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What is a Drug?


Scientists define a drug as any substance, other than food, which is taken to change the way the body or the mind functions.

Drugs may or may not come from doctors or drug stores. They may or may not have medicinal properties or purposes. Drugs can come from plants growing wild in fields, or they can be manufactured in labs. They can be legal or illegal. They can be helpful or harmful.

By this definition penicillin is a drug and heroin is a drug. Even tooth-pastes that contain fluoride and deodorants that contain antiperspirants are drugs. So long as a substance changes the way the body or the mind functions in some way, then it is a drug.

Mood Drugs

Mood-altering drugs--also called psychoactive (sy-ko-active) drugs--are drugs that can change or affect the way a person thinks, feels, or acts. These drugs usually have physical effects as well, but the thing that sets them apart from other drugs is that they work on the mind and the senses. The word "psychoactive" literally means working (active) on the mind or behavior (psycho).

A large number of the drugs prescribed each year in Canada are psychoactive. Some of these mood-altering drugs can be used to relieve pain, to calm nervousness or to aid sleep. But not all psychoactive drugs are prescription drugs. Some, like nicotine and alcohol, can be purchased and used by almost anyone. Others, like cannabis and cocaine, are illegal street drugs.

Because of their mood-altering properties, psychoactive drugs are the most abused of all drugs.

Invisible Psychoactive Drugs

Since we know that drugs are substances that affect the way the body works, and that psychoactive drugs are substances that specifically affect the senses and the mind, we can begin to see that some commonly used substances are actually psychoactive drugs--such as alcohol (a sedative), coffee (which contains caffeine, a stimulant), and tobacco (which contains nicotine, also a stimulant). These substances are so common, so taken for granted, that we often don't think of them as drugs at all. But they are. In fact, these 'invisible' psychoactive drugs are among those which are most abused.

What is Drug Abuse?


Different Types of Drug Abuse

Drug abuse is not limited to the illicit drugs like heroin, cannabis, or cocaine. Any drug can be abused, intentionally or unintentionally.

Too Much

A drug can be abused if too much is taken. Some medicinal drugs can have a beneficial effect if taken in small doses. Other drugs, like alcohol, may not be harmful if taken in moderation. But taking too much of any drug at one time, or taking small doses too frequently, can cause problems. These can range from harmful or fatal overdoses to addiction.

Too Long

A drug can be abused if it's taken regularly for a long period of time. Some medicinal drugs, like pain killers, can cause serious problems if they are taken after they are no longer needed.

Wrong Use

A drug can be unintentionally abused if it's taken for the wrong reason or taken without following instructions. A drug prescribed to help one person get to sleep may be overly strong for someone else. Taking drugs without following warnings can also lead to serious problems, especially with drugs that can impair driving performance and drugs that shouldn't be mixed with alcohol.

Wrong Combination

A drug can be abused if it's taken in combination--knowingly or unknowingly--with certain other drugs. Some combinations can produce unwanted and unexpected effects. Other combinations, like barbiturates with alcohol, can cause death.

Wrong Drug

With a few drugs, like PCP (Angel Dust), the potential dangers are extremely high and there are no legitimate human uses. These drugs can cause serious problems no matter how or when they are taken. With such drugs there is no difference between use and abuse. To use them is to abuse them.

The Most Abused Drugs

The drugs that are most often abused are psychoactive drugs.

Aside from caffeine, the psychoactive drug most widely used and abused by both young people and adults is alcohol. Alcohol abuse is by far the most widespread form of drug abuse in our society, and the most costly and damaging. Excluding prescription drugs, nicotine is the second most often used psychoactive drug, followed by cannabis.

Why Do People Use Drugs?

The Typical Drug User

Drug users have similar characteristics, but anyone can become one. Drug users come from all parts of the country and all walks of life. They can be rich or poor, young or old, male or female, intelligent or unintelligent, well educated or poorly educated.

