Researchers argue 'addiction' a poor way to understand the normal use of drugs

A new review from UK and German researchers claims that the vast majority of people who routinely use drugs are using them to achieve their goals and cope better with the stresses of modern life.

Christian Muller and Gunter Schumann suggest that drugs, from and through to and even cocaine, can have ‘beneficial effects for an individual in modern environments’. They argue for an acknowledgment that typical, non-addicted use of drugs by many people improves their experience, behavior, or performance in various contexts such as career or social life. By accepting this reality, they suggest, drugs advice in schools and clinical settings can be made more realistic and effective.

Muller and Schumann acknowledge the risk that a fraction of users will become addicted or engage in risky drug related behavior but they advocate that giving realistic advice based on how the majority of people are using drugs would actually help to cut rates:

“A better understanding of the mechanisms of drug use in non-addicts might serve to better prevent the transition to drug addiction in the future.”

In the journal of Behavioral and Brain Sciences published by Cambridge University Press, Muller and Schumann’s article, 'Drugs as instruments – a new framework for non-addictive psychoactive drug use', introduces the concept that drugs are being routinely used by many as helpful ‘instruments’ in their lives.

After an exhaustive trawl of scores of studies into drug use, they claim that most regular consumers of drugs are not, and will never become, addicts. While considerable research effort has been made to understand drug addiction and how it develops, they write, there has been no similar attempt to research the beneficial effects of drugs on non-addicted users.

Presenting a new framework for non-addictive drug use, they list the advantages reported by people engaged in this behavior, including beneficial effects on mood enhancement, stress reduction, sociability, mental health, long-term cognitive functioning and work performance.

Muller and Schumann write: “We propose that the majority of non-addicted humans, who consume psychoactive drugs as a normal part of their life take drugs because their effects are useful for their personal goals. When it comes to using drugs or other stimulants as instruments, for example, most adults can drive a car un-drugged. However, after a long working day, having a last coffee to awake and refresh the mind may enable the driver to drive home more safely. In this case, caffeine is the instrument that improves the mental state.”

Muller and Schumann go on to suggest that a non-addictive use of drugs may have evolved to help the human race adapt to different aspects of life, and that we have learned to use drugs in ways that enhance our chances for survival and reproduction. Examples include alcohol helping a shy person overcome their shyness and initiate a sexual encounter, or amphetamines helping a tired student stay awake and study for crucial exams that will determine success in their professional life.

They also suggest that our modern environment demands that we constantly move between ‘microenvironments’ which require stressful rapid transitions:

“In fast-changing microenvironments, short transition times between mental states may be advantageous. We suggest [that] psychoactive drug use facilitates the transition between different mental states.”

For instance, drugs like alcohol, , amphetamine and ecstasy help us make the rapid transition from a work microenvironment to a social one: “alcohol reduces social inhibition, social anxiety, and increases talkativeness”. Similarly the demands of modern work microenvironments cause fatigue and declines in cognitive performance: “having the means to ‘artificially’ prolong performance may be a benefit”.

Acknowledging that their thesis has implications for drug policy, they suggest three new approaches:

a. For ‘drug naïve’ individuals, usually adolescent to early adult age, provide information not only on the adverse effects of addiction but also on how drugs are being successfully ‘instrumentalized’: “the goal should not be to prevent drug use in general, but to foster control over it by the individual.”

b. For people who have already integrated drugs in their life’s routines, emphasize the need to stay in control of drug use. In particular, during stressful periods of transition in life, there is an increased danger of developing new forms of drug instrumentalization. Education programms “should aim to train young people to self-analyze their drug instrumentalization”.

c. For people who are at risk of a transition to drug addiction, over-instrumentalization of drugs, and a dependence on the drug to achieve major goals in life, needs to be prevented. A drug-use ‘biography’ should be created predicting whether the user is likely to be able to maintain use of drugs to help with goals or lose control of their use.

Muller and Schumann admit that their ideas will be seen as controversial: “Although we argue for evolutionary benefits of non-addictive use, it has to be emphasized that the instrumentalization of psychoactive drugs comes at a price, which ultimately qualifies it as a risky behavior.”

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Apr 12, 2011
A drug policy so reasonable that it couldn't have come from America! Why shouldn't we treat adults like adults and children like the inquisitive, bullshit-detecting subadults they are?

Apr 12, 2011
This is interesting, and would also imply that making these drugs illegal is maybe not such a good idea either. I would like to see some statistics for how many drug users are "addicted" and how many are not for each drug.

