A drug addict can be anyone, from a close friend or family member to a respected member of your community.
The number one cause of drug addiction in Canada, according to the government of Canada, is high rates of opioid prescribing and an increased supply of strong and harmful synthetic opioids permeating the illegal drug supply throughout the country, including drugs such as fentanyl and carfentanil.
But there are a variety of economic, social, and biological factors that play a significant role in whether someone becomes a drug addict or not. For these reasons, it’s often not easy to pinpoint one exact reason behind why someone becomes a drug addict.
In this guide, we not only define drug addiction, but we also dive into the many reasons and factors that cause drug addiction, and outline ways that you can recognize the signs and symptoms in order to get help sooner.
In a sense, we want to paint a picture of what drug addiction means, and how it can affect every aspect of someone’s life.
If you know someone that you suspect is a drug addict, or feel like you may be an addict yourself, read on for education, tips, and resources.
Drug Addict Definition
The typical definition of a drug addict is someone who continues to use drugs despite harmful consequences, whether those consequences are physical, mental, or life-based (as in the addiction affects relationships, jobs, the ability to provide for oneself, etc.).
Addiction is considered a disease by provincial and federal mental health authorities and official healthcare organizations, and consists of genetic, psychological, and environmental factors.
In short, a drug addict:
- Compulsively seeks drugs
- Compulsively uses drugs
- Experiences harmful consequences of drug use
However, the term “drug addict” is often seen as stigmatizing language, in that it perpetuates a negative view of persons with drug addiction.
In the 2017 AP Stylebook, the Associated Press included new entries on addictions and drug-related language, with guidance to avoid words like abuse, abuser, problem, and addict in most writing scenarios. This means that government agencies, businesses, and other organizations should communicate with this updated language, which hopefully means that journalists covering the information released by these organizations will also adopt the new nomenclature.
In other words, instead of using the term drug addict, the best practice is to opt for “Person with Substance Use Disorder (SUD)” “person with a drug addiction”, or “person living with drug addiction”. For the purposes of this article and its focus on education, we’ll still use the term drug addict synonymously with SUD.
Like we wouldn’t use negative language when referring to someone with a disease like Cancer or Diabetes, we shouldn’t use negative language to refer to someone with an addiction.
Signs of a Drug Addict
What are the signs of a drug addict? Sometimes, it’s not always obvious that someone is struggling with addiction. Some people can effectively mask their addiction to those around them, continuing to meet societal standards like having a job, paying rent, and maintaining relationships.
Typically people who don’t outwardly show their addiction are considered “functioning addicts” but it’s important to use the term with caution. Just because someone isn’t showing stereotypical societal signs of addiction doesn’t mean it isn’t affecting them every single day.
In fact, most stereotypical signs of addiction are actually exaggerated, outdated, and work to increase stigmatization rather than minimize it. In other words, just because someone hasn’t hit rock bottom or completely burned out doesn’t mean they are not at a stage in their addiction where they need help.
What are the signs of a functioning drug addict?
It can be difficult to identify a functioning drug addict when that person is able to continue living outwardly as normal, but there are a few key traits to look for:
- Denial. When a drug addict is high functioning and can maintain some sense of normalcy through a steady job and relationships, they may deny that they have a problem. It’s also easy for them to not recognize their substance use disorder because they haven’t hit the stereotypical “rock bottom”.
- Unusual or uncharacteristic behaviour. When someone notices uncharacteristic behaviour in a drug addict and confronts them about it, it can be difficult for the person with substance use disorder to admit to the unusual behaviour.
- Excuses. Because the drug addict works to hide their substance use disorder, they will come up with excuses for abnormal behaviour or being caught with drugs so their addiction can remain private.
- The false appearance of normalcy. It can be difficult to see beyond a drug addict’s outward appearance of normal behaviour, but they often lead a double life that enables them to function in society while at the same time feeding their addiction.
Symptoms of Drug Addicted Person
While it can be difficult to spot the signs of a drug addicted person, there are a number of physical symptoms that can alert you that this person needs help.
Physical and psychological signs and symptoms of a drug addict can include:
- Bloodshot eyes, irregular sleep, and weight changes
- Frequent runny nose
- Tremors or seizures
- Extreme lethargy and feelings of apathy
- Paranoid thoughts, negative self-image, lack of motivation, and interest in activities that the person usually enjoys
- Chemical odour on breath or clothes
- Marks on skin
- Poor hygiene
In addition to these symptoms, drug addicted persons often experience health issues such as lung or heart disease, stroke, cancer, or mental health conditions. Those with substance use disorders can also experience infections such as HIV and Hepatitis C, often from sharing injection equipment (such as needles). Infection of the heart valves and skin infections can also occur from bacteria exposure.
