It's not always evident when someone you love has a drug addiction. Maybe you’ve noticed them using certain substances at parties or on special occasions, but it hasn’t really seemed to interfere much with their life.
Or maybe you’re the person in question. Maybe you’ve been experimenting with drugs off and on for a while now and are afraid that your casual drug use has turned into a full-fledged addiction. And maybe, just maybe, you’re wondering if you need to seek out professional help.
No matter whether you’re concerned about a friend or loved one’s drug habits or your own, knowing the difference between casual drug use and addiction is vital. It can help you stop questioning if someone truly needs help or not. And it’s often the first step towards getting sober and avoiding being a slave to addiction.
But what are the signs and symptoms of each? What does casual drug use look like? When does someone’s drug habits turn into a clinical addiction? And how do these signs present differently in various types of drugs?
Let’s take a look at these questions and more to help you better understand how to distinguish between simply experimenting with drugs and being outright addicted to them.
People start using drugs for a variety of reasons.
Perhaps you started using them recreationally because you were feeling stressed out about a situation you were facing at your job and you wanted to “take the edge off.” Or maybe you were going through a terrible loss, and you were just looking for a way to cope. Or even more likely, maybe you started using because someone offered them, and you just wanted to see what it was like.
Regardless of why you started using drugs, doing so is definitely a problem (even if you're only using drugs casually right now) because eventually, it can lead to addiction. And on top of that, you’re also putting yourself at risk for a host of other health problems that can develop with even just a single use.
But what does casual drug use look like and how does it differ from a full-blown addiction?
In general, using drugs recreationally means you’re still in control of your habits. Instead of being driven by cravings to get high, your drug use is more spontaneous, sporadic, and infrequent.
There are a few typical characteristics that identify casual drug use, and these include:
If the above characteristics apply to your current pattern of drug use, you are probably a recreational user rather than an addict. However, it's so important for you to understand that this can change at any time, and an addiction can easily form without you realizing it.
Despite how dangerous illicit drug use can end up being, casual substance abuse is incredibly common today.
According to data from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), about 44.5 million Americans over the age of 18 reported using illicit drugs in the past year. Around 26.5 million reported using in the last month. And given that the U.S. population in 2016 was around 323.4 million, that means around 13.7% of the population used in the last year and about 8% used in the last month.
But how many of those people are addicts and how many are just using drugs recreationally?
The NSDUH also reports that around 7.3 million Americans (around 2%) over the age of 18 met the clinical criteria for needing professional treatment for their drug use (i.e., addiction). That means that about 11.7% of non-addicts used illicit drugs in the past year and around 6% of non-addicts used in the last month. As you can see, the majority of people who have used drugs recently are actually using them casually rather than habitually.
As you might expect, not everyone is going to have the same likelihood of using drugs casually. That’s because there are a number of different risk factors involved in predicting casual drug use.
The most common of these risk factors are listed below. However, it’s important to remember that just because you have a lot of the following qualities and are considered “at-risk,” that doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to use drugs at some point. And it certainly doesn’t mean you’re bound to become addicted either.
According to studies, the most common risk factors associated with illicit drug use are:
Casual drug use also tends to be a bit more common in certain environments.
Adolescence, for example, is a period of time where experimenting with drugs is especially common. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), around one quarter of all 12 graders have used an illicit drug in the past month. Over 17% of 10th graders have abused a drug in the same time period. Added to that, almost half of all high school seniors have used an illicit drug at some point in their lifetime.
College is another time when experimentation is likely. NIDA found that around 7.8% of college-aged Americans used marijuana on a daily basis. Added to that, college students are also more likely to engage in binge drinking and Ritalin and Adderall abuse than non-college young adults.
And finally, people who frequent the “club scene” and other nightlife venues are also more likely to engage in abusing illicit drugs like hallucinogens and more.
One study found that club visitors were twice as likely to use illegal drugs, Goa trance party frequenters were 5 times more likely, and people who preferred dance music were 2.5 times more likely to use illegal drugs than the average population.
Casual drug use may seem safe on the surface. You’ve probably convinced yourself that as long as you aren’t using every day, you’re safe from the drug’s harmful effects. But the truth is that even when you aren’t addicted, you’re still at risk of some of the dangerous side effects of using drugs.
Impaired judgment, for example, can end up leading you to take part in hazardous activities. Engaging in aggressive behaviors, driving under the influence, having unprotected sex, and more are all not only possible while using drugs recreationally, but they're also much more likely.
Beyond that, the risk of overdosing isn’t just for addicts. Using a drug even once can prove incredibly deadly even for casual users. In fact, the lower tolerance compared to complete addicts can actually make your risk of overdosing even higher in some cases.
