Why Is Alcoholism Treated Differently Than Other Substance Use Disorders?

Despite alcohol being a potentially deadly drug that ruins lives every day, it has somehow managed to maintain its position as a largely accepted and even important part of American life. In this article, we’ll discuss how and why alcohol has kept a more or less positive image in society despite mountains of evidence that it has the potential to be an extremely harmful substance when abused.

The Brain Receptors That Alcohol Targets Are the Same as Other Drugs

One way that alcoholism is unique among substance abuse disorders is the deadliness of withdrawal. If you have ever witnessed the horrors of full-fledged withdrawal from alcohol, then you likely understand the extent to which people battling alcohol addictions suffer when they must go through the process.

Many people who suppose alcohol to be a harmless substance — or at least less harmful than other drugs –might be surprised to learn that alcohol actually works on the same brain receptors as the frequently abused class of drugs known as benzodiazepines, or “benzos” for short. Xanax (alprazolam(, Valium (diazepam), Ativan (lorazepam), and Klonopin (clonazepam) all belong to the benzodiazepine category. They target brain receptors called GABA-A sites. GABA is the neurotransmitter that the brain normally produces in moderate amounts to promote relaxation.

Both benzodiazepines and alcohol open up the GABA receptor sites for increased activity, inducing the calming, sedative effect associated with these drugs. This is why alcohol, like benzos, is known as a “downer.” Although these effects can be pleasant initially, during the “comedown” and “withdrawal” phases of addiction, a “rebound” effect can occur in which the nervous system and the neuron cells that compose it, without naturally occurring GABA activity to calm them down, begins to fire rapidly, causing panic attacks, extreme fear, tremors, and other severe effects.

Delirium tremens (DTs

One of the most insidious features of alcohol withdrawal is called Delirium tremens (DTs). It is characterized by confusion, heightened anxiety, sweating, profound shaking, and altered heartbeat. DTs set alcohol and benzos apart as the only drugs known to cause death due to withdrawal in extreme cases. Because of the threat of DTs, no one should ever attempt to perform a self-detox protocol. Withdrawal from alcohol requires medical attention to monitor the patient’s reaction.

Alcohol Is the “Socially Acceptable” Drug

If you watch any TV drama about executive board meetings, you’re likely to catch a pair of businessman discussing their affairs over a glass of whiskey retrieved from a cabinet – even in the middle of the day! Having a couple of beers at lunch is not considered a social faux pas in the same way that getting high on an illegal street drug is. Companies do not punish employees as harshly who drink during working hours as harshly as they would punish an employee caught shooting heroin, for example.

Alcohol is omnipresent at many social functions. Think about all the routine situations in which you might expect to encounter widespread alcohol consumption: wedding receptions, graduation ceremonies, retirement ceremonies, sporting events, barbecues, etc.

The list of events in which “social drinking” serves as an important component is nearly endless. Why is alcohol more socially acceptable than other drugs? The answer lies deep in our culture. Alcohol distillation has long been a tradition of the West, imported to America from Europe. Because of the historical nature of alcohol production and consumption, it has been “grandfathered” into the culture in ways that more “exotic” drugs like cocaine have not.

Lobbying from the Alcohol Industry

Like many above-board, legal commercial interests, big alcohol is well-represented among lawmakers. Despite the claims of representation of the will of the people, the way that national and state politics actually works is that whatever entity has enough cash gets listened to first. As a result, alcohol lobbyists have long kept the same kinds of restrictions levied on other drugs at bay.

Alcohol advertising, for example, is still allowed in the media. Major beer companies sponsor sporting events, increasing their legitimacy in the eyes of the public. All of the lobbying efforts of alcohol companies are meant to maintain the image of alcohol as an integral part of American society. The message that they effectively spread is that to attack or challenge alcohol companies and their PR efforts is to attack America itself.

The Takeaway

The end result of alcohol’s widespread acceptance in society is that many people are led to believe that alcohol is more harmless than it actually is. If you or a loved one is experiencing an addiction to alcohol, consider seeking help. Call us today at 833-762-3739.