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Myths and Facts related to the Drug Issue


The field of addressing the drug problem has been 'plagued' by the misinformation of many kinds. People, policymakers and sometimes even services providers work on the understanding that drug use disorders are not a multi-factorial health issue, as agreed by the Member States in the Outcome Document of the 2016 United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem, but a moral failure or a crime to be punished.

Moreover, what is not understood is that drug use disorders are the result of a complex interplay of factors that are very much out of the control of the individual, including factors in genetics, mental health, and environment. Drug use disorders should not, therefore, be considered self-acquired and don’t deserved to be punished.

Myths and Facts

People dependent on drugs made a wrong choice


The Member States of the United Nations have recognized in 2019 that drug dependence is a multi-factorial health issue[1]. This means that there are multiple factors that increase the likelihood of someone to start to use drugs or to develop drug use disorders[2]. These factors are largely outside of the control of the individual: they are linked, for example, to genetics, mental health or the environment[3] (e.g. stress or trauma relating to living in a marginalized or violent community, difficulties in a family)[4]. Learn more in booklet 4 of the World Drug Report 2018.

2. Globally, the majority of people do not use drugs


According to the World Drug Report 2019, in spite of increases, the percentage of people that used drugs globally is 5.5%, or 271 million, 35 million of which with drug use disorders that require treatment. Although the prevalence among young people is mostly higher than that in the general population, even for cannabis (the drug with the highest rates of prevalence), only a few countries[5] report more than 30% of youth have used in the past year. People who use drugs and with drug use disorders can suffer from a range of serious health and social consequences.

3. Drugs affect men and women equally


Women absorb and metabolize many substances, including drugs, differently than men. Women with drug use disorders have higher rates of other health problems than the average, like for example, HIV/AIDS and co-occurring mental health disorders. Globally, access to health services is more limited for women with drug use disorders: although 1 in 3 people who use drugs is a woman, only 1 in 5 people in drug treatment is a woman[6]. Moreover, proportionally more women than men are in prison for drug-related offenses [7]. Finally, women suffer from double stigma and discrimination. Their specific needs should be considered in the provision of treatment, health care, and social support services, as they have shown to do as well as their counterparts when offered evidence-based and gender-sensitive services. Learn more in Chapter 5 of the UNODC/WHO International Standards for the Treatment of Drug Use Disorders - Chapter 5 (2020).

4. Using psychoactive medicines for fun can be safe.


As many other medicines, psychoactive medicines under control require a prescription from a qualified physician and dispensed by a qualified pharmacist. This is to ensure that the medicine is safe for the patient to use and that the patient knows and understands any side effects. As for using psychoactive medicines non-medically, e.g. without a prescription or in a different way than prescribed, it is not safe and may harm one’s health and should be avoided at all times. Learn more about the prevention and treatment of the non-medical use of prescription medicine in the publication page on drug prevention and treatment.

5. There is no legitimate use for drugs, they are all prohibited.


Some of the psychoactive substances that are controlled (not ‘prohibited’) under the International Drug Conventions have important uses in research and medical practice, particularly with regard to pain management, the treatment and care of people with drug use disorders, and the treatment of mental health disorders. The Conventions make it possible to ensure that people who need these substances have access to them, whilst preventing diversion and non-medical use. Learn more here.

6. Prevention of drug use and risky behaviors can start even before a child is born.


Most prevention strategies implemented around the world target adolescence, as in most countries, this is the age when young people start to use. Whilst this is valuable and important, it is also relevant to note that initiation is most likely the result of vulnerabilities, whether individual or environmental, that developed at a much earlier age [8]. The UNODC WHO International Standards on Drug Use Prevention lists a large number of strategies that are applicable during pregnancy before a child is born, and for young children and that have demonstrated to result in lower rates of drug use, and, crucially, also other risky behaviors, once the children become adolescents or young adults. 

7. Providing treatment for people with drug use disorders is more effective than conviction or punishment.


Drug use disorders are multifactorial health disorders. As such, they can only be addressed effectively through drug treatment, health care and social protection offered in the context of a health system, as any other health disorder. Evidence-based and voluntary treatment of drug use disorders is effective in decreasing drug use, crime and recidivism and has been shown to be more cost-effective than no treatment or prison. Moreover, the right to health is a fundamental human right and people who use drugs, including people with drug use disorders, do not lose their rights to care even when they are in contact with the criminal justice system, whether they’re in prison or not. In fact, treatment and care are recommended as an alternative to conviction or punishment in adequate cases of a minor nature. Learn more in the UNODC/WHO International Standards for the Treatment of Drug Use Disorders and in the Handbook on treatment as an alternative to conviction and punishment.

8. People with drug use disorders cannot be treated.


Drug dependence often follows the course of a chronic and relapsing health disorder that is characterized by changes in the way the brain functions persisting in the long term. Therefore, even for people in treatment, relapse is to be expected and should not be seen as a failure of treatment or of the individual. Rather, the management of possible relapse should be a key and normal component of services offered for the treatment of drug use disorders. In fact, people with drug use disorders that are able to access evidence-based and voluntary treatment, health care, and social protection, have been shown to be able to lead healthy and productive lives. Learn more in the UNODC/WHO (2020) International Standards for the Treatment of Drug use Disorders.

9. Most overdose deaths can be prevented.


Of the more than 500,000 drug-related deaths worldwide every year, most are related to the use of opioids. Evidence-based treatment including pharmacological options (such as methadone or buprenorphine) and psychosocial support is an effective opioid overdose prevention strategy. Moreover, naloxone, an opioid antidote and a cheap and safe medication with no psychoactive properties, has been shown to be effective in reducing opioid overdose mortality, even when provided by first responders including police officers, peers or family members, as long as they have been trained. Learn more in the UNODC-WHO SOS (Stop Overdose Safely) study.


[1] UNGASS 2019 Outcome Document

[2] WDR …

[3] Goldman, D., Oroszi, G., & Ducci, F. (2005). The genetics of addictions: Uncovering the genes. Nature Reviews Genetics, 6(7), 521-532.

[4] Ibid.

[5] 5 to be exact, according to the statistical annex to WDR 2019

[6] This was from a WDR

[7] WDR 2019

[8] Barlow et al., 2015, Paraprofessional-Delivered Home-Visiting Intervention for American Indian Teen Mothers and Children: 3-Year Outcomes From a Randomized Controlled Trial, Am J Psychiatry, 1-9.