Drug Use, Abuse, and Addiction

February 14, 2019
Drug use is a serious problem. Understanding the consequences of drug abuse can be the first step to trying to solve it.

There are many differences between drug use, abuse, and addiction. People tend to use these terms interchangeably, but knowing what they really mean can help you identify them. Looking at the bigger picture, this is important because drug use is becoming one of the most pressing issues of our time. A whole generation of young people is at risk.

Studies show that drug use patterns change over time. In the 80s and early 90s, heroin was the drug of choice. These days, there are new drugs on the market. The most popular and most common now are synthetic drugs.

Alcohol and tobacco are still more widely consumed than the rest of the chemical substances on the market. In the illegal drug category, we have cannabis and cannabis products. Cocaine use among young people is also on the rise.

Next, we’ll talk about the differences between drug use, abuse, and addiction.

A woman with a drug use problem.

What does the DSM say about drug use?

One of the most important standards for diagnosis today is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) from the American Psychiatric Association. The DSM serves as a reference for establishing the differences between drug use, abuse, and addiction. In the DSM-4, abuse was defined as a mild or early phase of drug consumption. Addiction, on the other hand, was a more severe manifestation of the same characteristics.

In practice, and for certain cases, the diagnostic criteria for abuse were pretty severe. That’s why the categories for use and addiction were combined into one disorder called substance use disorder (SUD) in the DSM-5. Here are the diagnostic criteria:

  • Consumption of large quantities of the substance, or consumption for a longer period of time than expected.
  • Repeated, failed attempts to stop or regulate use.
  • Significant time spent trying to obtain the drug, use it, or recovering from being intoxicated.
  • Intense desire to use the substance.
  • Recurring use gets in the way of academic, work, or domestic responsibilities.
  • Continued consumption in spite of recurring home or work problems caused or exacerbated by substance use.
  • Less involvement in social and work activities due to substance use (or quitting them entirely).
  • Continued and recurring use even in situations that could cause physical harm.
  • Tolerance.
  • Withdrawal.

This is the most updated definition of the problems that SUD can cause, but what are the differences between use, abuse, and addiction?

Differences between drug use, abuse, and addiction

First of all, drug “use” is when there are no immediate consequences for the user or their surroundings. That might be due to the quantity, frequency, or personal situation of the user. This term is fairly complex in clinical practice because it’s not enough to focus on how often someone is using. An individual might use a substance sporadically, but clearly abuse the substance when they do.

But it isn’t enough to focus on quantity, either. Someone might use very small quantities of a substance, but do it so frequently that they become dependent. Consequently, it’s really important to be cautious when you use the term drug “use”.

A man going through withdrawal.

“Abuse” could be defined as substance use that has negative consequences for the user or their surroundings. Again, that could be due to the quantity, frequency, or personal situation of the individual. For example, a woman might drink and smoke moderately with no problems. However, if she continues to do so during pregnancy, her consumption would fall into the category of abuse.

Lastly, substance use becomes addiction when the user prioritizes the substance over everything else. Thus, drug use, which maybe started as an insignificant, sporadic experience, becomes their whole life. An addict will spend most of their time thinking about using drugs, trying to get their hands on drugs, getting money to buy drugs, doing drugs, etc.

It’s important to give this issue the attention it deserves. The first step to doing that is to clearly understand each concept. If we do that, we can take steps to fight this really serious problem. With proper education and collective action, we could change the harsh reality of drug abuse.