Definition and characteristics of drugs

Charles McCarthy
Definition and characteristics of drugs

Drugs have been used in all societies since ancient times, but the characteristics of the use have changed over time. This situation is due to the confluence of social and health factors. Among the social factors, the following could be commented: consumption of drugs known in societies and cultural contexts that were not previously known, in addition, consumption is basically attributed to the youngest members of society, consumption of synthetic drugs such as LSD and amphetamine derivatives , consumption of more potent preparations and by more direct routes of administration (intravenous heroin instead of smoked opium; distilled drinks instead of fermented ones) and the increase in crime to get the necessary money to buy them.

In the health field, changes can be observed in the appearance of new pathologies and the reappearance of others almost eradicated from advanced societies. In the last decade there has been an increase in tuberculosis associated with carriers of the human immunodeficiency virus (AIDS), especially in injecting drug addicts and in marginal alcoholics.


  • What are drugs?
  • Basic concepts
  • Characteristics of drug dependence
  • Drug addiction process
  • Classification of drugs
    • Nervous system depressants
    • Nervous system stimulants
    • Those that alter perception
  • Drug prevalence
  • Criteria for the diagnosis of dependence and substance abuse
    • Substance dependence
    • Substance abuse
  • Addictive consumption criteria
  • Treatment
    • Physical detox
    • Psychological help programs

What are drugs?

According to who (World Health Organization):

Drug It is "any substance that, introduced into the living organism, can modify one or more of its functions".

Whether a person becomes dependent on a drug will depend on the interaction of 3 factors:

  1. Personal characteristics or previous experience of the subject.
  2. Nature of its general and immediate sociocultural environment.
  3. Pharmacodynamic characteristics of the drug in question, taking into account the amount used, the frequency of use and the route of administration..

Psychic dependence is defined as "a situation in which there is a feeling of satisfaction and a psychic impulse that requires the regular and continuous administration of the drug to produce pleasure or avoid discomfort". Physical dependence is defined as "a state of adaptation that is manifested by the appearance of intense physical disorders when the administration of the drug is interrupted". These disorders constitute the "Withdrawal Syndrome".

Basic concepts

When the consumption of the substance becomes more and more regular, in order to experience its psychic effects and sometimes to avoid the discomfort produced by its deprivation, we are talking about drug addiction.

The psychic dependence It is the compulsion to take a certain substance to obtain the experience of pleasant and pleasant effects or to avoid discomfort.

The physical dependence It is a state of adaptation of the organism produced by the repeated administration of a substance. It is manifested by the appearance of physical disorders, more or less intense when its administration is interrupted.

The drugs abuse it occurs when there is consumption in large quantities and circumstances that deviate from the social or medical guidelines accepted in the given culture.

The abstinence syndrome It is what occurs after having a physical and mental dependence, at the moment in which the drug is lacking, a whole set of signs and symptoms of a physical and mental nature appear, whose intensity and time course will depend on the type of drug and other factors such as frequency, quantity and age of consumption.

The fondness syndrome are the psychological symptoms that appear before the withdrawal syndrome and after the effects of the last drug take disappear, they consist of the experience of generalized anguish, intense need to take the drug with the consequent development of a behavior search.

The tolerance it is a state of adaptation characterized by a decreased response to the same amount of drug, or by the need for a higher dose to cause and feel the same effect.

The cross tolerance It is the phenomenon whereby when taking a drug tolerance appears not only to another of the same type, but even to totally different drugs. The previous use of a drug can enhance the effects on the body of other types of drug.

The acute intoxication occurs when you take an amount of drug that the body is not able to eliminate or transform the substance.

The overdose It is the severe acute poisoning that appears when the limit of toxicity in the organism is exceeded. It depends on the dose of drug taken, its composition (if it is more or less pure), if it is adulterated and individual body variables such as weight, metabolism and tolerance..

The polydrug or polyconsumption It occurs when the subject is administered a varied range of substances with the explicit objective of maintaining their mental functions altered. In many cases there is a main drug that supports the dependence, and secondary drugs that complement or replace it in situations of unavailability. It is currently rare to find a single drug user.

For behavior patterns It is understood to the substances that the drug addict takes and also its route of administration, frequency, relational context in which the consumption occurs, social and cultural support, etc..

Characteristics of drug dependence

  • An irrepressible desire to consume the drug and obtain it by any means.
  • A tendency to increase the dose due to the tolerance of the organism towards it. Higher doses are needed to get the same sensation.
  • The appearance of a withdrawal syndrome in case of sudden interruption in consumption.