Finally, one of the biggest dangers of casual drug use is the risk of developing a full-blown addiction. Ture, becoming addicted to any substance takes time, and it takes continual reinforcement. But, the more often you abuse a drug, the more your brain gets told “this is good, and we need more of it!”
And as that message becomes more and more frequent, the brain starts to crave the drug that caused it. When those cravings become too much to handle, and you can't function normally without the drug, that's when you've developed an actual addiction. And each time you use a drug casually, you're taking one step closer to becoming addicted.
Addiction begins where casual use ends.
While a casual drug user can control their abuse and doesn’t depend on using to feel normal, an addict is the exact opposite. Using has become so ingrained in their patterns of behavior and changed their brain chemistry so fundamentally that they essentially become powerless to kick their habit. And it's this lack of control and physical brain changes that make addiction an actual disease.
Despite what many people believe, addiction isn’t just about physical dependency. Sure, being physically dependent on a drug (as defined by tolerance and withdrawals) can make it more likely that you’ll become addicted but there’s more to it than that. Instead, it’s also about what’s going on in the mind as well as the body.
One of the best definitions of addiction that takes a closer look at how the mind is affected is from NIDA:
Addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. It is considered a brain disease because drugs change the brain—they change its structure and how it works. These brain changes can be long-lasting and can lead to the harmful behaviors seen in people who abuse drugs.
There are three main points about addiction to take away from this definition: it's chronic and relapsing, it’s characterized by compulsive behaviors, and it leads to harmful consequences.
Let's take a closer look at what each of these points really means and how they differ from casual drug use.
Chronic & Relapsing – One aspect that separates addiction from casual drug use is the fact that addiction is often chronic and relapsing. For most addicts, relapse is a fact of life. Experts estimate that most recovering addicts only have a 40 to 60% chance of staying clean after quitting.
Casual drug users, on the other hand, aren’t nearly as compelled to turn back to drugs as addicts. They may, for example, be able to use coke or marijuana just a few times and not even think about it again for years.
Compulsive Behaviors – This is one of the hallmarks of this disease. When someone becomes clinically addicted to a substance, their brain changes on a physical level. And those changes make it near impossible to maintain self-control when it comes to drug use. They’re powerless in the face of cravings and, in a sense, they don’t really even have a choice in whether or not to use again.
For a casual drug user, they decide to get high or use a drug recreationally. And while they may prefer one outcome over another, they may still decide not to use again. And being able to make that choice is often the deciding factor in whether or not someone’s addicted.
Harmful Consequences – Last but not least, addiction leads to harmful consequences and negative impacts on an addict’s life. Maybe they start having serious run-ins with the law because of their drug use. Or maybe they’re alienating friends and family. Or perhaps they put their safety or the safety of others in jeopardy. But despite all of these obvious pitfalls, they still keep using.
Casual drug users, however, are able to stop their drug abuse when it becomes a serious problem in their life. And they’re also less likely to get high at inappropriate or dangerous times like when they’re at work or before driving a car.
When you abuse a psychoactive substance, it causes a surge in the "feel good" chemicals of the brain like dopamine. Normally, this chemical is released naturally by actions like eating a good meal, exercising, or having sex. But when it comes to substance abuse, drugs hijack your brain’s natural systems and cause an enormous amount of dopamine to be released almost instantly.
In fact, some drugs have even been shown to release as much as 10 times the amount of dopamine as any natural behavior.
And as your drug use becomes more and more frequent, the body and the brain begin to adapt. Certain cell receptors grow and die off, special chemicals become stronger or weaker, and in the end, these changes make the euphoria from the drug less powerful than before. And that makes you need to take more to feel that same kind of high.
So, you end up using more of the drug more often to chase that same high.
After enough drug use, the mind stops producing dopamine at the same levels it used to. And that makes everything else a lot duller. Old hobbies that brought you joy before just don’t seem as enjoyable. Social outings aren’t as interesting. Even food and sex may become less pleasurable as a result.
Beyond that, dopamine is also one of the brain’s main chemicals used for learning. And as it becomes harder and harder to create dopamine on your own, the brain starts craving the best source of it – using drugs.
The brain of an addict has become so dependent on drugs that it is wholly unable to function normally without them. And eventually, someone suffering from addiction will lose all control and will start using compulsively – whether they like it or not.
Unfortunately, one of the most common characteristics among addicts is a tendency to deny that they have a problem at all. In fact, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that among the 6 million Americans that needed treatment but didn’t receive it, a whopping 93.3% of them (about 5.6 million people) didn’t think they had a problem in the first place.
And part of that has to do with the fact that there is an enormous stigma attached to addiction.
In the eyes of many people, addicts are simply unable to hold back from giving into their basest desires. They’re devoid of willpower, only care about themselves, and will do anything (including hurting the people they love) just to get high.
