Inside the Classroom: Contemporary Issues of Substances Abuse
Drug abuse, or drug addiction, is viewed differently by various people. Some view it as a medical disorder, others as a form of moral failing, others as a societal problem, and some view recreational drug use as a personal choice and not a problem. Often overlooked is that the term drug abuse is too global and doesn’t differentiate between, for example, use of heroin, cocaine, or alcohol. Yet all drugs produce their effects through distinct mechanisms of actions. The pharmacological basis through which drugs act are not only the major determinants of the sequelae that lead to addiction but also underlie the different therapies that may be used to treat drug addiction. In addition, it is equally true that societal norms, politics, and economic forces are also brought to bear in determining which types of recreational drug use are more likely to be viewed as being acceptable or reprehensible.
The course ‘Contemporary Issues of Substance Abuse’ explores these topics by discussing specific issues related to individual drug classes. The course is divided into six units, the first five of which address commonly abused drugs including opioids, psychomotor stimulants, nicotine, marijuana, and alcohol. In the first week of each unit, didactic lectures introduce the mechanisms of action through which the drugs produce their effects, as well as current and historical medical uses for each type of drug, and efforts to regulate drug use through prohibition or taxation. These lectures are specifically designed to introduce non-scientists to elemental aspects of physiology and pharmacology so they can understand how drugs produce different biological effects that ultimately inform drug policies. The second week of each unit revolves around class discussion of issues both specific to each drug class as well as more expansive issues of government policy and drug regulation and the diagnosis and treatment of substance abuse disorders. These sessions might address questions such as: is being addicted to pain killers more similar to heroin addiction or ‘social drinking’; what is the difference between being a chain-smoker and a chipper; why is it legal for anyone over 21 to drink alcohol, but not to smoke a joint; what are the differences between addiction, abuse, and dependence; why do we have drugs available to treat opioid and nicotine use, but not cocaine, amphetamine or marijuana; or what forms of drug use may be treatable by vaccinations? Assigned readings will form the beginnings of these discussions, but it is expected that students will bring their own perspective to each discussion. The last unit of the class is devoted to class presentations of selected topics involving pharmacological, social, and political aspects of abused drugs not covered in the first five units.