From a legalistic perspective drug use refers to taking medications as prescribed or directed, whereas drug abuse infers that medications are not being taken as per their prescription, or they are being consumed without a prescription. However, there is more to the issue of drug use versus drug abuse which seems quite convoluted. As Abadinsky (2014) notes “The use of psychoactive chemicals…can objectively be labeled as drug abuse only when the user becomes dysfunctional as a consequence, for example is unable to maintain employment…and/or signify-cantly endangers his or her health—sometimes referred to as problem drug use” (p. 6). The difference between drug use and problem drug use, or drug abuse, can be viewed on a continuum that begins with nonuse and then moves next to experimental use, to socially-endorsed use, to recreational use, and then compulsive use (Abadinsky, 2014). Somewhere the difference between drug use and abuse begins, however this distinction has much to do with, for example, with cultural norms and social views, therefore where the perspective of one group views taking a drug only occasionally as recreational use others believe it is still abuse.

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Distinguishing between drug use and abuse remains an elusive task for two primary reasons. First, the focus over the years concerning drugs has been on drug abusers, where data is relatively easy to compile because it is culled from sources such as treatment centers and law enforcement agencies (Abadinsky, 2014). Yet, occasional users appear to be very hard to come by for research or data gathering purposes because they tend not to access substance abuse treatment and are not often adjudicated. As such, scientific information regarding the differences between drug use and abuse tends to skew towards drug abusers and, at best, making any attempt to distinguish between use and abuse as incomplete and arguably not very useful (Abadinsky, 2014).

Some people might view adolescents who take any type of substances, for example cigarettes or alcohol, in terms of being drug abuse, yet there are more objective ways in which to view adolescent drug use and one has to do with their development. Each developmental stage poses particular challenges and during adolescence they include social and psychological changes that at times places young people at risk. Adolescence is a period of experimentation and of testing boundaries, so it is not uncommon for teens to experiment with drugs and it is equally as common for them to eventually stop. In fact, Berkowitz & Begun (2003) report that the developmental trajectory for adolescents who experimented with drugs may actually be a healthy undertaking, “The need to be autonomous may even explain in part the finding that adolescents who experiment with drugs have healthier psychological profiles than adolescents who abuse or abstain entirely from the use of substances” (p. 330). For any age group, including adolescents, to descend into drug abuse a number of factors must be taken into consideration; it is not the case where adolescents merely take a single drug and are then abusers.

Drug prevention programs such as Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) are, or were, popular because they addressed the most obvious symptoms of drug abuse: problem behaviors and juvenile delinquency to name two. However, traditionally prevention programs do not account for mitigating socio-psychological issues that might account for the escalated use of drugs having to do with, for example, family, environment or emotional stability (Berkowitz & Begun, 2003). What might separate the adolescent user from the abuser are instances of childhood trauma or being raised in a dysfunctional family environment. Berkowitz & Begun (2003) argue “distortions of one’s life course that occur during early, formative periods will have more pervasive and more serious effects and become more resistant to intervention than disruptions at nonformative periods in one’s developmental history” (p. 329).

  • Abadinsky, H. (2014). Drug use and abuse: A comprehensive introduction (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  • Berkowitz, M. W., & Begun, A. L. (2003). Designing prevention programs: The developmental perspective. In Z. Sloboda & W. J. Bukoski (Eds.), Handbook of drug abuse prevention (pp. 327-350). New York, NY: Springer.