Definition / Description


Substance Use Disorder is defined as the use of alcohol, drugs, medications, or other substances to the point where it has become compulsive or dangerous or both. It is an illness, diagnosed according to DSM-IV criteria and thus different from other forms of use which may appear to others to reflect a disorder but, based on the criteria, do not, such as binge drinking or daily marijuana use by some. Only a portion of the people who drink alcohol, use drugs, and take pharmaceutical prescriptions demonstrates substance use disorder.


The two chief substance use disorders are 1) substance abuse, the less serious, and 2) substance dependence.


If ingesting a substance or otherwise using it has led to any one of the following symptoms in the same 12-month period, the person in question has met the criteria for diagnosis of substance abuse:

  1. greatly affecting one’s ability to meet responsibilities on the job or with family
  2. repeatedly using under potentially dangerous circumstances (while driving an automobile, for example)
  3. repeated legal problems due to substance use
  4. continuing to use regardless of interpersonal or other difficulties caused or aggravated by substance use 

A diagnosis of substance dependence can be made only if the individual has demonstrated at least three of the following symptoms during the same one-year period:

  1. significantly increased tolerance for the substance
  2. psychological or physical withdrawal symptoms at stoppage of the substance
  3. using greater amount or longer than intended
  4. inability to quit even if desire to quit is present
  5. large amount of time spent obtaining the substance (or using or recovering from effects of use)
  6. giving up important functions in order to, or because of, use
  7. continued substance use in spite of knowing psychological and physiological problems are caused by use

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