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A Piece of My Mind
May 19, 2010

Intellectualization of Drug Abuse

JAMA. 2010;303(19):1894-1895. doi:10.1001/jama.2010.581

Health care professionals and physicians in particular have rates of substance abuse that are equal to and often exceed those observed in the general public.1,2 These estimates may even be low, as many studies rely on self-reported data. Health care professionals presumably use drugs for many of the same reasons as those of the general population. Nonetheless, given the intelligence, years of education, and high levels of achievement found in this group, the relatively high incidence of substance abuse may be somewhat surprising. Ease of access to drugs is commonly cited, particularly with respect to the high rates of drug abuse among anesthesiologists3; however, given the complex nature of addiction, the underlying causes are assuredly myriad.

One possible contributing factor that may receive insufficient attention is the ability of highly educated professionals to intellectualize their drug use, minimizing in their mind the potential disastrous consequences, both personal (eg, the possibility of death or serious harm due to factors such as overdose or toxicity, among others) and professional (ranging from a tarnished reputation to a ruined career). This intellectualization is particularly insidious because due to its very nature, it prevents the person from realizing the scope of the problem, or even admitting a problem exists. Thus, it is related to, yet distinct from, the phenomena of rationalization and denial. Rationalization and denial are universal components of substance abuse and unaffected by education or training.4,5 By contrast, intellectualization actually relies on advanced education and training, particularly with respect to the effects of drugs and addiction, also incorporating confidence in one's intelligence and abilities, and no small measure of arrogance, to provide the illusion of control or mastery. The end result of this intellectualization is the manifestation of hubris that produces blindness to the devastating consequences of drug abuse and addiction.

Here, I draw on my experience as a drug abuser who for years maintained a relatively successful career as a basic biomedical scientist studying the neuroscience of addiction and compulsion to present a cautionary tale regarding the extreme dangers of intellectualizing drug use. No matter how well versed one may be in pharmacology or the addictive process, the fact remains that severe problems due to drug abuse can arise almost instantly, and no matter how in control one may believe himself to be, these problems can lead to tragic and irreversibly life-altering consequences.

In my case, this intellectualization occurred on three main levels. The first related to my drug use patterns. I was a daily user of cannabis for most of the past decade, and an intermittent user of opioids, primarily via the intravenous route, for approximately three years. This use occurred while I pursued a career in basic science research, with a heavy focus on addiction. Consequently, I was intimately familiar with the drug abuse literature and psychiatric diagnostic manuals such as the DSM-IV. I was able to finish my doctorate and conduct research at a high level at the same time I was a regular drug user.

Mindful of the DSM-IV criteria for substance abuse and dependence, I was able to rationalize my drug use in a number of different ways, all with the similar end result of deluding myself into thinking I did not have a problem. First among these was that I was able to maintain a high level of professional achievement while using drugs. In addition, I was able to form and maintain a number of fulfilling personal relationships over this time period. As such, I felt that I was not suffering dire consequences in my personal and professional lives. I was able to tell myself that those items on the DSM-IV clearly did not apply to my situation, and hence no problem existed. I used similar reasoning for other items on the DSM-IV checklists for substance abuse and dependence. I identified my daily marijuana use as “stable” for some time (ie, years), and I was able to cease use for weeks at a time without any serious difficulty. Thus, any worries of tolerance (ie, increased use over time) or dependence (ie, withdrawal symptoms upon cessation of use) were minimized. With respect to opioids, I was keenly aware of the potential for these drugs to produce tolerance and dependence and thus restricted my use to no more than two consecutive days spaced no closer than 2 or 3 months apart. By intellectually addressing the official criteria for abuse and dependence, I provided myself with the illusion of total control over the situation and was able to confidently tell myself that no problems existed. This was in spite of the fact that my ongoing drug use was jeopardizing not only my health, but my career.

