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Drug FAQ

What is a Drug?

Health Canada defines a drug as “any substance, other than food, which is taken to change the way the body and/or mind functions” ¹.  These can include caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, diazepam, marijuana, LSD, MDMA, heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine.

Although drugs exist to change how the body functions, drugs that are abused typically affect the central nervous system (the one exception being steroids) and can change the way a person thinks, feels or acts. These mood-altering drugs are best known as psychoactive drugs ².

Typically, psychoactive drugs are classified either by their effect on the central nervous system, how they are taken (route of administration) or by their active ingredient.

Psychoactive drugs that are not prescribed but can be obtained legally by anyone who is of legal age in Canada include alcohol and tobacco.

Health Canada classifies illegal drugs by how they are administered (i.e. inhalants) or their effect on the central nervous system (i.e. hallucinogens, depressants, stimulants). Cannabis and anabolic steroids, both illegal substances without a prescription, are given separate categories. 

(1) Source: Health Canada, Straight Facts About Drugs & Drug Abuse.
(2) Note: Officially, the Government of Canada prefers the term psychoactive substance which means “a substance which alters mental process such as thinking or emotions.” However, the term drug is used. Source: Cannabis: Our Position for a Canadian Public Policy (2002) Report on the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs, Volume I: Parts I and II, Senate of Canada.

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Why do People Use Drugs?

Some people like or want some of the effects that drugs create or are thought to create such as:

  • Being more relaxed in social situation
  • Relieving physical or psychological discomfort
  • Experiencing Intense pleasure (euphoric effect)
  • Having more energy
  • Concentrating with more intensity, for longer duration
  • Being able to think more creatively


Some may use drugs as an excuse for behavior which they want to engage in but wish to have themselves or others believe that it was “the drugs that made me do it.”

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What is a Prescription Drug?

Basically, a prescription drug is any drug which may be sold by a pharmacy when approved by a medical practitioner (doctor or dentist) in writing. The term “prescription drug” is used to distinguish it from over the counter (OTC) drugs that can be obtained without the need for written consent from a medical practitioner.

A prescription drug can be prescribed by a medical practitioner such as a general practitioner, medical specialist, dentist or psychiatrist. In Canada, psychologists are not authorized to prescribe drugs.

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What is Drug Treatment?

Drug treatment describes the process of providing therapy to individuals who have been diagnosed with an addiction to drugs. Drug treatment can be outpatient, hospital-based (inpatient), or residential or it can even be pharmacological (prescribing certain drugs to block the effects of opiates, create discomfort during relapse, etc.).

Drug treatment is also sometimes confused with drug detox which, typically, is a medical service provided by nurses and doctors.with little or no therapeutic component to address the psychological dependence.

Drug treatment can vary in duration, frequency and intensity.

It is important to note that just the amount of drugs an individual consumes does not determine whether an individual needs drug treatment since it may just be drug abuse.

For more information refer to the Drug Treatment Basics section in Self-Help.

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What is Drug Rehab?

Although sometimes confused with the term drug treatment, drug rehab is an abbreviated version of drug rehabilitation. Drug rehab is a term most often used to describe a program that is residential (client stays overnight on campus) as opposed to the shorter-term outpatient variety of treatment.

Please refer to the Drug Rehab Programs & Services section for more information on our rehab program for men and their families.

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What is the Difference between Alcohol and Drug Rehab?

There is very little difference between alcohol and drug rehab once alcohol or drug use has progressed to the addiction stage. In fact, the vast majority of rehab programs treat both drugs and alcohol in the same facility without separating clients based on whether they use drugs or alcohol. Recently, some alcohol and drug rehabs have advertised special programs for crystal meth and cocaine, however, very little research has been conducted to determine whether drug or alcohol-specific treatment is more or less effective.

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What is Drug Use?

The spectrum of drug use ranges from abstinence to dependent use of one or more drugs.

