Why Can’t The Brain Stop Using Drugs?

A woman sniffs heroin with the help of a paper tube at her home in the Ibrahim Hyderi Fish Harbour area on the outskirts of Karachi in this September 9, 2011 file photo. To match Special Report PAKISTAN-KINGPIN/ REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro (PAKISTAN – Tags: CRIME LAW DRUGS SOCIETY POLITICS)

A UN report said that about 6.7 million adults in Islamabad were one of the busiest drug trafficking corridors globally in my country, Pakistan.  David Browne covered the mujahideen insurgency in the 1980s and wrote,

“Pakistan’s illegal drug trade is believed to generate $2 billion a year, making Pakistan the most heroin-addicted country, per capita, in the world.”

On average, most drug users will tell you if they are honest that they get the most benefit of using drugs by injecting it intravenously into the vein, sniffing, or snorting.  Those addicted to heavy use strive to avoid or reduce eating or drinking drugs, because the time it takes to have a full effect is slower, given that the substance must pass through the stomach first.

The brain weighs less than three pounds of gray and white matter, but don’t confuse its lack of size with its power to do emotional and physical damage.  Your brain is the stick shift that dominates every aspect of your life. When a person uses drugs, the brain plays an important role in why it’s painful to stop.  

“More than 93,000 people [USA] died from drug overdoses in 2020, according to provisional data released by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. That’s a 29.4% increase from the 72,151 deaths projected for 2019, noted CNN. 

I have no interest in giving you a lecture about drugs from an academic perspective. However, I would be less than truthful by calling this article informative, chiefly because the user and many in the public need and must be lectured of sorts when it comes to drugs.  Ask any kid who used drugs. He/she  will tell you that using drugs started by experimenting, then ongoing use, to finally full-blown illness.

For starters, drugs don’t work the way people think. There are specific patterns the brain goes through when the individual becomes hooked. Your body can get used to the idea that drugs are an external force that increases dopamine levels. 

The basal ganglia

When we feel happy or need to hang out due to our excitement, the basal ganglia send signals to our brain, releasing feel-good hormones. This part of the brain is the first to feel a drug’s effect. You can see where I am going, and that is, when drugs are brought into the mix, you might as well welcome disaster to your table, given that drugs can fool a user into believing their excitement is that much heightened.

So, unlike a person who might feel cheerful, but who can maintain their perspective that no one is happy all the time. The drug user wants that euphoria sensation at all costs, because regardless of whether life  is unbearable or going well, they have this false belief that no matter what, drugs will solve the problem.    

The amygdala

Contrary to the basal ganglia, the amygdala controls our feelings of irritation, sadness, anxiety, etc.  On average, most people do not know how to deal with intense feelings of stress, low self-esteem, a failing marriage or relationship, etc.  So, for the drug user, this is where the substance knocks on the door.  Drugs introduced the user to the concept of how to mask those dreaded feelings. 

The prefrontal cortex

This part of the brain impacts our ability to pay attention, control our impulses, help the memory remain intact, and give us the ability to use cognitive flexibility.  This is why you often hear drug users say they get more creative when on the drug. They are basically saying the high gives them the ability to do all the tasks that the prefrontal cortex does at a supposedly better rate. 

Reham Nayyar Khan is a British-Pakistani journalist wrote openly about her ex-husband, former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan’s drug use.

“I’d faced severe mood swings and depressive attacks in the first two months, but I didn’t know enough to understand that it was him crashing,” wrote Khan. “He was either hiding it rather well or trying to cut down. He would openly light a roll-up cigarette in front of me, filling it with a substance broken off from a round flat black mixture,” she said.

“He would heat it and add it to cigarette, and sometimes smoke in the afternoons. He gave me the impression that it was marijuana, but it did not smell like weed. I would stumble across it several months later when making a documentary for an anti-narcotics campaign and discover it was black tar (heroin).”

Here’s what I learned as I finish this op-ed. When the brain gets used to a drug, it teaches other body parts to function accordingly. People who are addicted actually cannot find reasons to leave the stink of drugs. The net result is that addiction and withdrawal are the two worst phases of an addict’s life outside death—which will indeed happen the more drug users engage in this foolish act. 

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