The Most Common Reasons

Different people use different drugs for different reasons. The reasons can vary from drug to drug, from person to person, from occasion to occasion. A person may have more than one reason. People may start using a drug for one reason (curiosity, pleasure, social pressures, or for medical reasons) and may continue using it for quite another (like psychological dependence or group pressures).


Drugs are talked and written about a lot these days. They are frequent topics of conversation. Some people may have friends or acquaintances who use drugs. Since curiosity is a natural aspect of human behaviour, it's not surprising that many people, especially young people, are tempted to experiment with drugs.

Emotional Pressures

Some people use psychoactive drugs to relieve various emotional problems, such as anger, stress, anxiety, boredom or depression. Insecure people may take drugs to boost their self-confidence. Some young people may use drugs as an expression of alienation or rebellion.

Social Pressures

The social pressures to use drugs can be very strong. Young people may be influenced by popular songs glorifying drugs or by famous singers, musicians, or athletes who are known to sue drugs. Children are especially influenced by their parents, whose casual use of alcohol, nicotine, and other drugs sometimes makes drug-taking seem normal, save, or even justifiable.

Group Pressures

In some groups, drug-taking is the fashionable thing to do. It is the badge of belonging and the key to social acceptance. Abstainers are excluded. It's hard to be different, so people go along. In one survey, 60% of young people, including users and non-users, said the major benefit of cannabis was not the way it made you feel, but that it made you part of the group.

Previous Drug Use

For most people, trying a drug for the first time is a major step. A single experiment does not mean a person will become a regular drug user, but it may remove some of the barriers against trying drugs again. It is also true that people who are regular users of one drug are more likely to use other drugs as well. The factors contributing to abuse may include the use of substances not normally regarded as drugs (e.g., tobacco or alcohol).


Some people use drugs because they have become physically or psychologically dependent on them. It doesn't matter whether the drug is legal or illegal, mild or strong, or whether it was first used for medical or non-medical purposes. When people continue using a certain drug because they experience discomfort or distress when use is discontinued or severely reduced, they can be said to be drug-dependent.

Who Uses What?

National surveys carried out on behalf of Health Canada indicate that among both young people and adults, alcohol and tobacco are the most widely used drugs. These findings are supported by studies conducted in Ontario by the Addiction Research Foundation.

Among young Canadians, boys and girls smoke, on average, the same amount, In recent years, teenage girls are more likely than boys to report that they are regular smokers. According tot the most recent student surveys undertaken in Ontario by the Addiction Research Foundation, boys more frequently report use of cannabis and cocaine as well as prescription barbiturates.

Older students are more likely to sue drugs than younger students. However, young children are more likely to sniff glue or use other inhalants than are older teenagers.

What Influences People?

In 1987, in Canada $150.0 million worth of advertising was devoted to alcohol and $13.5 million was spent on advertising for coffee, a beverage with a high caffeine content. Since the passage of Bill C-51 in 1988, cigarette advertising has been illegal.

Nearly one out of every three advertising messages on radio or television and in magazines or newspapers promotes drugs and drug use in one way or another--a pill for this or a beer to be sociable. The attitudes these ads foster towards the use of legal drugs can affect the way people think about drugs.

What are the Risks of Drug Abuse?


Drugs can be considered harmful when their level of use causes physical, mental, social or economic problems.

Not all drugs are equally hazardous. But even when used under medical guidance, some drugs can have undesirable side effects. Many drugs may also have effects beyond those for which the user is looking. When such drugs are used non-medically, these side effects become potentially dangerous.

Safety Hazards

All psychoactive drugs can reduce physical coordination, distort the senses, or impair judgment. These effects can lead to serious safety risks, especially if the user drives a vehicle or operates machinery. Many road injuries and fatalities are caused by drivers intoxicated by alcohol or some other drug. Often people who have taken alcohol or drugs are unaware of their impairment, which makes the risk all that much greater.

