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The road to substance abuse and addiction tends to be different for different people. Whereas some people might take some time to progress from experimental drug use to full-blown addiction, others will become addicted immediately they try using intoxicating substances.

However, irrespective of how long it will take for you to progress through the various stages of drug addiction, some processes will first happen to your body and your mind.

In the first few stages of drug addiction, you might not develop dependence. However, once you continue using drugs and alcohol, you might continue making your way into a full-blown addiction.


In many cases, you will find that it is close to impossible to progress through the various stages of drug addiction overnight. Many people, in fact, who develop an addiction will often start out with recreational and casual substance abuse. Eventually, this will turn into addiction after you advance through some stages.

To this end, addiction is a condition that results from a pathological progression that usually ends up causing severe damage to your relationships, health, and relationship with the law. Eventually, you might even overdose and/or die as a result of continued substance use. Luckily, you can treat your drug and alcohol abuse at any of the stages of drug addiction.

According to the CDC (or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), many Americans experiment with intoxicating and mind-altering substances on an annual basis. A recent national survey of people above the age of 12 in the US:

  • 8.7% used illicit drugs in 2009
  • 6.6% abused marijuana the same year
  • 2.8% abused prescription medications by taking them for non-medical purposes
  • 51.9% reported that they had drunk alcohol
  • 23.7% reported that they had engaged in binge drinking while 6.8% said that they drank heavily on a regular basis

In 2014, substance use disorders (or SUDs) affected more than 20.2 million American adults - which accounted for 6% of the total population in the country. The same year, studies reported that people between the ages of 18 and 25 were affected the most by these disorders - which accounted for 29.3% of all people who had a SUD.

To this end, it is important for you to understand the various stages of drug addiction - so that you can tell when one-time substance abuse progresses to a point where you need help through addiction treatment and rehabilitation.

These stages include:


Many people try alcohol and drugs for the first time before they reach the age of majority. SAMHSA (abbrev. for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), for instance, reports that in 2013 more 2.8 million people above the age of 12 used legal and illegal drugs for the first time. In the same survey, the Administration showed that more than 3.8 million people aged between 12 and 20 had their first sip of alcohol.

To this end, the initiation stage of drug addiction often happens during adolescence. Other studies have also shown that more than 4,000 people aged 18 years and underused alcohol or drugs for the first on a daily basis in 2013.

In many cases, initiation is the first step in the stages of drug addiction for some reasons. Many teens use drugs:

  • Because their peers are doing it
  • Because their peers pressured them into experimenting with drugs
  • Because their prefrontal cortex is still under development - a section of the brain that controls impulses and manages decision making
  • Out of curiosity

Once you have tried drugs or alcohol, you might eventually progress to the experimentation stage of substance abuse. However, some people stop after they have satisfied their initial curiosity. Still, this will largely depend on the following factors:

  • Availability of alcohol and drugs in the community
  • Mental health conditions, including ADHD, anxiety, and depression
  • The family environment, including but not limited to the presence of emotional or physical abuse, drug or alcohol abuse, and mental illness in the family
  • Whether or not peers are using alcohol and drugs


The second step in the stages of drug addiction involves experimentation. Many people are curious - mainly when they need to change their daily routine or when they are young. In many cases, new sensations and experiences come with the potential of shaking up daily life, as well as adding a shade of excitement and color to the world.

To this end, many addicts will not set out to create psychological and physical dependence on intoxicating and mind-altering substances. Instead, the stages of drug addiction will often start out with an intense desire to try something new.

For instance, you might attend a party and find people who ask if you would like to try a hard drug like cocaine or heroin for the first time. Alternatively, you could go on a romantic date, and your partner suggests that you experiment with another drug like acid.

Irrespective of the reason why you choose to accept such an offer, it is highly likely that you might not be planning to continue using the drug in the long term. Therefore, you may not see any reason to refuse the offer.

That said, drug experimentation is not always tied to fun and curiosity. At times, you might find yourself trying drugs like marijuana or prescription painkillers to deal with menstrual cramps or any other pain you might be suffering as a result of sustaining a chronic injury.

In case the drug proves useful at alleviating your pain and other adverse symptoms, it is highly likely that you will choose to continue using it. However, you should remember that these types of painkillers are only safe to use if you have a legal and legitimate prescription from a doctor. You should only use them under close medical supervision.

If you choose to take drugs for self-medication without the express permission and knowledge of your doctor, then it is highly likely that you will start progressing through the other, more adverse stages of drug addiction.

That said, drug experimentation is often characterized by occasional substance abuse - which is often voluntary for many people. During this stage, you may feel that you can still control your ongoing drug use. As a direct result, you should still be able to stop using the intoxicating substances as well as go for several days or even months without abusing drugs.

For many people, experimentation often starts when people use alcohol and drugs in specific situations - such as during a time of stress and anxiety or while attending parties.

