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HealthInfo Waitaha Canterbury

Overview of drug addiction

Tirohanga whānui ki te waranga, te whakamanioro rānei i te pūroi

This page has links to information in te reo Māori.


Addiction and abuse can happen when you use an illegal drug or when you use a prescribed medication in a harmful way.

Different drugs give different pleasurable effects. People use many substances casually or more regularly. They use these to get a high or to make them feel good. Unfortunately, drug-induced experiences can come at a high price.

Most prescribed medications do not cause addiction and do not result in highs. Drugs that do cause addiction (drugs of abuse or controlled drugs) are quite different. Most are illegal, but doctors can legally prescribe some of them in controlled ways.

These addictive drugs cause a person who uses them often to crave more. The user gets unpleasant withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking the drug. They also develop a tolerance to the drug. This means they need to increase the dose of the drug over time to get the same effect.

Over time, with regular use, users of these drugs can become addicted or hooked. They may find it more and more difficult to live without the drug. With some drugs, this can happen very quickly.

You can inherit a tendency towards addiction, which means it's passed down in families. But stressful life circumstances and personality may also play a role.

When a person is addicted to drugs, problems can snowball over time. They can make riskier and riskier choices to keep life under control. People can get desperate and may risk their relationships, health and reputation to get drugs.

Driving while high is dangerous and illegal. If a police officer pulls you over while driving after you've taken drugs, you may lose your licence or face a criminal conviction.

The good news is that treatment is available if you abuse drugs or are addicted to them. If you're willing to change, your general practice team will encourage you to try self-help programmes and join community support groups. They may refer you to a support agency that specialises in addiction.

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Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed June 2023.


See also:

Drugs & reducing your risks from taking drugs

Illegal drugs in pregnancy

Medicines, alcohol, drugs & breastfeeding

Medicines in pregnancy

Physical health with a mental illness or addiction

Page reference: 520828

Review key: HIADG-47857