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Why These Two Drugs Are So Difficult To Quit

Cocaine and methamphetamine.

In interviews lately, I’ve fielded several questions about cocaine and methamphetamine. One in particular seems to keep coming up: “Why are these drugs so addictive?”

I can answer the question in one word.


We all know what pleasure feels like – it’s one of the great things about being human. Pleasure is enjoyment, satisfaction or gratification. It comes from a job well done, a good meal, a great workout, romance, sex, and much more.

It has a dark side too, as pleasure also comes from compulsive gambling, viewing pornography, and over-spending. Hollywood makes billions knowing it’s pleasurable to watch violence. And of course, pleasure comes when we use mood-altering substances.

Most people don’t know this, but there’s even a “pleasure scale” that ranks various kinds of activities for the good feelings they create.

We all know how a great meal makes us feel. Well, according to the scale, cocaine offers three times the pleasurable feelings of a really satisfying dinner. And methamphetamine? More than three times the pleasure of cocaine, and for much longer.

That’s a lot of pleasure.

The problem is that that pleasure comes with a tremendous cost. There’s the cost of the drugs themselves, of course. Then, for the addict, there are lost jobs, damaged health, broken relationships and, in many cases, criminal charges.

It’s not unusual for some addicts actually to destroy their skin, teeth, and internal organs by using. Others exhibit the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. In treatment circles, we say: “There are few 55-year-old meth addicts. They’re either off the drug or dead.”

Why are people willing to pay such a high price? Again, the answer: pleasure.

Scientists know that pleasure is based on a complex mix of chemicals in the brain, with dopamine one of the most important. Cocaine and methamphetamine “release” stored dopamine, giving a short-lived rush of intense pleasure (in the case of cocaine) and even more intense, more sustained pleasurable feelings (in the case of methamphetamine).

Meanwhile, the two drugs severely deplete the brain’s store of dopamine.

What that means is that when the drug is withdrawn, the brain is plunged artificially into severe depression. In some people it can produce a psychotic state. In other words, the intense pleasure experience is followed by an excruciating withdrawal – both physical and mental. Suicidal depression is not out of the question. Only more of the drug, or time, will relieve that discomfort.

And it’s that huge difference between how users feel on these drugs and how they feel when the drugs are withdrawn that keeps them coming back for more. The tremendous costs involved – even their lives – seem worth it.

With such a challenge, we can see why it’s so difficult – if not impossible – for men and women dependent on cocaine or methamphetamine to simply quit on their own. Will power is of virtually no use in the face of that kind of mental and physical discomfort (which some recovering addicts describe as “agony”). Virtually all of those who succeed in getting clean do so because they get professional help and the kind of community support that comes with a serious commitment to 12-step recovery.

Written by Jerry Gjesvold, former Serenity Lane Employer Services Manager. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer.

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