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The Thin Blue Line – Australian Police

Drug Problem – Someone you know?


When someone close to you has a drug problem

This information is for anyone who is concerned about a family member’s, partner’s or close friend’s drug use.

Being close to someone with a “drug problem” can be difficult and emotionally draining. While there are no simple answers, we hope you find the following information helpful.

What is a drug problem?

It is difficult to say exactly what a drug problem is. Others, including the person using drugs, may not view what you perceive as a problem in the same way.

Many experts agree that a drug problem is not measured by how much, how many or what drugs a person uses, but by how the drug affects the person’s life and the lives of those around them.

There are many types of drugs that can cause problems, including prescription medicines, over-the-counter or non-prescription medicines, alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs.

Problems related to drug use

There are many problems related to drug use including:

  • Family/relationship problems: Drug use may lead to conflict with family or friends. Family and friends may be very frustrated and concerned when they are manipulated or pressured for money or possessions, or when the person using drugs fails or refuses to recognise their drug use is causing problems.
  • Work/school problems: Drug users may take increased sick days and be unable to work properly.
  • Accidents: Drug use may affect a person’s ability to respond appropriately to a given situation, their ability to think clearly, their ability to maintain attention, and may cause physical symptoms such as blurred vision, cramps, and nausea. Such effects can increase the risks of car accidents, drownings, and reduce the ability to be able to safely cross roads.
  • Legal problems: Each state has laws governing the manufacture, possession, distribution and use of drugs. The four main types of offences related to illegal drugs are: use, possession, cultivation and trafficking of drugs. Drug use may also lead to other legal concerns such as crimes committed in order to raise sufficient money to support ongoing drug use and violent assaults.

For legal advice relating to someone’s drug use, contact a legal service in your state/territory.

  • Financial problems: The cost of maintaining ongoing drug use may mean that there is not enough money left to pay for a range of goods and services. This may include regular bills, food and clothing, and other purchases that may increase a person’s quality of life such as entertainment and leisure.
  • Health problems: Tobacco, alcohol and illegal drugs can all have serious health effects if used over a long period of time. Lifestyle changes such as poor eating habits and inadequate sleep can increase the chance of experiencing a variety of health complications. People who inject drugs are at risk of contracting hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV (the virus that causes AIDS).
  • Sexual problems: Certain types of drugs may lead a person to feel sexually aroused, but can actually reduce a person’s ability to perform sexually.


How can I tell if someone is using drugs?

It is difficult to tell with any certainty that someone is using drugs. The effects of drugs vary greatly from person to person. Changes in behaviour or moods may indicate drug use, however, any such changes may indicate an issue in the person’s life that is not drug related.

Signs that appear to be uncharacteristic of the person may require your attention, regardless of whether drugs are involved. These signs include:

  • moods swings;
  • lethargy;
  • explosive outbursts;
  • minimal interaction with family;
  • trouble with the police;
  • changes in eating patterns;
  • frequent absences from school/work;
  • sudden changes of friends;
  • unexplained need for money;
  • declining school/work performance;
  • disappearing money and valuables;
  • impaired memory;
  • decrease in other activities that may have been importance to the person previously
  • poor concentration;
  • withdrawing socially.


What is drug dependence?

There are degrees of drug dependence ranging from mild dependency to compulsive drug use (often referred to as addiction). It is impossible to say how long or how often a person must use a drug before they become dependent to it.

Dependence can be psychological or physical, or both.

People who are psychologically dependent on a drug feel compelled in certain situations, to use a drug in order to function effectively, or to achieve emotional satisfaction.

Physical dependence is when a person’s body adapts to a drug and becomes use to functioning with the drug present.

If a physically and/or psychologically dependent person suddenly stops taking the drug, they may experience withdrawal symptoms as they readjust to functioning without the drug. Withdrawal symptoms are different for different types of drugs and for each person. There are numerous types of withdrawal symptoms that may be experienced. A person may experience symptoms such as depression, irritability, cramps, nausea, sweating and sleeping problems.

People who are physically dependent on a drug usually develop a tolerance to the drug. This means that they need to take more and more of the drug to get the same effect.

What can I do if I am concerned about their drug use?

Concerned family and friends are often the first to recognise problems resulting from someone’s drug use, however, often they don’t know what to do about it. There are a number of strategies that can assist in making the process easier.
Planning: Establish and be clear about what level/type of involvement you are prepared to commit yourself to. To assist in making these decisions it may be helpful to speak with a drug and alcohol professional, other members of the family and concerned friends.

