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Alcoholism & Addiction

Polydrug Dependence Can Change Your Moral Outlook

Polydrug dependence, also known as polysubstance dependence, occurs when a person develops a physical/psychological reliance on two or more substances of abuse. This condition is a potential outcome of any sustained involvement in polydrug use.

According to the results of a study published in October 2013 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, polydrug dependence can significantly alter an individual’s moral outlook and contribute to the adoption of a consistently self-serving perspective when that individual confronts the type of ethical choice known as a moral dilemma.

Polydrug Abuse

The initiation of polydrug abuse can be a conscious or unconscious action. Conscious forms of this abuse occur when a person knowingly takes two or more recreational substances at the same time or within a timeframe short enough to produce a combined drug effect within the body. Unconscious forms occur when a person unknowingly takes a drug preparation that contains multiple substances (a situation that can happen when illicit drug manufacturers introduce additives into their products or when illicit drug dealers misinform their customers about the contents of the products they sell).

Apart from any dependence or addiction-related issues, polydrug use commonly presents greater risks to human health than the use of a single substance of abuse. Examples of these risks include a greater likelihood of experiencing a drug overdose, a greater likelihood of serious organ system damage and a greater likelihood of experiencing serious substance-related mental health problems. Substance combinations particularly noted for their potential to produce severe or fatal outcomes include heroin and alcohol, amphetamines and alcohol, and amphetamines and the “club drug” ecstasy (MDMA; also known by the street name Molly).

Polydrug Dependence

Dependence is the term health experts use to describe a physical/psychological reliance on the drug effects of any given substance. The development of such a dependence is not the same as developing a substance addiction. In fact, many people come to depend on legally prescribed substances to maintain their health and well-being. However, since it takes place outside of an appropriate medical context, polydrug dependence on recreational substances presents a different, inherently dangerous situation. In the everyday world, people affected by this type of dependence frequently display the classic symptoms of substance addiction, including persistent cravings for continuing substance intake and the establishment of a maladjusted, counterproductive lifestyle geared toward substance acquisition and substance use.

Moral Dilemmas

Moral dilemmas occur when an individual has two (or possibly more) competing ethical goals or objectives that cannot be accomplished at the same time. In order to resolve the conflict and move forward, the individual must choose one of these goals. However, the choice of one goal inevitably leaves the other goal(s) unfulfilled. In turn, the inability to fulfill a morally oriented goal can leave the individual with a strong sense of moral failure. Commonly, moral dilemmas develop when a person has conflicting ethical interests between the “self” and another person or the larger community or society.

Ethical Effects of Polydrug Dependence

In the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, a team of Belgian and American researchers examined the impact of polysubstance dependence on a person’s choices in situations that constitute a moral dilemma. They made this examination by comparing the moral choices of 25 people with polysubstance dependence to the choices of 25 people with alcohol dependence, 25 people diagnosed with major depression and 25 healthy people free from substance-related issues or other mental health problems. Each of these individuals was tested for his or her responses to 24 moral dilemmas involving varying degrees of personal and impersonal ethical conflict. In addition, the researchers performed testing designed to determine if differences in brain function account for differences in moral choice.

Compared to the other three groups of study participants, the participants affected by polydrug dependence consistently made more pragmatic choices oriented toward the self (i.e., utilitarian choices) when facing all 24 moral dilemmas. The alcohol-dependent participants were the second most likely to endorse pragmatic solutions to these dilemmas, while the depressed and healthy participants were the most likely to make decisions based on deeper moral motivations. Compared to the healthy participants, the members of substance- and depression-affected groups showed some signs of unusual brain function. However, the researchers concluded, altered brain function did not reliably contribute to these individuals’ moral perspectives.

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