Drug Addiction: Disease or Moral Failure?

          My work with drug addicts in a prison setting has allowed me to think and study more about addiction, its causes and its remedies. Daily I have the opportunity to interview and work with scores of men who have been incarcerated due to drug-related criminal activity. One of the questions often asked, both by drug abusers and by family members affected by their abuse and resultant behavioral consequences, is this: Is drug addiction primarily a disease or a result of moral failure and weak will? Or is it both/and? It seems to me that the science of addiction clearly favors the former as seen in this common definition. "Addiction is a primary, chronic illness with genetic factors that influence it and it is also progressive and fatal."

           It is not my intention to express all my opinions on this matter except to say that I find the disease model compelling on many levels although taken to an extreme it can appear to excuse addiction or exonerate drug addicts from personal responsibility. However I know of no one in the field of addiction studies that would take it to those extremes. At this point I prefer, along with many others, to call addiction a "disease of choice." That is, no one that I have met ever intended to become an addict. Addiction begins with occasional use and experimentation, often with peer pressure and oblivious of the consequences. The decision to use leads to compulsion for many but not for everyone. Why? Although we may not know why, some people become chemically dependent while others lose interest and move on and away from drug use. Research on the brain continues yet it seems clear that through prolonged drug use the brain is affected, injured, and chemically altered. Not everyone is affected in the same way and that leads to the consideration of biological factors which might account for why some drug users become addicts and others do not.  
          As a Christian with a commitment to the gospel, I believe that regeneration and spiritual transformation provide the real answers to drug addiction. However when an addict comes to Christ for salvation the cravings do not immediately go away in most cases. The brain is not immediately rewired and renewed. What changes is that the believer now has additional resources to develop resistance against relapse in union with Christ and in community with other believers. One of the great needs for church planters, especially in urban settings, is to better understand addiction and how to work with people who are chemically dependent. Wherever you fall in the debate on addiction as a disease or choice continuum, simply spouting slogans and conventional wisdom is not the answer. Working with converted addicts will demand much prayer and great patience as you see the ups and downs and the daily struggles. Yes, the gospel is the answer and discipleship and community the key to sustained recovery. Remember, we are all in recovery, just recovering from different things.

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