Discuss what level of support each person is prepared to make and the roles that each person will undertake. Find out what resources are needed such as written information on the drug of concern and what support services are available.

Talking and gaining clarity on what people can and cannot expect from one another helps to develop a network of support. This also helps reduce feeling isolated and overwhelmed by the situation.
Avoid contributing to the situation: You may want to protect the person who is using drugs from the consequences of their behaviour. For example, making excuses for them, paying their bills, or apologising for them.

You may think or say:

She can’t be a addicted. She only uses prescription medications.”

When things get better at work, I’m sure he won’t use drugs.”

John won’t be in to work today. He’s not well.”

She’s had a tough life, she can’t help it.”

Being “too helpful”, “too caring” or “too forgiving”, can make it much easier for the person to continue using drugs. They won’t have to face up to the consequences of their drug use, because everything is being done for them. They still have their job because you rang up work making excuses when they were affected by drugs. They still have somewhere to live because you paid the rent. They still have friends because you apologised for them.

The best way to help is to stop protecting them. Support the person, not their drug use. Let the person face up to the consequences by refusing to support their drug use. This can be very difficult, especially if there are children in the family and you’re trying to keep family life as stable as possible. However, the person taking drugs is unlikely to change if they never have to face the consequences of their behaviour.
Talk with them: Keep the communication open. One of the most important steps in bringing about change is to acknowledge what is going on and to explain how you feel to the person taking drugs.

There is no easy way to start talking about drug problems. The person taking drugs may deny everything. They may give excuses and promise to change or get angry and try to blame you.

It took me weeks to work up the courage. I rehearsed everything I was going to say in my head, yet I still kept putting it off, waiting for a better time. Eventually I realised that there would never be a perfect moment. I just had to come out with it.”

Pete flew off the handle as soon as I brought it up. He denied everything and said I was just getting at him. I took deep breaths, remained calm and let his insults pass over me. I was determined to just tell him the way I felt and what was happening with me.”

Talking to the person taking drugs will not bring about instant change but it’s a start. The following suggestions may help:

  • Explain how YOU feel and how their drug taking is affecting YOU. Give concrete examples of their behaviour and how you feel about it.
  • Try to remain calm and logical and stick to the point you wish to get across to them. Refuse to be drawn into an argument.
  • Encourage them to seek professional help.

These suggestions may be easier said than done but it is important for the person taking drugs to realise how his or her behaviour is affecting you.

Effective communication

An important part of effectively addressing another person’s drinking and the impact it is having involves communication. Communication is a two-way process in which listening plays an important part. People want to be understood and to know that others are open to hearing what they have to say. Effective communication is not about giving lectures or judging the person.

Use ‘I’ statements instead of ‘you’ statements

Try instead of
“I’m really worried about…” “You should…” or “You must…”
“I feel… when you…” “Your problem is…”
“I am concerned that…” “You’d better… or else…”


Open questions
allow the person to explore their thoughts and feelings without it being an interrogation. For example, ask for their thoughts on their own drug use. Ask if they see any problems or potential risks and how they think these can be addressed.
Listen carefully and actively without being judgmental. Allow and encourage the person you’re concerned about to speak in full sentences and to finish what they have to say without interruption. After they have finished speaking, reflect back to them what you have understood that they have said. For example, “So what you are saying is…”. Allow them to clarify any misunderstandings.
Choose an appropriate time to talk. If a person is caught at a time when they are unprepared, they may be more inclined to react defensively. Also, try to remove any distractions, such as the telephone. Avoid attempting an important discussion while they are under the influence of alcohol.
Be clear and honest about feelings. It is important that a person hears your concerns. Let them know that it is not them as a person that you don’t approve of, but particular behaviour/s.
Privacy. Think about consequences before acting. For example, is it worth searching through someone’s room or belongings if it means potentially losing their trust?
Negotiate. When all parties participate in setting guidelines it is more likely that everyone will adhere to them. Work towards agreement on consequences if guidelines are broken. It is important that these consequences are also enforced.
Support and encourage positive behaviour. Avoid focusing only on negatives.

Looking after yourself

Sometimes you can be so concerned about the person’s drug using that you forget about yourself. Drugs can become the central focus of the lives of all those around someone who uses drugs. One of the most important steps you can take is to not allow the drug issue to affect all aspects of your life. Adopting such an approach can be of benefit to both you and the person using drugs.

