Substance Use Overview

Substance use is part of the human condition; people have used tobacco, alcohol, cannabis, and other drugs for various “human reasons” in various countries for thousands of years. Like all things involving humans, substance use is complex and not just “good” or “bad” and has the potential to both help and harm. What’s more, the effects of using substances are not uniform but unique to each individual.

Drugs and their Categories

A drug is any substance that causes a change in how people feel mentally, emotionally, or physically. Mood and other brain processes such as perception, attention, learning, memory, concentration, and abstract thought can be impacted.

Drug and their effects depend on many factors, including dose, types of drugs used and their interaction, how the drug is taken, and the body’s response to drugs that develop over time (tolerance, dependence, etc.)

Drugs include legal drugs (such as alcohol, tobacco, prescription drugs such as anti-depressants and painkillers) and illegal drugs such as cocaine, speed, and LSD. When discussing drugs, it can be helpful to categorize drugs according to their effect on one’s mind and body.


Hallucinogens are drugs that distort perceptions, mental processes and emotions. Hallucinogens can act as either or both dissociatives or psychedelics. Examples include magic mushrooms, LSD/acid, peyote, PCP, Ketamine, and GHB.

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Stimulants are drugs that produce a quick temporary energy increase by speeding up the central nervous system—breathing and heart rate and creating an alert state. Stimulant drugs include tobacco, caffeine, cocaine/crack, amphetamines and drugs to treat ADHD.

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Opioids are a group of drugs that resemble morphine and its effects. These include opiates which are derived from the poppy plant. Opioids are among the world’s oldest known drugs, beginning with the therapeutic use of opium. Opioids act as painkillers with effects such as decreased perception of pain, decreased reaction to pain, and increased pain tolerance. The side effects of opioids include sedation, constipation, slowing of respiration and a strong sense of euphoria. Examples include morphine, codeine, opium, heroin, methadone, Demerol and Percodan.

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Depressants are substances that slow down how our central nervous system operates. They slow down our heart rate and breathing, bringing a more relaxed and calm feeling. Because our central nervous system is slowed in small amounts, alcohol can slow our inhabitations and make us feel more sociable and talkative. Our balance, vision, coordination and ability to make important decisions in larger quantities also become confused.
Depressant drugs include alcohol, solvents/inhalants, benzodiazepines, barbiturates, antihistamines and general anesthetics.

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Cannabis originates from the Cannabis Sativa plant. Its psychoactive ingredient is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and can be consumed as marijuana, hash or hash oil. The effects of cannabis can include relaxation, heightened mood, and mild euphoria. In contrast, side effects include decreased short-term memory, coordination and concentration, dry mouth, increased appetite, and lowered blood pressure.

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Low-Drinking Guidelines

Canada’s low-risk alcohol drinking guidelines (LRDG) help Canadians moderate their alcohol consumption and reduce their immediate and long-term alcohol-related harm. The guidelines recommend no more than two drinks a day, 10 per week for women, and three drinks a day, 15 per week for men, with an extra drink allowed on special occasions.


Being mindful means we focus on certain aspects of our current experience to the exclusion of others. It is the act of heeding or taking notice or concentrating.

The goal of mindfulness practice is to cultivate a stable, non-reactive awareness of one’s internal emotions, thoughts, and sensations) and external (social, environmental) experiences.