Obviously, this view of addiction is far from the truth of the matter. As we’ve seen, addicts have little control over their own actions because of the physical changes that have occurred in their brain. And even when they do want to give up their substance abuse (and many do), they’re often simply incapable of doing so on their own.
And yet, an unnerving number of people still believe that addiction is a choice. As a result, they think that a substance abuse problem is something to be ashamed of. And that can make it harder for any addict to come to terms with their disorder and finally get the help they need to recover.
That’s why it’s so important to know how to recognize the signs of addiction before it’s too late.
As we’ve seen, experimenting with drugs is incredibly common, especially in particular environments or at specific ages.
But just because casual drug use is so frequent today doesn’t mean that it isn’t dangerous. Any degree of drug abuse, whether it’s every weekend or just a few times a year, can come with some serious consequences. Legal troubles, physical dangers, making poor decisions, and the threat of overdose all come with abusing a drug even once.
Plus, the risk of addiction rises each time you abuse a drug – even if you just do it casually.
And that’s why you need to be able to spot the signs of drug abuse before it turns into a much bigger and more dangerous problem.
Below are some signs of abuse to be aware of for five of the most commonly abused drugs today: cocaine, heroin, benzodiazepines, prescription opioids, and meth.
One of the most obvious signs of using cocaine casually is spotting the symptoms of coke intoxication. According to MedlinePlus, these symptoms include:
There are also a few behavioral signs you may want to be watching for as well. For example, someone abusing cocaine may:
Some other signs you’ll want to keep an eye out for if you suspect someone you love has been abusing cocaine are:
To be clear, casually using any illicit drug is considered to be a form of abuse. And doing so, as we’ve seen, can be quite dangerous. But when it comes to abusing heroin, the dangers are often far more pronounced than with other drugs.
Added to that, addiction to this drug can develop much more quickly than with most other drugs.
That’s why it’s so important to know what to look for when determining whether your friend or loved one is using heroin – there’s a much smaller window of time you can stop it before it turns into a full-blown addiction.
So, what kinds of signs point to someone using heroin?
The first thing to look for is whether or not they're intoxicated. The high from this drug, in particular, is quite intense and, consequently, should be pretty easy to spot.
Someone high on heroin may appear:
You’ll also want to watch out for less obvious signs of heroin use too. For instance, you may notice:
Spotting whether or not someone is currently high on benzodiazepines is often the most obvious indication of benzo abuse. And according to WebMD, the signs of getting high on this drug include:
Since benzodiazepines are prescription medications, addicts may engage in what’s known as doctor shopping in order to get their hands on more of the drug. This practice involves making appointments with multiple doctors and lying to them to get more benzos. They’ll often also conceal their other prescriptions too. They may even travel to other towns just to try and get pills from another physician.
They may also try to convince you to give them any leftover or unused medications you may have too. It’s important to recognize that even though they may have the same prescription as you, sharing pills with others is considered a form of abuse and should never be done.
And finally, a benzo addict may even resort to stealing medications from your home. If you notice that your prescriptions are running out faster than usual, it could be because your friend or loved one is swiping your pills without you knowing.
There are other signs of benzodiazepine abuse to look for too. These include:
As with the other drugs we’ve looked at, prescription opioid abuse is often most easily spotted by looking for signs of whether or not someone is currently high on them. And depending on the dosage that they took, these signs can be pretty easy to spot. They include:
Like benzodiazepine abusers, people who misuse opioids may also go doctor shopping or ask friends and family members for leftover medications. Beyond that, you may notice that your pills mysteriously go missing any time they come by your home.
A few other behavioral signs to be on the lookout for are frequent naps at inappropriate times. Maybe you find them passed out multiple times a day or perhaps they’ve lost multiple jobs because they can’t seem to keep their eyes open.
Added to that, some people tend to mix opioids with other substances like alcohol. If they seem to be far more intoxicated than you’d expect from the number of drinks they’ve had, they could be mixing their booze with prescription painkillers.
Other indicators of opioid abuse include:
Being the powerful and often overwhelming stimulant that it is, methamphetamine intoxication is usually pretty easy to spot when you know just what to look for. The most common symptoms according to the Mayo Clinic include:
Meth users will often go on what is called a “run.” This is a long period of binging on methamphetamine and using it to get high for days at a time. During this time, they may be highly focused on certain tasks, even if they’re relatively unimportant. For instance, you may find them cleaning a single window for hours at a time.
Meth is also a popular party drug that’s taken at dance clubs, music festivals, and other similar venues. If you notice your friend or loved one acting especially energetic when frequenting any of these types of outings, they may be abusing meth to enhance the experience.
As with the other drugs we’ve looked at, there are a number of other indicators to watch out for when you’re trying to determine if someone is currently abusing meth.
