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Not everyone agrees on what counts as drug abuse. Some equate abuse with any use of illegal drugs -- for instance, smoking pot or crack or injecting speed or heroin. Others talk about the misuse of legal drugs -- for instance, taking someone else's tranquilizers to get mellow, or popping "uppers" to get through a long work day. Who is right?


As a matter of fact, both sides are right. Using marijuana, cocaine, or heroin counts as drug abuse by definition, since these substances are illegal. But purposely taking a legal medication for the wrong reason -- to get high or "stoned," rather than to treat a medical condition -- is a form of drug abuse, too.


The most common forms of drug abuse in the U.S. are the overuse of alcohol and of tobacco (yes, alcohol and tobacco are definitely drugs).



How Common is Drug Abuse?

Abuse of illicit drugs has been increasing over the past three decades and is now widespread. In the early 1960's, less than 2 percent of Americans had ever experimented with an illegal drug. At present, more than one-third of the population has at least tried an illegal drug, and more than 6 percent are current users.


Overall, about 2 percent of Americans deliberately misuse mood-modifying prescription drugs such as stimulants and tranquilizers. Among young people aged 18-25 years and 26-34 years, the rates are higher: 7 percent and 6 percent respectively.


What Is So Bad About Drug Abuse Anyway?

In the U.S., substance abuse is by far the most common cause of premature and preventable illness, disability, and premature death. Drug abusers themselves aren't the only ones who suffer -- their families and friends are affected, too. So are the people whom drug abusers may injure or kill while intoxicated, and the families of those victims.


Drug Abusers Are At Risk For Drug Dependency.

People who abuse drugs run the serious risk of becoming dependent on them -- in other words, needing drugs just to get through an ordinary day. This can happen with prolonged use of any drug, including marijuana.

Individuals who have become dependent on drugs try to quit, but fail. They continue to use drugs even though they realize on some level that their habit is creating family problems, financial problems, social problems, work problems or psychological distress.

Certain drugs can be injected to give a greater "kick." Among people who inject drugs, sharing needles is a common practice. It's a dangerous practice, however, because shared needles can spread AIDS and other deadly diseases. Even people who should know better sometimes share drug needles: When they're high, they're irresponsible.


What Are The Most Commonly Abused Drugs?

The most commonly abused illicit drugs are:


  • Marijuana, the most widely used street drug. Long term use of "pot" can cause apathy and memory problems
  • Cocaine, a strong stimulant that's more addictive than heroin. The smokable "crack" form can be addictive instantly. Cocaine may cause sudden death from heart damage, seizure, or stroke, even in a healthy individual.
  • Speed, or methamphetamine -- another powerful, addictive stimulant. At high dosage, speed can cause psychosis and brain damage.
  • Heroin, a strong narcotic painkiller. Heroin abusers usually inject the drug and often share needles; this can expose them to infection with the AIDS virus.
  • Hallucinogens such as LSD, mescaline, and PCP. These perception-changing drugs are unpredictable. Even experienced users never know when they will have a terrifying "bad trip."
  • Inhalants include solvents, aerosols, and anesthetics. Sniffing inhalants produces a cheap, short-lived "high," but can cause permanent damage to the lungs and the brain.
  • Prescription Drugs The most commonly abused prescription drugs are the sedatives (tranquilizers and sleeping pills). Used temporarily and under medical supervision, sedatives can relieve anxiety and promote sleep. When abused, however, they can be habit-forming. At high doses, or in combination with alcohol, they may lead to unconsciousness or even death. Sedatives come in two major categories:
  1. Barbiturates, including amobarbital (Amytal), secobarbital (Seconal) and pentobarbital (Nembutal).
  2. Benzodiazepines, including diazepam (Valium), chlordiazepoxide (Librium), chlorazepate (Tranxene) and aprazolam (Xanax).


What Type Of Person Becomes A Drug Abuser?

Drug abuse cuts across lines of age, sex, neighborhood and socioeconomic background. However, several factors may make a person especially vulnerable to drub abuse. They are:

  • Genetic factors - Some people may inherit a physiological predisposition to addiction. Studies have shown that a person's family history can indicate an increased risk for alcohol abuse. A person with an alcoholic parent is two to four times more likely than others to develop an addiction to alcohol.
  • Emotional distress - A person who suffers from anxiety, depression, or feelings of worthlessness may take drugs as a means of escape. Physician’s call this kind of drug abuse "self-medication."
  • Psychiatric problems - People with a chronic, serious mental disorder have about a 29 percent incidence of substance abuse.


How Can I Tell If A Particular Person Is Abusing Drugs?

In the early stages, it's hard to tell. Drug abuse often begins socially, as a form of recreation, and dependency may develop insidiously. If you suspect that someone you care about may be abusing drugs, watch for any circumstantial evidence such as possession of drugs or drug paraphernalia. Also, stay alert for other warning signs such as:

  • Significant, unexplained weight loss or weight gain
  • Agitation
  • Suspicion, paranoia
  • Chronic lying
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Job problems or school problems
  • Financial difficulties


There Is Help.

Fortunately, people who have developed a drug habit can get help. Few people are able to kick drugs entirely by themselves, or with the aid of a self-help program. For the rest -- those who can't make it with self-help alone -- a medical treatment program is a source of comprehensive therapy and support.


What Is The Best Way To Get Help?

For anyone seeking help for a drug problem, the first step is a professional evaluation with a licensed physician to determine how severe the problem is and what kind of treatment is apt to be most effective. The evaluation should include a thorough physical exam, blood and urine tests, and possible psychological testing.


Your family doctor may be able to suggest a drug treatment center that conducts substance abuse evaluations. Or you might try a community hospital, a state or local mental health agency, or even the yellow pages of the phone book under "alcohol and drug treatment."


How Does A Drug Abuse Treatment Program Work?

Treatment for drug abuse is offered on various levels. The most intensive treatment program, for severe or long-standing drug dependency, requires complete hospitalization for a period of weeks. The least stringent treatment program consists of regular visits to outpatient treatment and support-group sessions. An in-between level of treatment might involve partial hospitalization -- intensive, structured treatment (individual, group and family therapy) for several hours a day, several days a week, with the rest of the time spent going to work or school and with nights spent at home.


Treatment for drug abuse consists of two phases:



May last for one or several days. The body rids itself of drug residues. Medically supervised detoxification, which may involve the careful use of medications, is a safe, clinically recommended substitute for the formerly dreaded "cold-turkey" withdrawal period.



A much longer phase. Consists of a daily schedule of different types of therapy: individual counseling, education about drugs, a nutrition program, a physical exercise routine, group psychotherapy, and participation in a 12-step support group such as Narcotics Anonymous. There may also be special sessions for family education and family therapy.


It's True. . .

Most drug abusers retain a lifetime of vulnerability: they will always be in danger of relapsing if they take drugs again, even once. But recovering drug abusers learn how to manage their vulnerability.


Although drug dependency is a serious problem, large numbers of drug abusers can and do recover. For anyone with a drug problem, a professional, medically complete treatment program can offer a chance for a lasting recovery.


The more you learn about drug abuse, the more you will understand that it is an illness with causes and treatments. And as with any other illness, people with a drug problem can improve with the proper care. By reaching out for information you can recognize the signs and symptoms of drug abuse, and perhaps help someone live a healthier, more fulfilling life.