Drugs and alcohol: Important things to know

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Before saying “yes” or “no” to drugs and alcohol, there are a few things you may want to learn more about.

When making the decision to use (or not use) drugs and alcohol, consider the following:

  • Which drugs are legal/illegal?
  • Why do people use drugs and alcohol?
  • What are the risks?
  • What is addiction?
  • What are the consequences?

Many drugs are legal. Some drugs, like alcohol and tobacco, are legal for adults but not for kids and teens. Others, like caffeine, are legal for everyone. Laws about these drugs vary by province. Legal drugs can have harmful effects if misused, but the amount and type of harm depends on the way someone uses the drug.

Other types of drugs are legal, including medication like pain killers and antibiotics. Medication is generally safe to use if you take it as directed by your doctor. You may also purchase medication “over the counter” at a pharmacy, like cough syrup and some pain relievers. Directions for use of these drugs can be found on the label. Taking more than the recommended dose, or mixing drugs (even legal drugs), can be dangerous. Misuse may lead to illness or addiction.

Which drugs are illegal?

Some legal drugs are sold illegally to people without prescriptions looking to use them recreationally. These can include:

  • Strong pain medication: opioids like oxycodone (OxyContin, Percodan, etc.), hydrocodone, morphine, fentanyl, codeine, methadone, oxymorphone, Demerol (meperidine), etc.
  • Anxiety and sleep disorder medication: benzodiazepines like Xanax (alprazolam), Valium (diazepam), Serax (oxazepam), Ativan (lorazepam), Rivotril (clonazepam), etc.
  • Medications used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): stimulants like Adderall, Dexedrine, Ritalin (methylphenidate), Desoxyn, Dextrostat, etc.

Some drugs are produced and sold illegally. The most commonly used illegal drugs are stimulants (cocaine, crack, speed, etc.), LSD, PCP, heroin and “club drugs” (Ecstasy, etc.).

Why do people use drugs and alcohol?

There are a lot of reasons why young people may start using drugs and alcohol such as:

  • curiosity
  • experimentation
  • celebration
  • to feel good
  • to lose their inhibitions (self-consciousness)
  • to relieve various emotional problems (e.g. anger, stress, anxiety, boredom, depression, etc.)
  • to boost confidence
  • to rebel
  • to help cope with traumatic experiences
  • social pressure
  • following a parent/caregiver’s example
  • for a sense of belonging or social acceptance
  • to avoid rejection
  • glamorization by the media

What are the risks of using drugs and alcohol?

Drug and alcohol use becomes a problem when it results in negative consequences including:

  • addiction and dependency
  • health problems (illness, injury, death, etc.)
  • personal problems (loss of motivation, issues at work/school, etc.)
  • family problems (strained relationships, family breakdown, etc.)
  • social problems (increased crime, drinking and driving, etc.)
  • increased risk of serious drug use later in life
  • poor judgment which can increase the risk of accidents, violence and unsafe sex
  • drug-related convictions which can result in a fine, prison sentence and criminal record

Some young people can experiment with drugs and alcohol, and then stop using or use occasionally, without significant problems. However, some young people can develop a dependency/addiction and move on to more dangerous drug behaviour.

This scale of risk indicates the severity of a person’s drug use:

Level 1: no use
Level 2: experimental use
Level 3: social or occasional use
Level 4: medication used as directed
Level 5: harmful use
Level 6: dependence

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