Addiction - how pleasure affects our brain

Why cigarettes, chocolate bars, heroin, gambling or a new handbag feels so good?

Header image Rakicevic Nenad/Unsplash

James Kesby, The University of Queensland

Every day we make a range of choices in the pursuit of pleasure: we do things that make us feel good or work in a specific job because it's rewarding or pays well. These experiences help shape our perspectives on life and define our personality.

Consequently, problems with our ability to manage or maintain our pursuit of pleasure often lie at the root of many neuropsychiatric disorders such as addiction and depression.

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Poker machines are designed to tap into our reward centres. krissia cruz unsplash

What's going on in the brain when we experience pleasure?

Pleasure itself – that good feeling you get in response to food, sex and drugs – is driven by the release of a range of neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) in many parts of the brain. But dopamine release in the brain's reward system is particularly important. Dopamine release tells the brain when to expect something rewarding, modulates how rewarding it will be and drives us to seek rewarding things.

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Legal highs: arguments for and against legalising cannabis in Australia

Nicole Lee, Curtin University and Jarryd Bartle, RMIT University

Greens leader Richard Di Natale wants Australia to legalise cannabis for personal use, regulated by a federal agency. This proposal is for legalisation of recreational use for relaxation and pleasure, not to treat a medical condition (which is already legal in Australia for some conditions).

According to the proposal, the government agency would licence, monitor and regulate production and sale, and regularly review the regulations. The agency would be the sole wholesaler, buying from producers and selling to retailers it licences.

The proposed policy includes some safeguards that reflect lessons we've learned from alcohol and tobacco. These include a ban on advertising, age restrictions, requiring plain packaging, and strict licensing controls. Under the proposal, tax revenues would be used to improve funding to the prevention and treatment sector, which is underfunded compared to law enforcement.

Cannabis legislation around the world

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Democratising Drug Policy

Reference: Ritter, A., Lancaster, K. & Diprose, R. (2018). "Improving drug policy: The potential of broader democratic participation." The full academic paper and research is available online at the International Journal of Drug Policy

We need governments to make better decision about illicit drugs. The alternative is to remain stuck in the same futile cycle.

Every time a young person dies tragically and needlessly at a music festival or dance party, our commentators clamour for our politicians to respond immediately. We make drugs policies on the run. But, policy quick-fixes are mostly ineffective and we find ourselves no better prepared to avert future tragedies or drug-related harm.

We need to change the way drugs policies are made.

We have decades of research that tells us what works and we are continuously building that evidence base. Smarter drug policy would involve making use of that evidence alongside and integrated with the other drivers of policy such as public opinion, and personal experience.

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Victorian Parliamentary Drug Inquiry

Recently a lengthy 640-page Inquiry into Drug Raw Reform was tabled in the Victorian parliament. The report looked at how effective the state's current laws were in regards to dealing with drugs, and called for a more effective response centred around health and safety.

The committee looked at not only other Australian state and territories, but travelled overseas to other jurisdictions, such as Geneva, Lisbon and Vancouver, to see how the positive impact of their drug law reforms could be adopted in Victoria.

Inquiry into Drug Law Reform

The report considered referring those who were caught with small quantities of drugs to rehabilitation, treating addiction health issue and looking at 'back of house' testing where police, health professionals and harm reduction organisations work together to identify dangerous substances and alert the community where deemed appropriate.

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Decriminalisation of drug use and possession in Australia – A briefing note

Citation: Hughes, C., Ritter, A., Chalmers, J., Lancaster, K., Barratt, M. & Moxham-Hall, V. (2016). Reproduced with permission: Drug Policy Modelling Program, NDARC, UNSW Australia.

Key messages

1. Decriminalisation does not mean legalisation: decriminalisation removes criminal penalties for use/possession either by law (de jure) or by practice (de facto).

2. There is strong public support in Australia for decriminalisation approaches.

3. The research evidence indicates that decriminalisation of drug use:

  • Reduces the costs to society, especially the criminal justice system costs
  • Reduces social costs to individuals, including improving employment prospects
  • Does not increase drug use
  • Does not increase other crime
  • May, in some forms, increase the numbers of people who have contact with the criminal justice system (net widening)

4. Many countries around the world have decriminalised drug use and possession in various ways.

5. Australia currently has a mixture of de jure and de facto decriminalisation schemes for use and possession of illicit drugs: but decriminalisation is not universal. Accordingly, many people continue to be sent to court for possession of only minor quantities of drugs.

6. There is an opportunity to expand decriminalisation for drug use in Australia, particularly through de jure decriminalisation schemes targeting all illicit drugs. This may further reduce costs to the criminal justice system and to individuals.