  • Experimental drug use – when a person uses drugs once or for a short-term period.
  • Recreational drug use – when a person uses one or more drugs in a deliberate or controlled way usually in social settings such as parties. Recreational use is characterized by occasional use on, for example, weekends or several times a week. There is some argument whether certain highly addictive drugs (crystal meth, crack cocaine) are safe to use, even on a recreational basis
  • Situational drug use – a person uses drugs to cope with the demands of particular situations (such as trades people using drugs to stay alert during extended graveyard shifts)
  • Intensive drug use (also known as bingeing) – a person follows a repeating pattern of excessive drug consumption over a short period of time followed by periods of abstinence. Intensive use may or may not be considered dependent use
  • Dependent drug use – person has little or no control over their drug use. Dependent use (also known as drug addiction) is the result of prolonged, regular use of increasing amounts of the drug.


Source: Victorian State Government, Department of Human Services

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What is Drug Abuse?

The term drug abuse has many definitions depending on the source of the definition. A simple definition for drug abuse is the use of a mood- or growth-altering (steroids) substance for a purpose other than that for which it is normally prescribed or recommended. It is important to note that just because an individual abuses drugs doesn’t necessarily mean they have a drug addiction.

For specific information see Workplace Substance Abuse or the School Drug Abuse section.

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What is Drug Addiction?

Drug addiction (also known as chemical dependency) is a condition that meets criteria that staff at Sunshine Coast Health Center refer to as the 3 C’s:

  1. Control– individual has a hard time setting limits around how much or how often they consume drugs (plan on having a joint and ends up snorting 3 lines of cocaine)
  2. Compulsion– individual spends a lot of energy around planning and/or engaging in the consumption of drugs (avoids places or events that limit opportunities to get high)
  3. Consequence– individual continues to use in spite of negative consequences such as problems at work, marital difficulties, drug debts, etc.


It is important to note that an individual can show compulsion and lack of control and still not have a drug addiction but, rather, will be symptomatic of drug abuse. True drug addiction must show a pattern of continued drinking or drug use in spite of negative consequences.

If you are not sure if you or a loved one has an addiction see the Addiction Test section. If you are looking for treatment information refer to the Self-Help section.

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What is Prescription Drug Abuse?

Prescription drug abuse is use of a prescribed drug by (1) anyone other than the intended recipient or (2) obtained by ways other than by valid prescription or (3) taken in quantities that exceed the dosage recommended by the medical practitioner.

Most abused drugs are those used for the relief of pain (pain killers or analgesics), to curb anxiety (tranquilizers or anxiolytics), or to aid sleep (sleeping pills).

For more information refer to the Prescription Drug section.

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What is Prescription Drug Addiction?

Prescription drug addiction is distinct from prescription drug abuse by recognizing that the individual will not stop using the drug despite experiencing negative consequences.

See the Addiction Test section to help determine if you or a loved one has crossed the line that separates abuse from addiction.

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What are the Most Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs?

There are 3 classes of prescription drugs that are most frequently abused:

Pain Killers (also known as opioids or analgesics) – used to treat pain
Depressants – used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders
Stimulants – used to treat the sleep disorder narcolepsy and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder

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What is an Over-the-Counter (OTC) Drug?

An over-the-counter drug is any medication that you can buy without a doctor’s note (prescription). OTC drugs can be purchased in any pharmacy, corner store or supermarket.

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Can Over-The-Counter (OTC) Drugs be Abused?

Yes. Although their concentrations of the active ingredient may be lower than that found in prescription drugs, individuals that abuse OTC drugs find ways to increase the active ingredient or tamper with the time-release properties of a drug such as crushing them, dissolving them in water and injecting the solution, etc.

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What Are the Most Commonly Abused OTC Drugs?

The most commonly Since all 3 of these types of drugs can be obtained without a prescription (see OTC drugs below) in any pharmacy, corner store or supermarket without a doctor’s note (prescription), this makes them more likely to be abused.

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What About Driving and Drugs?

Like drunk driving, drugged driving is illegal and dangerous. Read NIDA InfoFacts: Drugged Driving for more information.

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Where do I Find Research on Drugs?

It depends if you are looking for statistical or scientific research.

If you are creating a report that requires statistical information on drug use, drug treatment, etc. there are plenty of scientific studies available. The Office of Applied Studies is an excellent place to find US statistics. OAS is a division of the US Department of Health & Human Services. Refer to the Topics section (e.g. Age of first use, workers drug use) or the Drugs section (alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, etc.).

In Canada, the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse (CCSA) has a Statistics section. The Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission (AADAC) has a statistics section which covers current research and statistics.

This website also has an Addiction Research section.

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