Any drug a person takes illegally poses some level of risk. The risks of using a drug illegally are determined by many different factors. As a result, it is difficult to know exactly how risky taking a drug illegally is.
This section discusses the risks of using drugs illegally on various aspects of a person's life, including physical and mental health, relationships with family and friends, and their future.
What are the risks?
Levels of Risk
Some variables which can affect the level of risk include:
- the drug itself;
- the quantity;
- the potency;
- a person's health;
- a person's body;
- a person's expectations of the drug;
- where / how the drugs were obtained;
- and how the drugs are taken (for example: smoked, inhaled, snorted, injected).
Even if a person has used a drug many times before, they do not know for sure that the next time won't have negative consequences. Similarly, two different people with different risk factors could take the same drug and have very different effects and consequences.
Health and Safety Risks
There are many risks to a person's body and mind from using drugs illegally. These risks are different depending on the person, situation and drug they use.
- Stimulant drugs, such as cocaine, ecstasy or methamphetamine, can increase a person's heart rate and blood pressure, which could lead to strokes and death. These drugs can also cause convulsions, irregular heartbeat, anorexia, or cause a person to have trouble breathing.
- Some drugs can cause short-term confusion, anxiety or mental disturbance ("bad trips").
- When it comes to drugs, you can never be sure of what you're actually taking. Users can never be sure about what chemicals are in a drug or how potent it is. For example, ecstasy tablets are sold in a variety of shapes, colours and sizes. They may be stamped with a logo, but this does not guarantee the contents of the tablets. In 2006, 91.8% of seized ecstasy samples that were analysed by Health Canada also contained another drug. The most common other drug was methamphetamine (30.9%).
- Illegal (clandestine) drug labs don't have quality control processes or equipment to control doses. As a result, users can accidentally overdose or be poisoned.
- Drug users can spread diseases such as hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS by sharing needles and other drug items.
- In the longer term, drug abuse can result in changes in personality, learning problems, and loss of memory, and can contribute to mental health problems.
- A person who turns to drugs as a way of avoiding normal anxiety and sadness may be establishing a pattern of behaviour that can be hard to break. Many people who use drugs in this way come to believe that they cannot function normally without drugs.
- The younger someone is when they start using drugs, the greater the risk of developing a drug problem in the future. But this doesn't mean a person has to start at an early age for it to become a problem; it's just a warning sign of increased risk.
- People may combine drugs intentionally to try to enhance the effects, or to counteract undesirable side-effects; they may use a dangerous combination of drugs without intending to do so.
- People who use drugs illegally may mix drugs unknowingly because they do not know what they are taking.
- Many drugs taken together have the potential to interact with one another to produce greater effects than either drug taken by itself.
Health risks for specific drugs are available within the Drug Facts pages.
Social and Legal Risks
In addition to the mental and physical effects, illegal drug use can also cause social, legal and/or economic problems.
Drugs can lower inhibitions and affect a person's judgment. Users might:
- do dangerous things they wouldn't usually do;
- engage in unsafe sex that may lead to an unwanted pregnancy or a sexually transmitted infection;
- drive while impaired;
- be a passenger with a driver who is under the influence; and,
- take other drugs that they normally wouldn't try.
If a person uses drugs illegally, they can develop serious personal problems that could destroy their relationships with friends and family.
Young people who use drugs illegally can disappoint their parents/guardians and friends.
- Drugs listed in this Web site are subject to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and are illegal unless a person has been authorized to carry out specific activities. Without this authorization, it is a criminal offence to possess, import, export, manufacture or traffic (sell or give to someone else) these drugs.
- Drug-related offences can result in a criminal conviction. Punishment may be a fine or imprisonment, as well as a criminal record.
- Young people who commit offences under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act can be arrested and charged, and could get a criminal record, subject to the Youth Criminal Justice Act.
- Athletes who use a substance that is banned by their local, provincial, national or international sporting organization may be convicted of a doping infraction. This may result in being banned from participating in sports and may also have consequences for their future career opportunities.
Most illegal drugs can be addictive. Some people get addicted to drugs quickly. Other people take longer, sometimes years. Addiction can take over a person's life and possibly put a stop to their future. It depends on many things.
Addiction is a complex disorder that is influenced by a number of factors, including genetic, social, psychological and environmental factors. It is characterized by craving, compulsive drug-seeking behaviour, loss of control over use and continuous use despite the harm that the drug is causing.
When talking about drug use and addiction, terms like physical or psychological dependence, tolerance, withdrawal and overdose come up.
Addiction does not always include physical dependence.
Physical dependence is an adaptive change in the body that occurs with regular drug use and results in withdrawal when the drug use is stopped.
Addiction does not always include physical dependence.
Psychological dependence is characterized by a strong craving for the effects of a drug and a compulsion to use it.
Tolerance occurs when more of a drug is needed to produce the same desired effect; it can occur when a drug is used on a continuous basis.
Withdrawal occurs when the body gets used to the presence of a certain drug and then the dose of the drug is either decreased or suddenly stopped. The nature, severity and duration of withdrawal symptoms depend on the drug used, the dose, how often it is used and how long it has been used.
Withdrawal symptoms are often opposite to the effects produced by the drug. For example, when a person stops using a stimulant drug such as cocaine they may become depressed, need to sleep a lot, and have increased appetite.
A person who uses drugs may continue to use drugs in order to avoid withdrawal.
Overdose is an excessive dose of a drug that, if untreated, may lead to death.
Drugs and Travel
Each country has its own laws about drugs. Some of these laws are much more strict than Canada's.
When Canadians travel in other countries, they must follow the laws of that country. If they violate the law in another country, they are at risk of being charged and punished by that country's rules.
Thousands of Canadians are in jail in other countries. Many of them are there because of drug-related offences. People who plan to use or carry marijuana or any other drugs when they travel should learn about what could happen to them if they are caught.
Canadians in Jail in Other Countries
Some Canadians who got caught for drug trafficking in other countries have shared their stories because they want you to know the effect it can have on lives - not just their own, but also on family and friends.
I was so stressed that my hair started to break off and fall out. I got acne and I lost weight. The noise level in the prison drove me crazy.
Beatrice, aged 26, sentenced to three years in Thailand for trafficking heroin.
I still haven't learned how to deal with the bugs and rats .... At night they run all over me ... like something out of a horror movie.
Peter, aged 35, in prison for 15 years in Cuba for trying to import marijuana.
The jail was hell. There were about 25 other prisoners in a large cell. All of us shared only one toilet bowl and a shower. The food was terrible and the company was worse.
Lucie, aged 34, in jail in Miami for trafficking cocaine.
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