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What If We Stopped Punishing Drug Users

Let me repeat a phrase that has been used so often it is almost a cliché: the war on drugs has failed.

Existing drug policies have increased drug-related harm, punished the vulnerable and the addicted and bolstered organised criminal networks.

Health professionals, lawyers and policy experts have all made the case against current drug policies. Such is the overwhelming expert opinion against our current approach to drugs that words need not be wasted trying to convince you here.

Nevertheless, critiquing current drug policies often provokes an inquisitive – if at times slightly smug – response, "well, what do we do instead?" To some, drug law reform stirs up images of laissez faire commercialisation of drug markets: a 'McHeroin' on every corner. Of course, this is not what professionals are advocating for.

Instead, there is a growing consensus amongst AOD professionals of the ideal legal framework to tackle drug related harm. To put it simply, most experts are calling for Portugal-style decriminalisation model combined with some model of cannabis legalisation.

Drug Decriminalisation

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Pointless Drug Prohibition Impedes Medical Breakthroughs

Medical breakthroughs missed because of pointless drug bans

Magic mushrooms might be less mysterious if scientists could find out more about them.

In 1632 the Catholic Church convened a case against Galileo on the grounds that his work using the telescope to explore the nature of the heavens contradicted the church's teaching - the culmination of a long fight that had lasted 16 years.

Galileo was put under house arrest and his research stopped. Some of his inquisitors refused even to look down a telescope, believing it to be the work of the devil. With his life under threat, Galileo retracted his claims that the earth moved around the sun and was not the centre of the universe. A ban by the papal Congregation of the Index on all books advocating the Copernican system of planetary motion - which we use today - was not revoked until 1758.

Three centuries later we have an equivalent case of scientific censorship. In the 1960s and the 1970s the UN effectively banned a whole range of drugs from cannabis, opioids and cocaine through to psychedelics - LSD and "magic mushrooms". They did this in a futile attempt to reduce the use and harms of these drugs, but both consumption and harms have increased ten-fold since then, and many of the negative effects of these laws include the rise of AIDS and the collapse of law and order in Mexico.

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Three reasons why scientific advice on drugs is ignored

By Ghaith Aljayyoussi, University of Liverpool

David Nutt, along with many other leading scientists, published a study a few years ago that showed how the overall harms associated with some legal drugs, such as alcohol and tobacco, dramatically exceed the harms of some illegal drugs, such as cannabis, ecstasy and LSD – and even the harms of heroin and cocaine. Of course, these top scientists were right, but politicians continue to ignore scientific advice, and society continues to be largely in favour of current drug laws.

Here are three factors that might explain this paradox:

1. Capitalism and class

Noam Chomsky, an American social critic and political activist, offered some interesting arguments to explain how capitalism and class shape the legal status of drugs.

Cannabis, for instance, is a plant that can be easily grown in someone's backyard, so it is not as easy to commercialise for profit. Tobacco, on the other hand, needs industrial technologies and hence is a suitable product for commercialisation. Similarly, making high quality alcoholic drinks – a fine wine or a decent bottle of whisky – is not nearly as easy as growing cannabis or magic mushrooms in your garden.

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Legalise Cannabis and Ecstasy

A new approach to drug reform: regulated supply of cannabis and ecstasy

David Penington, University of Melbourne

Sixteen years ago the premier of Victoria, Jeff Kennett, asked me to conduct an inquiry into drug policy. At the time, deaths from heroin overdoses were high and the use of cannabis and other drugs continued to mount, despite prohibition.

While there has been some improvement in the management of drugs over the years, both in Victoria and nationally, fundamental problems remain. It's time to consider practical solutions to the problem.

I propose a novel system whereby Australians aged 16 and over have access to a limited, regulated quantity of cannabis and ecstasy from a government-approved pharmacy supplier – provided they are willing to go on a national confidential user's register.

When dispensing the substance, pharmacists would also be able to give clients advice and, where necessary, refer them for counselling or treatment.

Why we need a new approach

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Decriminalisation or Legalisation

Injecting evidence in the drug law reform debate

6qhk2zfk 1334191342 One argument for legalisation is it will move the problem away from police and the criminal justice system, where it currently dominates resources. AAP Image/Simon Mossman Alison Ritter, UNSW

We should all be concerned about our laws on illegal drugs because they affect all of us – people who use drugs; who have family members using drugs; health professionals seeing people for drug-related problems; ambulance and police officers in the front line of drug harms; and all of us who pay high insurance premiums because drug-related crime is extensive.

Drug-related offences also take up the lion's share of the work of police, courts and prisons. But what can we do? Some people feel that we should legalise drugs – treat them like alcohol and tobacco, as regulated products. And legalisation doesn't necessarily need to apply for every illegal drug.

Why legalise?

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