Keep in mind that symptoms can vary from person to person, and some symptoms can be common for a specific type of drug.
For instance, physical signs of a cocaine-addicted drug addict are:
- Frequent runny nose and nosebleeds
- Dilated pupils
- Increased heart rate
- High energy
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Excessive sweating
- Suppressed appetite resulting in weight loss
- Passing out or blacking out as a result of taking cocaine
- Needing increasingly higher and more frequent doses of cocaine to achieve the desired “high”
Physical symptoms of a drug addict addicted to fentanyl can include:
- Rapid heart rate
- A feeling of pounding in the ears
- Chest tightness
- Mood changes
- Poor balance or coordination
The important thing to remember is that symptoms of a drug addicted person can vary, so keeping an eye on the person and understanding the difference between their typical level of health versus symptoms of being a drug addict is key.
Drug Addict Behaviour
Alongside physical presentations of symptoms of a drug addicted person, most drug addicts will start to exhibit certain behaviours that help you identify a drug addiction.
Common behaviours of a drug addict include:
- Slurred speech
- Frequent clumsy behaviour such as tripping or running into things
- Unusual defensive behaviour when it comes to asking personal questions, especially when it comes to whereabouts or what they were doing at a specific time
- Suddenly selling possessions, asking for money, or stealing to fund the addiction
It’s also not uncommon for drug addicted people to become more aggressive than they usually are, or experience mood swings that can change their behaviour on a dime with even the smallest triggers.
Similar to the signs of a functioning drug addict, you may recognize these changes in personality traits and behaviours:
- Lying about whereabouts or finances to prevent someone from finding out about a drug addiction
- Manipulation often focused on convincing someone that their drug addiction isn’t so bad, or that they have complete control over their behaviour and choices
- Abusive behaviours, often caused by the drugs themselves or frustrations with being a drug addict
- Forgetfulness, which typically means a drug addicted person can’t remember what they’ve done recently, especially if they were under the influence of drugs
- Secretive actions, often because they are aware that the behaviours of a drug addict are viewed negatively and are worried that family or friends will react harshly to learning about their addiction
The behaviours of a drug addicted person can severely affect their well-being, from physical and mental health issues to social problems, like being disowned by family or friends. If we’re being real, not many people are on board with being friends with a drug addict, so isolation and loneliness are common, often resulting in the person going deeper into addictive behaviours.
How to Treat a Drug Addict
Understanding how to properly treat a drug addict can potentially save someone’s life.
In an attempt to combat our nationwide opioid crisis, many local pharmacies will give out free Naloxone injection kits along with training on how to use them.
While not a permanent solution to the opioid problem, Naloxone kits have successfully reversed thousands of overdoses across Canada.
While this medication is typically used by first responders such as paramedics and firefighters, there’s been a growing need for regular citizens to take advantage of take-home Naloxone kits, especially anyone who is at risk of an overdose or is likely to encounter someone who may overdose.
How to Understand a Drug Addict
It’s important to realize where addiction comes from and why in order to change our viewpoint on why addiction happens. Since addiction is a disease, it needs to be treated with the same care and respect that you would afford someone with any other disease, whether it’s physical or mental in nature. While it can be frustrating to talk to someone with an addiction, it’s important to broach the conversation for the person’s own well-being.
In many cases, an intervention is needed to help drug addicted people.
Simply put, the perspective on addiction needs to be shifted from a failing of the person themselves to deal with changing life circumstances and instead realize that addiction is a mental health disorder that needs treatment. A drug addict or a drug addicted person doesn’t need to be seen as powerless, victims, or unlucky, rather they need treatment from a place of empathy and understanding.
Clients that come to the Sunshine Coast Health Centre, for instance, are aware that they need help beyond just treatment of symptoms of a drug addict, but rather treatment for the deeper issues that may lead to those symptoms.
Can a Drug Addict Change?
It is absolutely possible for a drug addict to get to a place in their lives where they are happy and thriving. With the proper support and treatment, a drug addict can transform their life from one that centers around their addiction to one that manages it in a healthy way.
