Alcohol and drugs

If you haven’t already come into contact with drugs, alcohol and cigarettes, you probably will at some point during your teens. In general, a drug is defined as any substance, other than food, which is taken to change the way the body and/or mind function.

There are many things to consider before deciding to say “yes” or “no” to drugs or alcohol. Some of the issues you should think about while making this decision include:

If using drugs and alcohol has become a big part of your life you can get help.

Recognizing that you have a problem and getting help can be scary but it’s an important step toward getting your life back on track. You can get information and help for substance abuse by contacting:

  • Drug hotlines and addiction referral services
  • Drug abuse clinics and drug treatment programs
  • 12-step self help programs and support groups (e.g. Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous)
  • Family doctors and other health professionals
  • Crisis centers
  • School counsellors
  • Kids Help Phone (1-800-668-6868)

Which drugs are bad and which are ok?

Not all drugs have the same potential to cause harm.

Some drugs are produced and sold legally for medicinal purposes. These drugs are generally safe to use if you’re taking them under the recommendation and guidance of a doctor or carefully following the directions on the label. If these drugs are not used as advised however (e.g. if you take more than the recommended dose or uses another drug at the same time) there is the potential for harm.

Some drugs are legal for adults but not children or teens. Caffeine, inhalants, tobacco, and alcohol are examples of drugs that are legal for adults. The laws regarding the minimum age for legal access to tobacco and alcohol are different from province to province. For tobacco, the age range is usually between 18-19. For alcohol the age range is between 18-19. Although these drugs can have harmful effects on the body, the degree of harm varies with the way and the extent to which the drug is used.

Some drugs are produced and sold illegally. The most commonly used illegal drugs are marijuana (pot), stimulants (cocaine, crack, speed), LSD, PCP, opioids, heroin, and “club drugs” (e.g. Ecstasy, Rohypnol).

Why do people use drugs or alcohol?

There are lots of reasons that young people start using drugs and alcohol:

  • Curiosity
  • Experimentation
  • Celebration
  • Pleasurable effects
  • Loss of inhibitions
  • Pain relief
  • To relieve various emotional problems (e.g. anger, stress, anxiety, boredom, or depression)
  • To boost confidence
  • As a way of rebelling or to express alienation from mainstream society
  • To help cope with traumatic life experiences
  • Social pressures
  • Following a parent's example
  • For a sense of belonging or social acceptance and to avoid rejection
  • Dependency
  • It’s glamorized by the media

What are the risks?

Drug use becomes a problem when it results in negative consequences for the person using the drug. These may be physical, mental, social, emotional, legal, economic, or environmental consequences including:

  • Increased health problems such as illness, injuries, and physical damage to the body or death
  • Personal problems such as loss of motivation, physical or psychological dependence, problems at work or school
  • Family problems like strained or unhappy relationships and family breakdown
  • Social problems like increased crime and traffic accidents
  • Increased risk of serious drug use later in life
  • Poor judgement which may put you at risk for accidents, violence, unplanned and unsafe sex, and suicide
  • A drug-related conviction may result in a fine or prison sentence as well as a criminal record, which could affect employment opportunities and travel outside the country
  • Addiction

Some teens will experiment with drugs or alcohol and then stop using them, or continue to use occasionally, without significant problems. Some teens will develop a dependency and some will move on to more dangerous drugs and cause significant harm to themselves and possibly others.

A continuum of risk helps provide an understanding of drug use, its hazards and consequences. People who use drugs may be at different points on the continuum of risk for different drugs.

  1. No use
  2. Experimental use
  3. Social or Occasional use
  4. Medication used as directed
  5. Harmful use
  6. Dependence

What is addiction?

Some people will develop a physical or psychological dependency on drugs and/or alcohol. When a person continues to use a drug despite negative consequences to him or herself or to other people, this is often referred to as drug or substance abuse.

People at risk for developing serious alcohol and drug problems include those:

  • With a family history of substance abuse
  • Who have depression
  • Who feel like they don’t fit in or are out of the mainstream

Addictions develop over time. There are three main types:

  1. Tolerance. Over time and with regular use, a person who uses drugs needs more and more of the drug to get the same effect. Tolerance increases the physical health risks of any drug because it can result in increased drug use.
  2. Physical dependence. This occurs when a person’s body becomes so used to a particular drug that it can only function “normally” if the drug is present.
  3. Psychological dependence. This is when a drug is so central to a person’s thoughts, emotions and activities that it is extremely difficult to stop using it, or thinking about it. A strong desire or craving to use a drug may be triggered by internal or external cues.

Withdrawal refers to the physical and emotional symptoms that a person experiences when they drastically reduce the level of use of drugs that they have become dependent on. Signs and symptoms of withdrawal can include anything from mild discomfort to seizures and some of the effects can be fatal.

What are the consequences of drug use?

There can be physical, emotional and social consequences of drug use.

  • An overdose of any drug can cause serious and sudden physical or mental damage
  • Alcohol can cause liver damage
  • People who inject drugs by needles can get infections such as hepatitis or HIV/AIDS
  • Substance use during pregnancy can cause harm to the fetus
  • People who use drugs that have been obtained illegally can never know what they are taking – some drugs are laced with other drugs or chemicals that can be harmful.
  • Drugs can prevent the development of healthy coping styles
  • Some drugs can cause short-term confusion, anxiety or mental disturbance
  • Drug abuse can result in personality disturbances, learning problems and loss of memory
  • Most drugs can reduce physical coordination, distortion of the senses, impair memory, attention judgement. These effects can lead to serious safety risks especially if the person uses drugs while operating a vehicle or operating machinery. Impaired judgment can lead to falls and other serious accidents.
  • Use of drugs is sometimes associated with violence and crime. Date rape is one example where the effects of drugs and alcohol can incapacitate the victim and make the person unable to resist the sexual assault.
  • A drug-related conviction can have serious consequences for the individual. A conviction may result in a fine or prison sentence as well as a criminal record. Having a criminal record may restrict employment opportunities and travel outside the country. A subsequent conviction may result in a harsher sentence.

If you have questions about drugs or alcohol, talk to a trusted adult or call Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 and talk to one of our professional counsellors.

Last Reviewed October 2012 by the Kids Help Phone Counselling Team

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