About Substance Use & Addiction
Many of the harms associated with drug use are actually from the way that society treats drug use, and people who use drugs, rather than the drug use itself.
Prohibition—that is, making drugs illegal—contributes to discrimination and stigma against people who use drugs and leads people to hide their use due to fears of discrimination and criminalization. This discrimination and stigma can prevent people who use drugs from getting good quality, non-judgmental healthcare, safe housing, and employment.
Leslie McBain lost her only child, Jordan, when he was just 25 years, to an accidental opioid overdose. She is the co-founder Moms Stop the Harm and family engagement lead at the BC Centre on Substance Use, where she is an advocate for families with loved ones who use drugs.
Understanding Substance Use
Over the last few decades, science has broadened our understanding of some of the risk factors that make it more likely that one person will develop addiction over another.
We know that the development of a substance use disorder is very complex and involves may factors that intersect, including internal factors like genetics and external environmental factors such as law enforcement and stress. No one is sure why a small proportion of people who experiment with alcohol or other drugs will develop an addiction or substance use disorder, who is at risk, or why.
Addiction is a complex process where problematic patterns of substance use or behaviours can interfere with a person’s life. Addiction can be broadly defined as a condition that leads to a compulsive engagement with a stimuli, despite negative consequences. This can lead to physical and/or psychological dependence. Addictions can be either substance related (such as the problematic use of alcohol or cocaine) or process-related, also known as behavioural addictions (such as gambling or internet addiction). Both can disrupt an individual’s ability to maintain a healthy life, but there are numerous support and treatment options available.
People use substances for different reasons, and in varying degrees. For some people there may not be any harms related to their substance use, however, for some there may be negative impacts on their lives. Substance use and addiction can be understood as being on a spectrum.
This spectrum ranges from beneficial (for example, taking prescription medication as prescribed, ceremonial uses of tobacco) through non-problematic (e.g., recreational or casual use, like a glass of wine with dinner), to problematic (which may include use by minors, or negative impacts like binge-drinking or impaired driving) and finally chronic dependent (which would include the development of addictions or substance use disorders).