Apr 12, 2011
Addiction is something of an antiquated misnomer, I think: addiction implies uncontrollable slavery to something, whereas the more correct term "dependence" does not carry this connotation. Dependence also acknowledges physical and psychological elements.

Rates of psychological dependence for any substance, and I use substance very loosely (e.g. video gaming, sex, most psychoactive chemicals) is largely the same: it hovers around 10%. I haven't read a reason for this anywhere but I'm reasonably sure it has to do with the way these persons' brains handle dopamine.

Rates of physical dependence (e.g. for nicotine, heroin, cocaine, etc.) can vary from person to person and substance to substance. For example, nicotine use causes physical dependence (and withdrawals) on par with that of heroin use.

In this way, people can still be dependent on "non-addictive" drugs. For example, I know people psych-dependent on marijuana even though everyone can admit it's not (physically) "addictive."

Apr 12, 2011
Of course you could blur the line drawn between psychological and physical if only by appealing to the fact that psychological IS physical. LSD works on 5-HT2A receptors--these receptors are attuned to serotonin and are endogenously regulated by the brain. No one, even at NIDA, will argue that LSD is addictive. But assume for a moment that a patient has a problem handling serotonin in his or her brain. If the patient's brain has a problem dealing with serotonin, leaving them depressed all the time, and taking LSD solves this problem to the extent that the person feels better and wants to continue to take LSD to alleviate his or her depression. Is the person "addicted" to LSD? Is the person dependent on it? Psychologically? Physically? The brain obviously requires the LSD to function "normally," though technically "normal" is depressed. This would be physical. But the person wants, even thinks they NEED, the LSD, and that's psychological addiction. So what is it? Messy.

Apr 12, 2011
No one can argue that our understanding and perception of both drugs (what is a "drug"? do pharmaceuticals count? endogenous chemicals and neurotransmitters? should there be a negative connotation? should a different word be used?) needs a revision. Even the terms we use in the debate need to be reworked: many of the words are loaded with emotional connotation for both sides of the debate.

The best way to understand is to educate yourself. There are numerous resources on the web with information on scientific studies (many from the 70s before psychoactive research became limited, many from overseas) on chemicals and their effects on humans. Check out Erowid for a good place to start.

Apr 12, 2011
@ JRDarby

Those are sound arguments, particularly about the need to educate based on psychological dependence as opposed to physical addiction, and the practical differences; additionally, it becomes more and more pertinent with the proliferation of modest/infrequent drug use, to re-evaluate terminology regarding the different categories of drugs. The sad fact is, the terminology in use is very emotionally charged and tends to dehumanize users and abusers alike. Also, good call plugging Erowid - it's possibly the best place for the drug-ignorant to learn.

Apr 12, 2011
Great comments JRDarby and Simonsez!

I would like to add a thought I just had as well. I read a report saying that the effectiveness of alternative medicine treatments (as reported by the user of those treatments) goes up with the cost of the treatment. The theory is that if you spend a dollar on some treatment you haven't invested much in the idea and are more free to admit if it doesn't work. If you spend $1000 on the same treatment, you have to have a high level of commitment and are therefore more likely to report that the treatment worked (because you'd look pretty dumb if you spent that much on something that doesn't work.)

Could something similar be going on with illegal drugs? Because the drugs are illegal, using it takes a higher level of commitment (are you willing to risk your life to buy a dime bag on the street corner?), and so people might have a stronger belief that it's worth it (again, because you're dumb if you go through that for something that isn't worth it)?

Apr 12, 2011
Finally, something sounding sensible ands reasonable concerning "drugs" and so-called "addiction".

Personally, i use cannabis medicinally to maintain a state of health and wellbeing that i otherwise wouldn't have. I eat right, stay highly active, and perform a demanding job in a fast paced and dangerous environment. Without cannabis my back, hip, shoulders,and various other body parts i've broken just don't function well at all. My body becomes stiff, painful, and my muscles tighten up, spasm,and cramp.

I use cannabis daily, but in no way am i addicted. You could say i'm addicted to life, and without cannabis as a nutrient my body needs, it's as if i'm malnourished or imbalanced, and in pain. It's the same if i don't eat bananas and such to get my potassium, i wouldn't be able to do much in life either.

I don't drink, i eat real foods (vegan, no cans,no chemicals), fresh local organic, the body is a temple, and cannabis is the herb that my temple requires for balance.

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