Drug addiction process

  • Experimental consumption: They are tests carried out by the person based on curiosity towards drugs, with no explicit intention of repeating consumption.
  • Occasional consumption: the person knows the drug and its effects and chooses the most propitious moments and scenarios to feel these effects. Consumption is still spaced and infrequent.
  • Regular consumption: regular consumption with continuity. Active position vis-à-vis consumption.
  • Dependence: consumption need, it is a priority and imperative in your life.

Classification of drugs

Nervous system depressants

Decrease the activity of the central nervous system.

  • Opiates: opium, morphine, heroin, methadone.
  • Alcoholic drinks: wine, beer, gin, etc.
  • Hypnotics and sedatives: sleeping pills and tranquilizers.

Nervous system stimulants

They increase the activity of the central nervous system.

  • Greater: amphetamines, cocaine.
  • Minors: coffee, tea, cocoa, tobacco (nicotine).

Those that alter perception

They modify the level of consciousness and different sensations (visual, auditory, etc.).

  • Hallucinogens: LSD, mescaline.
  • Cannabis: marijuana, hashish.
  • Designer drugs: ecstasy, eva, etc.
  • Inhalants: solvents, glues, etc.

Drug prevalence

Approximately, it can be estimated that between 0.5% and 1% of the adult population is addicted to opiates, between 5% and 10% are addicted to alcohol and between 30% and 40% are addicted to tobacco . The prevalence of drug use undergoes significant variations depending on the country and the social and cultural environment, age and sex. In general, young adults of all societies are considered to be the largest consumers and that the prevalence decreases with age (maturation, social obligations). It is more common in males.

Criteria for the diagnosis of dependence and substance abuse

According to the American Psychiatric Association, substance dependence is the maladaptive pattern of substance use that leads to clinically significant impairment or discomfort, expressed by three (or more) of the following items at some point in a continuous 12-month period :

Substance dependence

  1. Tolerance, defined by: a) need to increase the dose; or b) decrease in effect with continued use of the same amount of substance.
  2. Abstinence, defined by; a) the characteristic withdrawal syndrome for the substance; or b) the same (or very similar) substances are used to alleviate or avoid withdrawal symptoms.
  3. The substance is consumed in greater quantity or in a longer period than the person intended.
  4. Persistent desire or one or more attempts to stop or control substance use.
  5. A lot of time is spent in activities necessary to obtain the substance (for example, theft), consume it, or recover from its effects.
  6. Considerable reduction or abandonment of social, work or recreational activities due to substance use.
  7. You continue to use the drug despite being aware of having a persistent or recurring social, psychological or physical problem, caused or stimulated by the use of the substance.

Substance abuse

  1. Recurrent substance use, leading to non-compliance with obligations at work, school, or at home.
  2. Recurrent use of the substance in situations where doing so is physically dangerous (for example, driving a car or operating machinery).
  3. Repeated legal problems related to the substance.
  4. Continued use of the substance, despite having ongoing social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of the substance.

Addictive consumption criteria

Washton and Boundy (1991) propose four criteria to distinguish when the use of a drug or other addiction (gambling, shopping, work, sex) becomes addictive.

  1. Obsession. Irresistible need and intense desire to use the drug. The addicted user is obsessed with getting and using the drug. This is a priority over any other activity.
  2. Lost of control. Inability to limit or control consumption. The addict may stop its use temporarily, but believes that it is impossible not to use the drug again, even with maximum efforts of self-control and willpower.
  3. Negative consequences. Continued use despite the consequences such as economic, family, work, organic and psychopathological problems.
  4. Denial. Drug use is denied as a problem. They fail to see the severity of the negative effects, deny that there is a problem, and become angry or defensive if someone tells them that their use is out of control.


Physical detox

Physical detoxification can be done on an outpatient basis or in a hospital detox unit. The object of detoxification is to enable the addict to overcome the withdrawal syndrome in the safest, most comfortable and successful way possible. Approximately this detox lasts between two and three weeks. If practiced on an outpatient basis, methadone or a combination of opiate derivatives, tranquilizers and hypnotics is used. Hospital detoxification versus outpatient detoxification has the advantages of allowing control of the medication administered, observing withdrawal symptoms by a specialized team, and being able to perform laboratory tests.

Psychological help programs

All centers that offer support programs can be used before, during or after physical detoxification treatment. These are open centers where addicts find specialized professionals, as well as other aids such as food, drink, showers, basic medical care and, in some, syringes and condoms.

During treatment, day centers and activities centers can be used in which a therapeutic occupation is provided for the addict to stabilize his abstinence. They offer: individual and group psychological support, cultural, sports and artistic activities. They are used to support drug-free treatment and methadone maintenance programs. After treatment, work, sports and judicial reintegration programs can be used..

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