Substance use and substance addiction – what’s the difference?

Author: Karli Rapinda, M.A.

Whether it be your spouse, your child, your neighbour, or your co-worker, everyone knows somebody who uses substances. And by substances, I don’t just mean “the hard stuff” like methamphetamine or heroin. I’m talking about things like alcohol, nicotine, marijuana, and cocaine too. So, if we all know someone who uses substances, why can’t we all say we know someone with a substance addiction?

Two main reasons come to mind. First, just because someone uses a substance, it doesn’t mean they have a substance addiction. Someone can use a substance recreationally without it being an actual addiction. Yes, that goes for the “hard stuff” too. So, what is a substance addiction then? The American Psychiatric Association (2020) defines addiction as “a complex condition, a brain disease that is manifested by compulsive substance use despite harmful consequence”. The key component in addiction is the continuing use of a substance despite the slew of problems that come with it. There are individuals who can use a substance without the compulsive need to continue use and may not experience the negative consequences from it, like financial burden, harm to relationships, or physical distress. The take-away message here is that not all substance use is equal to addiction.

The second reason we may not be able to say we know someone with addiction is stigma. The stigma of addiction seems to loom over the word, like a big, black cloud of negativity. Words like “addict” or “junkie” contribute to this negative connotation of addiction. Misconceptions and lack of education about addiction often result in painting someone with an addiction as dangerous, desperate, or consumed by substances. However, that is not the case. People with addictions are foremost, people. They are not their addiction; their addiction is a small part of them. Someone may be hesitant to talk to others about their problems or seek professional help because of the negative feelings and ideas that get tied to addiction. Research supports that substance use stigma can be a barrier to accessing treatment, especially in small or rural towns (Browne et al., 2016). Just because addiction isn’t being talked about, doesn’t mean that it isn’t there.

A wise person I know once said, “talking about problems without a solution is just complaining”. So, what can we do about the current state of substance use and addiction in Kenora? The list of things we can do is long – but perhaps the better question is, where do we start?

Psychoeducation about the nature of substance use and addiction as well as offering treatment resources to individuals are key. White Wolf Recovery aims to do both of those things. There are also things you can do, at an individual level. Help break the stigma by avoiding negative words about addiction or stand up to those who perpetuate stigma. Lend a non-judgemental ear to those around you, and aim to make others feel heard, understood, and loved. But best of all, take care of yourself. Confide in those you trust and seek help when you need to.


American Psychiatric Association (2020). What Is Addiction? Retrieved from

Browne, T., Priester, M. A., Clone, S., Iachini, A., DeHart, D., & Hock, R. (2016). Barriers and facilitators to substance use treatment in the rural south: A qualitative study. The Journal of Rural Health, 32(1), 92-101.