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Drugs are chemical compounds that affect activity in the brain or the body. These chemicals are found in plants or made in a laboratory.
For thousands of years, people around the world have been using certain drugs to help them in their daily lives—to help them stay alert or cope with stress, pain and loss. Some drugs have also been used for spiritual and recreational reasons.
The most commonly used drugs in the world today are nicotine (tobacco), ethanol (alcohol) and caffeine. Cannabis is also widely used in many countries.
Different drugs affect the human brain in different ways. Some drugs make brain activity speed up while others slow it down. Some drugs block pain while others create intense feelings of pleasure. Some drugs make the world look, sound and feel very different from the way it normally does. And some drugs have multiple effects.
Drugs also have different effects on different people. They can even have a different effect on the same person at a different point in time.
The way a drug affects a person depends on:
Type of drug (tobacco, alcohol, etc.)
Nature of the user (age, gender, ethnicity, drug use history, mental health, etc.)
Context in which the drug is being used (how much, how often, method of use, atmosphere, with or without other substances, etc.)
Many people think “medications” are different from “drugs.” They think medications are safe to use while drugs are harmful. But it is important to recognize that all plant-based or man-made chemicals that affect the brain are drugs. And all drug use carries some risk. Even caffeine can be a problem if a person consumes more than their body can handle.
Using illegal drugs can be very risky. It can be hard for a person to know for sure what drug they are using. They may not be sure of the potency of the drug either. Cocaine, crystal meth and other illegal drugs are made by people who may not care about using safe ingredients in safe amounts.
Illegal drugs that are used with needles are the most dangerous because they go directly into the bloodstream. This puts a user at higher risk of overdose because they may underestimate the potency of the drug. Sharing needles also puts users at risk of contracting blood-borne infections such as hepatitis and HIV.
Legal drug use is also risky. For example, alcohol is legal (for adults) to use. Yet millions of people around the world have been injured or killed as a result of drinking or the drinking of others. In fact, many more people suffer health and social harms from alcohol than they do from illegal drugs. This is due mainly to the fact that so many people use alcohol. But it is also due to the strong effects of alcohol on the body.
Tobacco is another legal drug that leads to serious health and social harms. In Canada, more people die from smoking-related diseases than they do from alcohol use, illicit drug use, homicide and suicide combined.
Even medications have potential for harm. Some people misuse their prescriptions. Others sell their medications illegally to people who have become dependent on them. This is common in the case of painkillers and sleeping pills.
All drug use is potentially risky for children because their minds and bodies are still developing. Drugs—including medications—have a more intense effect on their systems. For related reasons, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should avoid using all drugs. A growing fetus or nursing baby can be affected by a mother’s drug use.
Most people can and do use a wide range of drugs in their daily lives without experiencing serious problems. Many people drink coffee in the morning to become more alert before school or work. Some people use painkillers to deal with a headache. And many people use alcohol and cannabis to unwind after work or to celebrate a special occasion.
Problems can happen when a person misuses a drug, or when the effects of a drug lead to behaviour that causes harm to the user or to others.
Uses too much of a drug at one time: Intoxication from alcohol (drunkenness) is often a factor in serious falls, bar fights, domestic violence, sexual assault and vehicle accidents. Using a large quantity of an illegal substance such as cocaine or heroin can lead to overdose.
Loses their inhibitions: Alcohol and many other drugs (notably ecstasy) can help a person relax and become more sociable. But these drugs can also make a person say and do embarrassing things they regret later. Sometimes people who use drugs damage their relationships with people they care about. Sometimes, when intoxicated, people have sex with partners that would not normally interest them. Careless sex can lead to unplanned pregnancy or the spread of sexually transmitted infections.
Starts to need a drug to feel normal: The more often a person uses a drug, the more likely it is to become a habit. Regular use can lead to tolerance, which means a user needs to take more and more of the drug to feel it. Tolerance can lead to dependence. When a person starts to depend on a drug—physically or psychologically—decisions about their drug use become harder to make. Dependence on any drug can lead to health, social and financial problems.
Has no control over their drug use: If getting and using a drug becomes more important than eating, working and maintaining relationships, the person has a serious problem and needs help. Serious drug dependence—commonly referred to as addiction—can cause severe health problems and death. It can also destroy important relationships and result in serious financial problems.
For information on treatment options and resources throughout BC, call the Alcohol and Drug Information Referral Service at 1-800-663-1441. In Greater Vancouver, call 604-660-9382.
For information on ways to help yourself with a substance use problem, see the “Tips” section of the Here to Help website at www.heretohelp.bc.ca. The website also features detailed information on substances and mental health disorders.
You can also find information on a wide variety of substance use issues on the Centre for Addictions Research of BC website at www.carbc.ca.