Physical Health Hazards

All psychoactive drugs have effects other than those for which they are used, and some of these can be very damaging to physical health. Smoking marihuana or tobacco, for example, can cause lung damage. Alcohol abuse can cause liver damage. Sniffing cocaine can damage the inside of the nose. Users who inject drugs by hypodermic needles can get infections such as serum hepatitis or AIDS.

Mental Health Hazards

Some drugs can cause short-term confusion, anxiety or even severe mental disturbance ("bad trips"). In the longer term, drug abuse can result in personality disturbances, learning problems, and loss of memory. Mental health risks are especially high for young drug users. A young person who turns to drugs as a way of avoiding normal anxiety and depression may be establishing a pattern of behaviour that can be hard to break in the future. Many such users come to believe that they cannot function normally without drugs.

Physical Dependence

Physical dependence occurs when a drug user's body becomes so accustomed to a particular drug that it can only function normally if the drug is present. Without the drug, the user may experience a variety of symptoms ranging from mild discomfort to convulsions. These symptoms, some of which can be fatal, are collectively referred to as "withdrawal." Not all drugs produce physical dependence, but they may still be abused because of their perceived effects, and as a result of psychological dependence. Physical dependence is one of the factors contributing to the continued use of drugs.

Psychological Dependence

Psychological dependence exists when a drug is so central to a person's thoughts, emotions, and activities that it is extremely difficult to stop using it, or even stop thinking about it. Like physical dependence, psychological dependence is a cause of continued drug use.


Tolerance means that, over time and with regular use, a user needs more and more of a drug to get the same effect. Tolerance increases the physical health hazards of any drug simply because it can result in increased drug use over time. Tolerance also increases the risk of dangerous or fatal overdose, for two reasons.

First, with some drugs, the body does not necessarily develop tolerance to all the effects of the drug to the same extent. Long-term barbiturate users, for example, become tolerant tot the mood-altering effect of barbiturates, but less so to their depressant effect on respiration. When this happens, the dose required to achieve this effect may be dangerously close to the lethal dose.

Second, if a drug user has not taken the drug in a long time, the expected tolerance may actually have decreased. So, after a long period of abstinence, the size of dose the user had previously become accustomed to may actually be enough to cause an overdose.


An overdose of any drug is a dose that can cause serious and sudden physical or mental damage. An overdose may or may not be fatal, depending on the drug and the amount taken. Dangerous overdoses may occur in users who have developed a tolerance for a drug, or in any street drug users who have no way of knowing the exact potency of what they are buying.

Street-Drug Hazards

Illegal street drugs have a set of risks all their own. Users of street drugs can never know exactly what they are taking. Dealers may not know (or reveal) exactly what they are selling. Some drugs are laced with other drugs or chemicals which can be harmful. Often one drug is sold in place of another.

In the most recent survey by the Addiction Research Foundation of Ontario, nearly two thirds of all street-drug samples tested were found to be different from what they were alleged to be by the seller. That means that about two out of every three times a drug was bought on the street, it was not what the buyer thought it was.

Many bad drug reactions, including fatal overdoses, are caused by the users' ignorance of exactly what drug and how much of it they are taking.

Mixing Drugs

Many drugs become dangerous when they are mixed. Today a mixture of heroin and cocaine is a common example. The reasons for combining two drugs are related to a desire to enhance the effects of drug use or as a means of counteracting the undesirable side effects of a particular drug. Even if drug users are aware that mixing drugs is dangerous, they may do so anyway. Users of street drugs may mix drugs unknowingly because they can never really be sure of what they are taking.

Legal Risks

The use of many psychoactive drugs is illegal. Some can be used legally but only by prescription. A prescribed drug may, of course, only be used legally by the person for whom it was prescribed. A conviction for illegal possession of a drug can result in a fine, imprisonment, or both, and a criminal record.

This text was obtained at the StraightFacts Internet site



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