An article published in Pacific Standard earlier this month suggests that drug addiction is not the severe disease it has been made out to be. Maia Szalavitz, author of the article, explains that she stopped shooting coke and heroin at age 23 with the help of treatment, but notes that her age fell into the common range (early to mid 20s) that most people who have diagnosable addiction quit without treatment. According to broad epidemiological studies, addiction may be more of a phase than a disease for most people.
While the article doesn’t take the possibility of chronic addiction off the table completely, it does shed a lot of light on statistical evidence that redefines drug addiction as a psychiatric disorder from which most sufferers recover. The article states, “The average cocaine addiction lasts four years, the average marijuana addiction lasts six years, and the average alcohol addiction is resolved within 15 years. Heroin addictions tend to last as long as alcoholism, but prescription opioid problems, on average, last five years.” If addiction is just a phase, though, why is it widely accepted as a progressive disease? Szalavitz points to distorted views from both treatment facilities and journalists. Those working within the drug rehabilitation field are only seeing one extreme of addiction; people who relapse and return to treatment repeatedly. The media, therefore, focuses on the same, as that is where the information is coming from. Shows like Intervention tend to showcase addicts in the midst of the problem, at a time when they are not ready to quit, and are being convinced to enter treatment. This portrayal of the most chronic and severe cases has continued to perpetuate the belief that addiction requires tons of outside influence to have any chance of improving.
So, if the average addict quits without intervention or treatment, how do we explain the phase of the disorder? The time when the prefrontal cortex of the brain becomes fully developed provides an important correlation between the age when most addicts recover on their own; both events occur in the early to mid 20s. The prefrontal cortex plays a huge role in human maturity; it controls our capacity for good judgement and self-restraint. For the average addict, drug use begins in early adolescence, when the emotional systems responsible for love and sex become active. This explains why many substance abusers become addicts in their early 20s; they are lacking the full cognitive ability to deter risky choices and reckless behavior. When the prefrontal cortex reaches maturity (around 23), the addictive disorder tends to get phased out in lieu of responsible decisions.