When your substance use is still at this stage, it is highly likely that it will be social. This means that you will start associating drug abuse with unwinding, fun, and a general lack of adverse consequences.

You might also think that you only need to take drugs every once in a while. This is because you won't experience any cravings. Similarly, you should still be able to control or even stop abusing substances.

However, if you choose to consume a lot of drugs in any given instance, your decision to use will be rational. This means that you will use the intoxicating substances by your own choice and not through an unconscious automatic response.

For instance, you might find yourself binge drinking without going over and beyond the experimentation stage of substance abuse. Some binge drinkers are even able to do so several times every month - particularly on weekends.

The NIAAA (or the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism) reports that you will still be at low risk of developing an active alcohol use disorder (or alcoholism) if you:

  • Are a man who takes less than 4 drinks daily and fewer than 14 a week
  • Are a woman who takes less than 3 drinks daily and fewer than 7 weekly


Over a period of experimentation, you might, however, find yourself progressing to the other stages of drug addiction. More particularly, your experimental use may eventually turn into regular use when you start taking drugs and incorporating them into your usual routine.

For instance, if you have been abusing Percocet (without a valid prescription from a registered doctor) every time you experience pain or using meth whenever you want to stay up late, you will have graduated to regular substance use.

At this stage, however, you still won't be reliant on your drug of choice for normal psychological and physical functioning. Still, you will be training your brain and central nervous system (or CNS) to respond to the various rewards and pleasurable effects of substance abuse, including but not limited to:

  • A pleasurable high
  • Pain relief
  • Relaxation in social situations
  • Satisfying sleep
  • Stress reduction
  • Weight loss

At this stage of addiction, you could potentially still be able to control your substance abuse. Additionally, you might stop taking if you choose to do so. However, you will find the effects of using so pleasurable and satisfactory that you might not want to give up your new habit. Still, the drugs might not have started causing any adverse effects and will instead be making you feel better. As a direct result, you may not see any reason to stop using.

During this stage, substance use will become more frequent. Although you might not take drugs on a daily basis, there will be a predictable pattern to your use - such as during the weekend - or some circumstances may cause you to take the substances of choice - such as when you are lonely, bored, or stressed.

You might also continue using alcohol and drugs with others - although it is highly likely that you may start using alone. Your growing substance abuse could cause you to miss work or school as a result of hangovers. You may also worry about losing your source of drugs because you would have come to associate substance abuse with the idea of evading adverse situations and emotions.


This is one of the more advanced stages of drug addiction. When you get to this point, your previously non-problematic substance abuse may start causing problems and issues in your life.

For instance, ongoing drug use might begin affecting your grades in school, performance at work, finances, and relationships. It may also influence your decision making abilities and judgments. As a result, you might do things that you otherwise would not have done.

You may, for example, find yourself driving while intoxicating, selling drugs, engaging in unprotected sex, among other risky behaviors. This is the stage when you will start realizing that your substance abuse is become problematic - such as when you get arrested, when you engage in more fights with your partner, or if you lose your job as a result of drugs.


Dependence in the fifth step in the stages of drug addiction. It occurs in three distinctive phases, including:

a) Tolerance

When you are tolerant, you will start needing more drugs or alcohol to become intoxicated.

b) Physical Dependence

If you get to the point where you experience withdrawal when you stop using drugs or alcohol, it means that you have developed physical dependence.

c) Psychological Dependence

At this stage, you will experience intense drug cravings - causing you to use more of your preferred substances (in higher doses or more frequently than you used to). This stage is also known as chemical dependence.


The last of the stages of drug addiction, this phase will see your substance abuse and dependence become chronic and compulsive. This means that you will start needing your drug of choice to function normally. As a direct result, you might do anything to obtain and use it.

If you are unable to use, you will experience unbearable cravings and your life will feel like it is spinning out of control. At this stage, therefore, drugs will be controlling your life.

You may also experience adverse effects, including:

  • Chronic relapses any time you try quitting
  • Death
  • Destruction of your relationships
  • Disease
  • Injury
  • Lack of awareness about the problems that you experience as a result of ongoing substance abuse
  • Losing your usual emotional responses
  • Overdose
  • Physical disability


Now that you understand the stages of drug addiction, it is imperative that you seek treatment before you progress through all these phases. If possible, go for rehabilitation therapy and counseling when you are still at the earlier stages.

If you have already progressed through all these stages of drug addiction, you should get help immediately. This is to protect yourself from the adverse effects of addiction, which could include severe intoxication, overdose, organ failure, or even sudden death.

Find Resources

If you are addicted to alcohol or drugs, it is imperative that you look for professional help as soon as you possibly can. However, you might not know where to start or the options that are open to you. Similarly, you may have little to no idea about the differences between the different treatment facilities and the programs they have in store for their patients.

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