eating a delicious meal, or hearing our favorite song, drugs offer something extra. The euphoric high drugs provide is an unnatural reward that is bigger and brighter than normal happiness. The more you use drugs, the less appealing other activities you loved seem to be.

The general belief is that the brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine when you get a reward. This signals the experience so that you can do it again and again. This is healthy to do for normal rewards, but not for drugs. When substance abuse happens, the brain rewires itself and changes the reward circuit so that it becomes less receptive to natural rewards. For this reason, addicts tend to feel depressed when they’re not using. 

Whether people believe that addiction is a disease or a choice, there is no denying that drugs are addictive. 

The Most Addictive Drugs

Below is a list of some of the most addictive drugs. Each drug category can lead you down a different path of addiction. 


Because of its legality and wide availability, alcohol is one of the most abused substances in the world. Its ability to make you feel confident and relaxed while loosening your inhibitions makes alcohol a highly addictive drug. 


Opioids are derived from a substance found in the opium poppy plant. They’re used to treat mild to severe pain and come in the form of both prescription and illicit drugs (heroin). Opioids block pain receptors in the brain to disrupt any discomfort that you’re feeling. 

Some examples of prescriptions opioids include:

  • Codeine
  • Fentanyl
  • Hydrocodone
  • Oxycodone

This category is among the most addictive drugs because of its calming properties. Opioids make people feel relaxed, serene, and happy, and these good feelings fuel addiction. They’re also widely available, so you can usually find them at home. Since opioids can be taken in different ways like injecting or snorting, they can get you high faster as well. 


Sedatives make users feel calm or drowsy, and they slow down the nervous system. Many people take prescription sedatives like benzodiazepines and sleep medications for anxiety or insomnia. Because of the pleasant feelings they create, along with the painful withdrawal symptoms they produce when you stop taking them, they’re extremely addictive. 

Sedatives include:

  • Xanax
  • Valium
  • Klonopin
  • Ambien


Cocaine, prescriptions for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and crystal meth are all examples of stimulants. These improve attention, increase alertness, suppress your appetite, and improve attention. All of these qualities make it hard for people to stop using them once they start.

Treatment for Addiction at Phoenix Rising

Now that you’ve weighed the answers to the question “Is addiction a disease or a choice?” we feel that you can make an educated decision about it. The fact is, addiction must be considered a chronic disease by all so that we can take away the shame and stigma surrounding it. 

At Phoenix Rising, we understand that there is no one-size-fits-all treatment for substance use disorder. That’s why we offer custom plans and resources to our patients based on their immediate needs.

If you’re afraid that substances are taking over your life, contact us today. Learn more about our Palm Springs rehab program, and leave drugs and alcohol behind for good.