While casual drug use certainly isn’t safe and should be avoided at all costs, it’s when it turns into an all-out addiction that you should really start to worry.
As we’ve seen, addiction leads to a complete lack of control over your drug use. Even the most iron-willed addict has times when they’re powerless to slow down their substance abuse.
And it’s that inability to regulate their drug use that can make addiction so incredibly destructive. It can cost you your job, your friends and family, your freedom, and even your life.
And that’s why it’s so important to know how to spot the signs of an addiction before it’s far too late.
According to the Mayo Clinic, some of the most obvious signs of any drug addiction include:
If you still aren’t sure if you or someone you love is an addict, there are a couple of other things you can do to get a better idea of how bad the problem has gotten.
First, you can take a brief online addiction quiz. It doesn’t take more than just a few minutes to complete and is a simple and obligation-free step in the right direction.
You can also personally talk to an addiction professional during a free phone assessment. These assessments take about 20 to 30 minutes and are 100% confidential. It’s a great way to get personalized feedback on whether or not you really are struggling with a full-blown addiction.
If you are trying to spot an addiction to coke, you should be on lookout for any of the long-term effects that most addicts have with this drug. Some of the most common ones include:
Another clear indication of an addiction to cocaine is the presence of withdrawal symptoms. According to Mental Health Daily, the most common symptoms of cocaine withdrawal include:
A heroin addiction is often all-encompassing. This drug is especially addictive, particularly destructive, and incredibly dangerous.
And even still, spotting a heroin use disorder can be tough if you don’t know what to look for.
Be on the lookout for long-term problems associated with heroin use when trying to spot an addiction. Some of these telltale signs include:
Just like other drugs, the one sign to be on the lookout for when you suspect an addiction to this drug is the presence of withdrawals. Some of the most common signs of heroin withdrawal include:
If you think all of these signs sound a bit too familiar, go ahead and try taking this short online heroin addiction quiz. It doesn’t take more than a few minutes to complete and should help you determine if you or your loved one’s abuse habits have evolved into a full-blown addiction.
An addiction to benzodiazepines can develop before you know it. And that’s why it’s so important to spot the signs early before it’s too late.
Chronic abuse and addiction can present in benzo addicts in a number of ways. Besides the typical signs of abuse (i.e., poor performance at work or school, mood changes, lying, etc.), you should also be on the lookout for the development of disorders like:
Many people who are addicted to benzodiazepines and abuse them chronically also tend to develop memory impairment, depression, and emotional blunting. With the elderly in particular, they can cause confusion, pseudo-dementia, and even permanent brain damage in some cases.
Going through benzodiazepine withdrawals is another obvious sign of addiction to these powerful prescription drugs. And given just how uncomfortable this withdrawal syndrome can be, you won’t have any confusion about whether you’re going through it or not. According to Professor Heather Ashton of Newcastle University, some of the most common symptoms include:
Addiction to prescription opioids can be devastating. According to the CDC, around 46 Americans die every single day from overdoses involving prescription opioids. Beyond that, many prescription painkiller abusers go on to become addicted to drugs like heroin as well.
That’s why it’s so critical that you know how to spot the signs of heroin addiction before it’s too late.
Some of the long-term effects of abusing prescription opioids that you should be on the lookout for include:
You should also be on the lookout for signs of withdrawals from prescription opioids to help you spot an addiction. According to MedlinePlus, these symptoms may include:
If you think you or someone you know may be addicted to prescription pills, have a look at this online prescription drug addiction quiz. It’s a quick way to find out if your casual drug use has turned into a much deadlier addiction.
Meth addiction can wreak havoc on a person’s physical appearance over time. Just have a look at some of the before and after pictures of people who have been abusing this devastating drug for years.
As a result of these startling physical changes, spotting a meth addict is generally much easier than with other drugs. A someone with a methamphetamine addiction will often have the following physical characteristics:
Like the other drugs we’ve looked at, meth withdrawal is a clear sign of addiction. Some of the most common symptoms to keep an eye out for include:
If you believe that you're just using drugs casually, the best thing you can do is stop using before it becomes an addiction. However, if it's too late, and you know you're addicted, it's important to get professional help so that you can stop using safely and begin your recovery.
Here at Ashwood Recovery, we know how scary it can be to reach out and talk to someone if you think you need professional help. We've talked with so many people who were nervous to make that first phone call, but who were so glad they did.
Our professional outpatient and intensive outpatient programs (IOPs) offer the best in evidence-based rehabilitation services. Our passionate and highly trained staff is dedicated to helping you learn to overcome powerful cravings, prevent relapsing with proven strategies, and ensure the best chances at achieving long-term sobriety for good.
So please, contact us today to learn more about how we can help you down the road to recovery.