Disease of Addiction: Disease or Choice?

Even though the medical community accepts addiction as a disease there is still a debate as to whether this is an accurate classification for the illness. Those detractors from the disease model of addiction believe that addiction is not a disease because the changes that occur in the brain of someone who suffers from addiction is not unique to people who abuse drugs. These people say that the changes to the brain are actually a form of learning and not the result of some chronic illness and so therefore it cannot be classified as a disease.

Whether you believe that the disease of addiction is a disease or not, this debate is representative of a larger stigma and misunderstanding about what addiction is within the larger population. There is a desire to not let drug addicts off the hook for their behaviors and it seems that many of the arguments against the disease model of addiction, while may be rooted in science, appear to have an undertone of skepticism and resentment that is not applied to other diseases. It is not as if the disease model of addiction perfectly sums up what it means to be an addict, but that being said, there is something going on within the addict that causes them to engage in such self-destructive behaviors that go beyond the explanation of choice. Yet this is almost impossible to explain to someone who has never suffered from addiction and so to watch an addict go about their active addiction and not believe that they are just bad people making terrible choices is outside the capacity for most people’s empathy.

In the interest of fairness, let’s take a look at both sides of this debate so that you can come to your own conclusions as to whether the disease of addiction is an accurate nom de plume for this baffling illness.

Arguments For The Disease of Addiction

The American Medical Association defines Addiction as “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations.” It is thought that addiction is in some way hereditary and also has its origins in environmental factors that lead to a person becoming addicted.

The main reason why addiction is considered a disease by most of the medical community is because the drugs that addicts take actually change the brain. These drugs change the brain’s structure and how it works, which represent an abnormality in the brain, the result of which are behaviors that are associated with addiction.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse states that due to the change in function of the brain, addiction should be classified as a disease because it disrupts the normal function of an organ. This is what many other diseases do as well and in the case of addiction, the disruption usually results in compulsive behaviors.

Compulsivity is another reason why many consider addiction a disease. The addict, once addiction has set in, has no choice as to whether or not they are going to use. Mustering up the willpower necessary in order to not go and use that day is a mere impossibility, but to people who are not personally acquainted with addiction this is very difficult to understand. To someone on the outside looking in stopping addiction seems to be as easy as just saying no, but the compulsion that comes from suffering from addiction is not so easily overridden. It is as if your mind is hijacked and you have no defense against not getting high.


Arguments Against The Disease Model of Addiction

For those who do not believe that addiction is a disease, all of the evidence listed above simply points to the normal functioning of a mind that has learned to perform a certain behavior. The main reason why these people believe that addiction is not a disease is because the changes that occur in the brain when a person continuously ingests drugs is the same change that occurs when someone really likes something. One example is that the same change was witnessed in people who really like to play the piano and so addiction should be classified as a learned behavior and not a disease.

This means that they believe that addiction is a choice and not a compulsion. They believe that every time that a drug addict uses drugs they are making a conscious choice to participate in that action and are not being driven by something greater.

Proponents of the idea that addiction is not a disease also believe that it is not hereditary in the sense that you get genetic material from a parent that makes you predisposed to becoming addicted. They see the familial tie as nothing more than learned behaviors and that growing up in a household where addiction is present means that a child is more likely to engage in the same behaviors.


While it is difficult to say whether addiction is a disease in the traditional sense of the word or not, the important thing in all of this is to understand that it is not a choice. No person chooses to live like a drug addict and whether addiction comes about because of underlying mental health issues or whether it is just a genetic abnormality, the result is the same, lives uprooted and damage done.

While the addict does need to take responsibility for their actions, shaming them or treating them like criminals is not the answer to helping solve the nation’s drug problem. We tried this method for years, but to no avail, so regardless of whether you think addiction is a disease or not, we should empathize and try to help addicts the best we can.

Seeking Treatment For The Disease Of Addiction

If you or someone you know has a problem with substance abuse then call the professionals at Dream Center for Recovery today, at 1-877-978-3148. You do not need to think addiction is a disease in order to find the solution to your problems, so call us today and take the first step on your road to recovery.