What Would Our World Be Like Without Drug and Alcohol Addiction?

Drug-free future

If I had to guess, I’d say that every adult in the world is aware of the existence of drug and alcohol addiction. Some people probably consider it an inevitable social ill. Surely many believe the problems can be eradicated with enough hard work and dedication. I wonder, however, how many people have sat down and sketched out for themselves what the world would be if we could eradicate drug and alcohol abuse and addiction.

Why would it even be fruitful to do such an exercise? For this reason:

If we clearly envisioned what this world would be like without addiction, that vision might cause us to shift our priorities. Perhaps we would see that it would be worth almost any effort, almost any sacrifice to bring about this addiction-free world.

For that reason, I decided to take the time to envision this change in our world. I’ll tell you what I think it would look like based on the best research I can find and then you decide. What effort or cost would you think this task would deserve?

For just a moment, let’s talk about addiction. A person is addicted when they lose control of their use of an intoxicating, mind-altering substance. They continue consuming that substance even though it is harming their life. They may have lost a job, their children, families, health or homes. But still they continue drinking, smoking, injecting or whatever.

The other defining characteristic of addiction is that the person will go through withdrawal if they cease using that substance.

There are many people who have never been to rehab and who don’t think they need to go to rehab but they fit this description. You’ve probably met a few. Some of them could quit through a supreme effort of will and some people would need around-the-clock support to quit. Too many people will die before they even get the chance to quit. There really isn’t a minute to waste if we are to rid our world of the damage done by drug abuse and addiction and help those who are addicted.

Our Children

A little girl

The most helpless among us when dealing with addiction are our children. If they live in a household with an addicted person, especially a parent, they have nowhere else to go. When a parent is the addicted one, the care this child receives is far too often is insufficient.

Frankly, there is far too much information on the suffering of our children. I will only be able to skim the surface.

Here are the types of improvement we would see if there were no parental or caregiver addiction, followed by examples of the kinds of struggles too many children are currently experiencing.

Better care, less harm, fewer deaths

Tragically, it’s too easy to find stories of children being seriously injured or dying because of the drug use or addiction of their parent or caregiver.

In Texas, a news report told of a parent who closed up her two children in a car “to teach her daughter a ‘lesson’” for failing to obey the mother’s order to get out of the car. Mom then went into the house, smoked marijuana and fell asleep for a couple of hours. The two-year-old girl and the 16-month-old boy were unable to get themselves out of the car as it heated up in the 96-degree weather. The children were pronounced dead by the county medical examiner.

The Miami Herald documented the deaths of 323 children in families known to the Department of Children & Families. In these households, one or both parents had alcohol or drug abuse problems. Here’s what caused those deaths:

  • Trauma: 24%
  • Drowning: 22%
  • Smothering (usually unintentional, while sleeping): 19%
  • Medical reasons: 10%

Of the 76 trauma cases, most were the result of beatings.

A report from the Journal of the American Medical Association documented children’s deaths as a result of an alcohol-intoxicated driver. Over a six-year period, 3,310 deaths of children involved an intoxicated driver. In 80% of the cases, the children were passengers in the vehicle and in the remainder of cases, they were pedestrians or bicyclists that were struck by intoxicated drivers.

No prenatal exposure to addictive substances

Children exposed prenatally to marijuana smoked by the mother were more likely to manifest psychotic-like behaviors when they were evaluated at nine years of age. They also had weaker cognitive abilities, and more attention, social and sleep problems.

When the mothers continued to use marijuana after they knew they were pregnant, it was more common for their children to be born at a lower birth weight and a lower volume of white matter in the brain. The white tissue in the brain is associated with problem-solving, mood, memory and focus.

There have been many reports of the thousands of cases of what is called neonatal abstinence syndrome. This is the suffering experienced by a newborn baby that was exposed to the opioids their mother consumed during pregnancy.

Once the baby is born, there is no more exposure to heroin, oxycodone, hydrocodone, fentanyl, buprenorphine or other opioid. The baby suffers from irritability, poor feeding, seizures, sleep problems, vomiting, tremors and excessive crying that can last a week.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse states that a baby suffering from opioid withdrawal is born every 15 minutes.

neonatal abstin

No exposure to drugs in the home

In Denver, an 11-month-old boy died after ingesting an edible cannabis product. The diagnosis was myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart that caused cardiac arrest. The report on this child’s death noted ”previously reported cases of cannabis-induced myocarditis.” That and a positive toxicology screen for THC from cannabis caused doctors to conclude that his death was caused by exposure to cannabis.

A 2018 report in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, noted a rapid increase in pediatric hospitalizations as a result of opioid exposure. Children up to six years of age were the most frequently affected by these inadvertent exposures, followed by teenagers.

This evaluation covered the years between 2004 and September 2015, a time period marked by a huge increase in opioid abuse and overdoses. Between these years, the total number of overdose deaths nearly doubled which would indicate the presence of opioids in many more households. You can see this increase in this chart.

OD deaths 2019 NIDA

Fewer children in foster care

Substance abuse and addiction among parents are major reasons children wind up in foster care. A report from West Virginia stated that nearly half the 6,300 children in foster care in the state were there because of substance abuse in the home.

A survey from Ohio revealed that of the nearly 16,000 children in custody of the state, 28% were there as a result of substance abuse problems as a primary cause. When the parent is addicted to opioids, children tend to stay in foster care for a longer time.

In Indiana, more than half the cases of children being were removed from homes resulted from the drug abuse of a parent.

Certainly children can be abused or neglected by sober parents but drug abuse and addiction certainly increase the numbers of abuse, neglect and removal from the home. Anyone who has been around addicted people for very long has seen that it becomes harder for that person to take care of themselves properly, much less their children.

Better home atmospheres

A report published in Social Work in Public Health summarized some of the less-tangible harm done to children in a home where one or both parents suffer from addiction:

“The studies of families with SUDs [substance use disorders] reveal patterns that significantly influence child development and the likelihood that a child will struggle with emotional, behavioral, or substance use problems…”

“The studies of families with SUDs [substance use disorders] reveal patterns that significantly influence child development and the likelihood that a child will struggle with emotional, behavioral, or substance use problems… Families in which there is a parental SUD are characterized by an environment of secrecy, loss, conflict, violence or abuse, emotional chaos, role reversal, and fear.”

No child should grow up in a household like this. No child should suffer abuses like the ones noted above. And no child should have to grow up parentless due to a fatal overdose.

What is the value of eliminating this particular result of drug or alcohol abuse or addiction? It can’t even be measured. While it’s an idealistic goal to illuminate drug addiction entirely, it’s one we must continue to work towards. And for those parents who are addicted, must be rehabilitated so they can return to their families drug-free and provide the loving support that their children need.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP LCDC-I


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.