A brief guide to signs of drug use and what to do about it

23 May 2006

The word ‘drug’ can be very confusing. Some use it to refer to any substance that affects how we think or feel. This can include alcohol, tobacco or caffeine. It is used to refer to a range of legal substance that people can misuse such as prescription medicines and volatile substances such as glue. It also, and most commonly, is used to refer to illegal drugs such as cannabis, ecstasy and heroin.

• 28% of the population over 16 have taken illegal drugs, some 13 million people.

• 51% of 16-24 year olds have taken illegal drugs.

• Only a small number of people who experiment with drugs go on to use them regularly and an even smaller number develop a problem or come to harm.

Is My Child Using Drugs?

This commonly asked question is obviously hard to answer. Many of the behaviours that are often associated with drug use are also similar to behaviours most adolescents go through as they are growing up.

The following behaviours may be an indicator of drug use:

• Erratic behaviour, with violent mood swings, which might include depression, aggression or heightened anxiety
• Loss of balance
• Restlessness and scratching
• Slow speech, slurred speech or speaking in a garbled way
• Extreme hyperactivity; talking for long periods of time about nothing in particular
• Total inactivity; not wanting to move, or do anything at all
• Very dilated, enlarged pupils in the eye, or very small pupils

However, there may be a reason for any of these which are not to do with drug use, they are just indicators. Another potential sign of drug use is the ‘paraphernalia’ (anything that is made or used to aid taking drugs) associated with drug taking. Such items include:

• Hand rolled cigarettes with ends made of rolled card
• Manufactured cigarettes that have had the tobacco removed – this is often a sign that of tobacco being combined with cannabis so that it can be smoked
• Rolled up banknotes, which are used to snort cocaine
• Folded and burnt tin foil; burnt or bent spoons, syringes and needles, which may have been used to take heroin or crack cocaine
• Tiny bits of clingfilm – which are used to wrap drugs
• Pipes, plastic bottles or drinks cans pierced with holes, which can be used to smoke drugs
• Butane gas canisters and lighter fuel cans, which can be inhaled
• Traces of unusual powder or small blocks of unknown substances
• Small bottles, which may have contained Amyl-nitrate
• Empty sealable bags, often about 2 inches square

However the most effective way of knowing whether your child is using drugs is to talk to them about it. Such a conversation needs to be done carefully; imagine what the likely reaction would be if you sounded accusing or judgemental?

Things that might be helpful to do before having a conversation about drug use:

• Inform yourself about drugs and how to talk about them (there are many online resources available – http://www.talktofrank.com/azofdrugs/a/ is a good place to start)
• Consider your motives and what it would mean to you if they are using drugs
• Despite probably being angry and scared flying off the handle at your son or daughter is unlikely to be productive – adopt an attitude of caring curiosity when having a conversation about drugs

Why do they use drugs?

If you find out that a son or daughter is taking the drugs – the next question most fathers and mothers ask is ‘why are they doing it?’

Understanding why someone takes drugs can be hard; the reasons are often many and complex. Drugs are substances, which people take to change the way they think, feel and behave. There are many reasons why someone may want to change their thoughts, feelings or behaviour:

• They may find the experience of altering their perceptions fun. They might enjoy the feelings of excitement and confidence, which some drugs can bring.
• They may use drugs as a means of escape. Some people use substances to forget about their problems.
• They may be under peer pressure or find themselves in a situation where substance use seems quite ordinary. For example, many people first misuse alcohol as part of a friendship group where others are drinking.
• Some people move from this experimental use to regular use, what is sometimes called ‘recreational drug use’, as part of their lifestyle. There are risks associated with this, but most people come to little harm.
• Some people regularly misuse drugs in ‘binges’ where they deliberately take large quantities of something, typically with many others. People may do this as a release from the stresses and strains of everyday life, from a belief that this is how you ‘have a good time’, peer pressure and as an ‘excuse’ for antisocial behaviour such as violence.

All of the above reasons for drug use have one thing in common: the person who uses has not become ‘dependent’ upon using that drug. They can choose to stop using drugs relatively easily, even if only for a few days. However, about 5 to 10 % of people who use drugs in a ‘recreational’ way go on to become dependent users.

‘Dependency’ is where someone’s ability to control their drug use has become impaired. Why this happens is not fully understood, but it would seem that it is a side effect of drug use and also that genetic factors play a part. Additional factors seem to be poor socio-economic circumstances, such as poor housing and unemployment; a history of childhood trauma such as sexual abuse; and using as a way of coping with unbearable feelings and pain.

Dependent drug use is therefore much harder to control and to stop, someone cannot simply choose to stop in the same way as a non-dependent user. Typically they need specialist treatment to stop using. The link below will help you find out what drug treatment services are available in your area:

Some drugs are more addictive than others – for example nicotine and heroin are amongst the most addictive. To find out more about different drugs, their effects and consequences, and what the laws are surrounding them. Click on the link below to look at the A-Z of drugs on the FRANK website:

Ocean Recovery provides a support group network for people suffering with addiction to drugs and alcohol in the North West of England. It offers free and confidential services over the phone.  The website also contains free guides and resources for people suffering from addiction and for their families and carers. Helpline: 0125 353 0553, every day, 24 hours a day.


Tags: , ,