If you have always looked after the person using drugs and protected them in the past, it will be difficult to change your thinking and behaviour. You may feel guilty. You may feel as though you’re giving up on them when they need you most. You may feel as though you’re making things worse. It is important to acknowledge to yourself the courage it takes to do things differently, and that often this will involve small steps and sometimes temporary set backs. Be kind to yourself.

In certain circumstances, such as if you are being physically threatened, ensuring your safety and that of any children involved, must take priority.

Make changes in your own life. Take some time to do things that you’ve always wanted to do, perhaps some activities that you’ve put off for a long time. Start doing things for yourself. Try joining a club or group and getting together with other people.

It may seem like strange advice to “go and do something else” when your family is facing a crisis. However, if you have outside interests and time away from the person using drugs, you will be better able to cope with the family problems caused by their drug use.

You can’t force someone to change their drug use no matter how much you love them, but you can make changes in your own life. Changing your behaviour is likely to have an impact on the person taking drugs. By getting on with your own life, and not protecting them, you are helping them to face up to the problems that result from their choice to take drugs. You are also helping them to take more responsibility for the way they feel and act.

Where can I turn to for support?

Talk with a friend: It may help to discuss the problem with a friend. Talking about how you feel may help clarify your thoughts and work out what you’re going to do. It may just help to get things off your chest.

It is easier to talk with someone you trust and are comfortable with. They may already be aware that something is wrong. They may have been in a similar situation themselves. People are usually very willing to help a friend, however, they often have to be asked.
Talk with a professional: Talking with someone outside your daily life, such as a professional counsellor, can be another useful option. A professional such as a counsellor, has talked with many people in similar situations, and can help you to explore ways to deal with the problem. You will find professionals experienced in dealing with drug problems at your local community health centre or at an alcohol and drug treatment agency.
Self-help groups and other support: Some people join self-help or support groups to share their thoughts and experiences with other people who are facing, or have faced, similar problems. There are several types of self-help groups for family and friends and each can have a different style. You might want to go to several meetings before you settle on one that’s right for you.

There is no need to deal with drug issues alone. For information, counselling, advice, services available and other assistance, contact your state/territory drug and alcohol service.

Treatment options

A number of different treatment options exist. These differ in their aims and methods. Some aim for the user to achieve a drug-free lifestyle, while others aim to stabilise drug use at a reduced, safer level. Some employ individual counselling techniques, others use group therapy, while still others use chemical agents to assist with withdrawal or maintenance.

A combination of treatments is often recommended to address the physical and psychological complexities of drug dependency, including withdrawal treatment and follow-up counselling.

There are different forms of counselling available. Some operate on an outpatient basis with the person attending regular counselling appointments. Others may be used in combination with other treatments as part of an inpatient residential treatment program.

Some individuals may find one style of counselling more effective than other styles. Therefore, it may be worthwhile investigating other counselling options if one style is not suitable.

A doctor or a drug counsellor can assist in identifying the most appropriate treatment and also the most suitable environment for withdrawal.

If it is agreed that home withdrawal is the most suitable option, there are certain preparations that can be made so that your home is a supportive environment. This includes making your home drug-free and ensuring that the person going through withdrawal will not be affected by non-supportive people.

Home withdrawal services are available in some areas. This includes regular home visits, providing medication and support. Prescribed medications may be used to reduce the severity of some withdrawal symptoms, however, it will not block the symptoms completely.

Before a person attempts to withdraw from drug at home, seek the advice of a doctor and/or a drug counsellor. It may be appropriate to discuss alternative methods such as withdrawal at a residential service.

It is important to remember that withdrawal may not be successful with the first attempt. With each attempt a person can learn more about themselves and their relationship with drugs. This experience can be used to help a person progress with future attempts.

Staying off drugs is difficult for many and this is where counselling can help the person to learn strategies that will help to avoid relapses.

For help and further information regarding treatment options, contact the drug and alcohol telephone information service in your state/territory

Supporting someone in treatment

Supporting a person as they undergo treatment can mean providing both emotional and practical support. Establishing and being clear about what your support includes (and does not include) will help everyone involved to understand what they can and cannot expect from one another.

This support may include:

  • supervising their medication during support;
  • encouraging the person to develop supportive networks and to place themselves in positive environments;
  • assisting them to learn stress-reducing activities, such as relaxation techniques, looking at things in a different way;
  • talking with them and understanding what they are going through and what type of support they find most effective;
  • encouraging them to attend counselling and to accept support;
  • helping them to maintain motivation by regularly reviewing their achievements and the reasons that they are in treatment.

For help and further information regarding supporting someone in treatment, contact the drug and alcohol telephone information service in your state/territory.

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