News & Media

November 13, 2017

Dangers of Substance Use and Risk Factors

By: Julia Bearden

This blog highlights a range of substance use disorders and the dangers and risk factors associated with them. The age when use begins, areas where an individual lives and spends time, socioeconomic status (age, gender, education level, etc.), frequency of use, and a person’s family history of substance use disorders are all risk factors for developing a substance use disorder. The dangers of use range from personality changes, developmental delays, organ damage to sudden death. The important thing to remember is to limit the number of substances we consent to, whether it is prescriptions or over the counter medications, and develop a monitoring system if you have significant risk factors for a substance use disorder. Not all substances are bad or illegal, but they all have the potential for misuse.

What Constitutes a Substance Use Disorder
Everyone will require the use of a substance at some point in his or her life, usually a prescription for a medical or mental health condition. The use of substances is crucial for maintaining a healthy population; however, substance use becomes a disorder when the intended purpose shifts from aiding the ailment of the individual to it impairing the individual’s abilities.  Substances are not limited to those which are provided by a health care provider. They include substances which are readily available and legal, such as alcohol and tobacco. They also include illegal substances like methamphetamines, cocaine, and marijuana. The use of any substance has risk factors and health dangers associated with its use. The dangers of use are the same as a health risk which is defined as the probability that a specific action or exposure will give rise to a negative health outcome (World Health Organization, 2017). Risk factors are defined by The World Health Organization as any attribute, characteristic, or exposure of an individual that increases the likelihood of developing a disease or injury.  The goal of this blog is to highlight the risk factors of substance use and the dangers associated with it.

Alcohol and Tobacco Use
Alcohol and Tobacco Use Disorders are two of the most common Substance Use Disorders (SUD) in the United States (, 2015). The perception of these two substances is: they are legal; therefore, they must be safe. This socially acceptable point of view is a risk factor for substance use. In addition to this, risk factors include socioeconomic status and the age when use begins (, 2015). Even in moderation these substances carry heavy health risks if used frequently. Dangers of alcohol use include developing tolerance which results in drinking more alcohol to feel the same effect, an increase in risky behavior, internal organ damage, cancer, stroke, decreased life-years, and other health complications (, 2015).

Marijuana and Synthetic Marijuana Use
In many states, the availability of marijuana is increasing for medical purposes. However, this is not the same as recreational use. Recreational use does not weigh the risks versus benefits to an individual when it is not medically needed. The dangers of use associated with recreational marijuana include reduced cognitive abilities and a higher chance of developing a mental illness (National Institute on Drug Abuse, [NIDA], 2017). Synthetic marijuana is structurally and chemically different than marijuana. NIDA states that synthetic marijuana is primarily composed of heavy metal residues which can be toxic to the human body. The long-term effects on reproduction, development, memory, and addiction potential are not known. This does not imply that there are no long-term effects. Synthetic marijuana is relatively new and has not been completely analyzed due to the limited amount of time it has been in existence. It has been associated with psychosis, brain damage, cardiac arrest, irregular heart rate, kidney damage, coma, and death (Dual Diagnosis, 2017). More studies are needed to determine the long-term dangers of use.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services website, risk factors for marijuana use include performing poorly in academics, exhibiting antisocial personality traits, exhibiting emotional instability, voicing positive beliefs or perceptions of marijuana, having a lack in parental monitoring and communication, and having peers who approve of marijuana use (Risk and Protective Factors Associated with Youth Marijuana Use, 2014).

Stimulants and Other Synthetic Drug Use
Stimulants and other synthetic drugs can be prescription or plant derived. The danger of using these types of substances are their significant side effects, their impact on individuals’ abilities to control use, increased tolerance, inhibited chemical and structural development within the brain, and increases in the chance of addiction in individuals with genetic predisposition (NIDA, 2017 July). Synthetic drugs contain similar chemicals to amphetamines but carry a higher chance of stroke and heart attack (NIDA, 2017 July). Some examples of stimulants are Ritalin, Adderall, obesity medications, methamphetamines, cocaine, bath salts, Kratom and Pump-It powders. The dangers associated with these substances are substantial. A significant danger associated with synthetic drugs is being unaware of the chemicals they have in them and how they may affect you. These types of drugs are highly addictive and that is a risk factor for developing a substance use disorder. Other risk factors include a family history of addiction, community attitude toward drug use, and the age when use begins (NIDA, 2014).


Dual Diagnosis. (2017). Synthetic Drug Abuse | Dual Diagnosis. [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 Aug. 2017].

NIDA. (2014, July 1). Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction. Retrieved from on 2017, October 23

NIDA. (2017, July). Commonly Abused Drugs Chart. Retrieved from

NIDA. (2017, August 1). Marijuana. Retrieved from on 2017, October 23

Risk and Protective Factors Associated with Youth Marijuana Use. (2014). [ebook] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Center, pp.5-23. Available at: [Accessed 21 Aug. 2017]. (2015). Substance Use Disorders | SAMHSA – Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 Aug. 2017].

World Health Organization. (2017). Differences between risk, risk factors, risk-behaviours, risk-conditions and at-risk. [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 Aug. 2017].

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