"abuse" is often defined as improper usage.

When speaking about an illegal drug, it seems impossible to properly use it (I mean here recreational consumption, not specially licensed medical or research use). So then, is any consumption automatically abuse?

EDIT: I see that somehow, several users appear to have misinterpreted my question. I would like to clarify:

Even substances which are illegal may be used legally by people such as medical doctors and scientists, by special permit. Obviously this is not abuse. It falls within the special exemptions provided by the law. I am asking about using the word "abuse" to describe use of these drugs outside such special permits, when the law considers the use clearly illegal.

  • abuse: 1 Use (something) to bad effect or for a bad purpose; misuse; 1.1 Make excessive and habitual use of (alcohol or drugs, especially illegal ones) oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/abuse?q=abuse
    – Kris
    Commented Mar 4, 2014 at 6:16
  • Use for medical purposes under medical supervision is not considered abuse, possibly the sole exception.
    – Kris
    Commented Mar 4, 2014 at 6:17
  • 1
    "Abuse" and "illegal use" are different concepts. If someone has a legal prescription of pain drugs but uses them off-prescription, that's abuse. If someone uses cocaine recreationally but never becomes an addict, I'd say they are using illegal drugs but not abusing them. I guess the question is, how would you define "abuse", right? The other factor is, what is the motivation of the user of the word "abuse"? IMO, the word "abuse" is abused to serve an agenda. Commented Mar 4, 2014 at 19:05

3 Answers 3


Abuse in the pharmaceutical sense means use improperly. Source DEA Drugs of Abuse

The use of illegal drugs is abuse by this definition.  The reason being that there is no intended proper use for those drugs.

Take the case of heroin. Heroin (diacetylmorphine) has no therapeutic use that is recognized by the DEA. Its only recognized use (by US law) is to get high. Hence, its use is always considered to be abuse. (Note it is rarely used for extreme pain management in the UK and some other countries, but its use is highly regulated.)

Marijuana and cocaine, by contrast have recognized therapeutic uses. Marijuana can be used for intractable nausea, glaucoma, extreme cases of anorexia, and other recognized uses. Cocaine is a both a local anesthetic and vasoconstriction agent which is used in ENT and ophthalmologic surgeries. When used in the properly prescribed conditions, the use of these agents is not abuse. But, when used for non-prescription uses (recreational, etc.) it constitutes abuse.

People frequently mistake abuse for addiction. That is a separate concept. Addiction is the excessive habitual use, and implies a psychosocial dependency on the drug that outstrips its usefulness therapeutically. Contrast this with dependance, which represents a physical need for a drug without the underlying psychosocial components or excesses.

Source: I am a physician who practices Anesthesiology. I hold a DEA license to prescribe controlled substances. And, I have training in the administration of controlled substances, and diversion prevention.

  • Hang on, mate. Heroin is an opiate which is very similar to oxycodone... that is used very normally as a painkiller. Heroin could easily substitute for this.
    – d'alar'cop
    Commented Mar 2, 2014 at 7:12
  • @d'alar'cop Note that I said by the DEA or most medical authorities. Yes, it was originally used for pain management purposes, but it was banned by the DEA (Schedule 1). It is rarely used in the UK and some other countries, but typically only in extreme cases. It is similar to oxycodone in structure, but FAR more addictive.
    – David M
    Commented Mar 2, 2014 at 7:18
  • @d'alar'cop Clarified the point in my post.
    – David M
    Commented Mar 2, 2014 at 7:20
  • 2
    @Ryebread He did. He said illegal drugs. Who do you assume decided it was an illegal drug? (It wasn't my Aunt, that's for sure!) As I keep repeating, you keep assuming that abuse has only one definition. It's just not true. The DEA (and some state legislatures) define a drug as legal or illegal. Once you use a drug in a manner that isn't intended medically you are abusing it. Let me give you a counter point. If I hit a child one time with my fist, did I abuse them? Or is it not abuse until there is a pattern?
    – David M
    Commented Mar 2, 2014 at 12:33
  • 1
    @ryebread This is an example of a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Running has similar effects on the brains of runners. Is running now a drug? The article is speaking about the changes in brain chemistry, not the definition as a drug.
    – David M
    Commented Mar 3, 2014 at 16:16

You are correct, not all illegal drugs are "abused", and "abuse" does not necessarily mean the drug is illegal. It's easier explaining the difference with "legal" drugs, such as doctor-prescribed pain-killers:

Bob started using pain killers after his injury.
Bob started abusing pain killers after his injury.

