Public health definitions
Public health practitioners have attempted to look at drug abuse from a broader perspective than the individual, emphasizing the role of society, culture and availability. Rather than accepting the loaded terms alcohol or drug “abuse,” many public health professionals have adopted phrases such as “substance and alcohol type problems” or “harmful/problematic use” of drugs.
The Health Officers Council of British Columbia — in their 2005 policy discussion paper, A Public Health Approach to Drug Control in Canada — has adopted a public health model of psychoactive substance use that challenges the simplistic black-and-white construction of the binary (or complementary) antonyms “use” vs. “abuse”. This model explicitly recognizes a spectrum of use, ranging from beneficial use to chronic dependence (see diagram to the right).
In the modern medical profession, the two most used diagnostic tools in the world, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and the World Health Organization’s International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD), no longer recognize ‘drug abuse’ as a current medical diagnosis. Instead, DSM has adopted substance abuse as a blanket term to include drug abuse and other things. ICD refrains from using either “substance abuse” or “drug abuse”, instead using the term “harmful use” to cover physical or psychological harm to the user from use. Physical dependence, abuse of, and withdrawal from drugs and other miscellaneous substances is outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR). Its section Substance dependence begins with:
“Substance dependence When an individual persists in use of alcohol or other drugs despite problems related to use of the substance, substance dependence may be diagnosed. Compulsive and repetitive use may result in tolerance to the effect of the drug and withdrawal symptoms when use is reduced or stopped. These, along with Substance Abuse are considered Substance Use Disorders….”
However, other definitions differ; they may entail psychological or physical dependence, and may focus on treatment and prevention in terms of the social consequences of substance uses.
Drug misuse is a term used commonly for prescription medications with clinical efficacy but abuse potential and known adverse effects linked to improper use, such as psychiatric medications with sedative, anxiolytic, analgesic, or stimulant properties. Prescription misuse has been variably and inconsistently defined based on drug prescription status, the uses that occur without a prescription, intentional use to achieve intoxicating effects, route of administration, co-ingestion with alcohol, and the presence or absence of abuse or dependence symptoms.
As a value judgment
Philip Jenkins points out that there are two issues with the term “drug abuse”. First, that constitutes a “drug” is debatable. For instance, GHB, a naturally occurring substance in the central nervous system is considered a drug, and is illegal in many countries, while nicotine is not officially considered a drug in most countries. Second, the word “abuse” implies a recognized standard of use for any substance. Drinking an occasional glass of wine is considered acceptable in many Western countries, while drinking several bottles is seen as an abuse. Strict temperance advocates, which may or may not be religiously motivated, would see drinking even one glass as an abuse, and some groups even condemn caffeine use in any quantity. Similarly, adopting the view that any (recreational) use of marijuana or amphetamines constitutes drug abuse implies that we have already decided that substance is harmful even in minute quantities.