Recovering from drug addiction is not easy. Changing drug addict behaviour often requires extensive treatment to rebuild the life of the drug addict. Family and friends are an important part of the recovery process. Typically, close friends and family will meet with the drug addicted person in a therapeutic setting where it’s safe for everyone to discuss their thoughts and feelings.
From there, effective recovery programs work together with individuals with SUD and their families so the right support is available throughout the recovery process.
How Does a Person Become Addicted Drug?
While some people can use alcohol and drugs without becoming addicted, there are just as many people who use these substances and become addicted. So how does a person become addicted to drugs?
It’s important to recognize that anyone can potentially become addicted to drugs.
Drug addiction is a very complex disease, so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all reason for why someone becomes a drug addict. However, the question of how someone becomes addicted to drugs is still valid and one that scientists and healthcare professionals continually try to answer.
Instead, it’s been recognized that a combination of risk factors increase the risk of addiction. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the more risk factors someone has, the greater the chance that taking drugs can lead to an addiction.
Here are those risk factors:
In terms of biology, the NIDA recognizes that the genes that someone is born with can account for about half of their risk for developing an addiction. Mental health disorders may also contribute to heightened addiction risk.
On the other hand, environmental factors can also play a role in developing a drug addiction. Influence from those around you, as well as your economic status and things like stress, early exposure to drugs, sexual abuse, and more, can work to increase the likelihood of substance use disorder.
Development factors also play a big role in addiction. The earlier drug use begins, the more likely that it will develop into drug addiction. A young drug addict can easily develop problems with judgement, learning, behaviour, and more.
What is the Opioid Crisis in Canada?
The opioid crisis in Canada stems from a variety of factors and has become a complex public health issue. It’s important to discuss the opioid crisis in Canada as it affects all of us, and is rooted in our perception of drug addicted persons and overall fear of drug addiction.
While Health Canada is responding to the opioid crisis, it continues to be a big problem across the country. According to the Angus Reid Institute’s survey of 5,003 Canadians, Seven out of ten respondents feel that the opioid problem has increased since 2020. In addition, a little less than half (48%) feel that the problem is worsening in their community.
A stark statistic from Maclean’s says that someone dies of drug poisoning every 49 minutes in Canada.
The opioid crisis is also affecting those living with chronic pain, as the stigma surrounding taking opioid medication has caused problems. Even though individuals with chronic pain have benefited from taking these drugs, the crisis has caused doctors to hesitate in prescribing these medications, making it difficult for those needing these medications to get them.
So on one hand, we have someone dying every 49 minutes due to drug poisoning, but on the other hand, we have people who genuinely need these medications being denied them because of the fear and stigma surrounding opioids.
This stigma stems from our society’s view on drug addicts and people with substance use disorders, and does nothing but feed into the problem.
While the solution for the opioid crisis isn’t cut and dry and research into the best ways to handle it are ongoing, it’s important to discuss as it highlights just how much of a problem substance use disorder is in Canada.
Conclusion and Resources
When you think about a drug addict and what that person may look like, it’s common to automatically fall back on classic media stereotypes of what a drug addict should look like, from track marks all over their arms to rotted teeth and torn, dirty clothes. Maybe this person lives in squalor in a drug house with other addicts or exists on the streets.
The reality is that a drug addict can be anyone, and we hope this guide worked to paint a more accurate picture than what movies and television would have you believe.
If you think you could be a drug addict or you know someone who you suspect might be, the time to act is now.
There are a variety of resources available to help. You can easily find addiction services using our comprehensive directory.
We also work with resource centers across the country that specialize in helping people, from treatment for drug addiction to essentially any type of addictive behaviour.
- Andy Bhatti has years of addiction expertise and personal experience backed by education from the Justice Institute of British Columbia with an addiction studies certificate, nonviolent crisis intervention program, as well as other programs in the field of Intervention Skills and Training through Canadian and American studies.
- Cedars at Cobble Hill is an addiction rehab facility that specializes in providing individualized care and programs for patients experiencing drug and alcohol addiction.
- Sunshine Coast Health Centre is a private mental health treatment facility that provides 24-hour medical care, including psychiatry, psychology, nutrition and fitness support, specialized bodywork, and other services. The Sunshine Coast Health Centre has a record of providing high-quality care since 1991.
- Aurora Recovery Centre offers a variety of programs geared towards the treatment and management of addiction. Their philosophy is based on the knowledge that addiction is a treatable illness, and with the right recovery management system and expert care, individuals can recover from it.