The former sentence means Bob is using the drugs properly; the latter means he is using them improperly, even if those drugs technically are legal.

As a side note, one could probably argue that not all illegal drugs are harmful and therefore not "abusive" (but that's not a discussion fit for this StackExchange), but the types of drugs that are illegal are usually such due to being harmful and have a tendency to become abused.

Similarly, people typically use the word "abuse" with illegal drugs because the word carries a negative connotation. As tobyink put it so well in the comments: "If you choose to always use the word 'abuse' rather than 'use' when talking about illegal drugs, this probably implies that you are of the opinion that all illegal drug use is improper, and therefore abusive."

  • 1
    But how can a drug be used properly if it is illegal to use at all? Doesn't illegal use imply improper use?
    – Superbest
    Commented Feb 27, 2014 at 6:38
  • 2
    Supporting @IQAndreas, one definition of abuse is make excessive and habitual use of (alcohol or drugs, esp. illegal ones).
    – Barmar
    Commented Feb 27, 2014 at 8:30
  • 3
    This is a situation where your choice of word says less about your care of proper English, than it does about your opinions of drug control laws. If you choose to always use the word "abuse" rather than "use" when talking about illegal drugs, this probably implies that you are of the opinion that all illegal drug use is improper, and therefore abusive.
    – tobyink
    Commented Feb 27, 2014 at 10:41
  • 1
    @Barmar The definition is contained with the question itself. Illegal drugs cannot be used properly by definition. There is no proper use for an illegal drug. If there is a proper use, it is no longer illegal.
    – David M
    Commented Mar 2, 2014 at 7:23
  • 1
    Alcohol is still illegal in some Muslim-majority countries. Therefore, use of alcohol is improper and thus abuse. Valid reasoning? Commented Mar 18, 2016 at 5:17

If you smoked a joint a few times a year at parties, I would say you enjoyed your pot usage. I doubt anyone would describe that as drug abuse. Even when using "harsher" drugs it would be about context. Abuse seems to insinuate some form of mid to long term usage.

  • 1
    That was abuse of the drug. Not serious, hardcore, or even addictive behavior, but still abuse.
    – David M
    Commented Mar 2, 2014 at 6:59
  • 1
    Not to pull rank. I'm a Doctor, possess a DEA license, and know the actual definition on this one. Sorry. It's abuse. It's not addiction, but it's still abuse.
    – David M
    Commented Mar 2, 2014 at 7:03
  • 1
    @BenMiller - So you would be fine with the following sentence then - "I thought my friend was abusing marijuana, but it turns out she was in Colorado last night." Commented Mar 3, 2014 at 6:22
  • 1
    @RyeBread No, my point is that someone from the state government of Colorado would not call it abuse, because they would see it as proper use, and someone from the federal government would call it abuse, because to them it is improper use. Either way, legality is tied to the definition. Abuse means "improper use," and whoever is using the word decides what that means.
    – Ben Miller
    Commented Mar 3, 2014 at 6:32
  • 1
    @RyeBread There is value in what you are saying. But, that value stands in the colloquial usage. Unfortunately, this line of thinking is what leads to people developing serious drug habits. I was trying to resist this line of argument because it's weak sauce. But, I feel you need to understand why this is dangerous. Just one pill becomes just a few more, it's not abuse, right? So when is it an use? Once addiction sets in? The first time you drive high? If you wish to make a statement, give a parameter other than "I know it when I see it …".
    – David M
    Commented Mar 3, 2014 at 14:43

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.