I was also able to intellectually justify using opioids via the intravenous route. My first experience with opioid medication came after they were prescribed for pain following an injury. I enjoyed the effects and began to seek other sources to attain these drugs. Although I was acutely aware that these drugs had strong potential to cause tolerance and dependence, I was secure in my ability to control the situation. So why inject? I initially began using these drugs via the IV route primarily to maximize bioavailability. Many opioids, and morphine in particular, possess only a fraction of their IV bioavailability when taken orally. The euphoria due to rapid drug onset via the IV route (ie, the “rush”) was another attractive factor. While I was aware that IV use presented dangers when compared with oral administration, such as increased risk of overdose, infection, or embolism, I was confident that my technical experience (having performed injections into small-animal blood vessels) and access to sterile needles, sterile syringes, sterile saline as a diluent, and alcohol swabs would allow me to circumvent many of the typical problems associated with IV administration. In hindsight, in my overconfidence I minimized one of the key dangers of IV use—the fact that the extremely rapid onset can lead to irreversible effects if things should happen to go wrong.

The final method by which I was able to intellectualize my drug use dealt with the means by which I obtained drugs. I rationalized that small-scale marijuana cultivation was less risky than purchasing it and was associated with a relatively minimal risk of discovery and associated arrest. I obtained opioids (primarily morphine and oxycodone) from an overseas online pharmacy. In addition to less risk of arrest, I made the assumption that dosage would be more consistent and the chance of adulteration much lower than drugs purchased on the street, thus reducing the risk of possible overdose. Furthermore, in the initial stages of opioid use, I proceeded extremely cautiously to ensure the drugs I received from overseas were what they purported to be. After satisfying myself that this was indeed the case, at least at the beginning, I assumed that this form of quality control was no longer necessary.

There were no acute problems stemming from my drug use for approximately three years. My fiancée, a successful scientist in her own right, and with whom virtually all of my intravenous drug use occurred over the previous three years, lost her life after injecting a product that produced severe anaphylaxis, most likely due to some form of contamination. While waiting for the paramedics to arrive I tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate her. Despite heroic efforts, neither the paramedics nor the emergency department physicians were able to revive her. As a consequence of her death, our house was searched by police, who then discovered the ongoing marijuana cultivation. I was immediately arrested, jailed, and charged with a number of felonies; then, in the space of a few days, my employment as a postdoctoral fellow was summarily terminated and I was evicted from my residence.

The impact of these events on my life has been enormous. First and foremost is the loss of the woman I loved, my best friend and partner, with whom I had planned to spend the rest of my life. Not only were we a team in the sense of personal life, but also professionally. We worked in the same field, attended the same meetings, and were well known as a couple in our part of the scientific community. Thus, my relationship with her came to define all aspects of both my work life and my home life. Coming to terms with her loss has proven to be extremely challenging and will likely remain so for a long time. While paling completely compared to the loss of my fiancée, I face a number of other consequences. For one, my career as an academic research scientist has been undeniably derailed, if not destroyed. Reputation is critical in my field, and mine is likely to be damaged for the foreseeable future. I originally faced substantial time in prison; I was able to agree to a plea bargain whereby I avoided any additional incarceration. However, I have now been convicted of a felony, which will undoubtedly have a severely negative effect on any future job prospects and international travel. Finally, as a Canadian citizen, my ability to live in, work in, and even visit the United States, my home for the last ten years, is also compromised; I face imminent deportation with almost no hope of reentry in the future.

The transition from my drug use having no apparent negative consequences, to both my personal and professional life being damaged possibly beyond repair, was so fast as to be instantaneous, highlighting the fact that when it comes to drug use, the perception of control is really nothing more than illusion. Had these events not occurred as they did, it is possible, even probable, that my drug use would have escalated until it precluded a normal personal or professional life. However, it is important to note here that problems associated with drug abuse can arise with devastating effects even in the apparent absence of many diagnostic criteria, such as overt tolerance and dependence.

Neither advanced education nor knowledge of pharmacology nor familiarity with the addictive process was able to prevent tragic consequences for me. It is my sincere hope that my experience may serve as a warning, help illuminate the dangers of intellectualizing drug use and abuse, and prevent similar tragedies in the lives of others.

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Article Information

Additional Contributions: I thank Lawrence R. Fishel, PhD, and Anthony A. Grace, PhD, for their comments and assistance with this article.

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