For some individuals using substances such as drugs and alcohol can become problematic, lead to dependence, and cause serious and sometimes fatal consequences.

Substance use and dependence is a complex process where problematic patterns of substance use, or behaviours interfere with a person’s life.

Substance use includes tobacco, vaping, cannabis, opioids, and alcohol. The following section will review in more detail.

4C’s to understanding substance use and addiction:

  • Craving
  • Loss of control of amount or frequency of use
  • Compulsion to use
  • Continued substance use despite consequences

To learn more about substance use and addiction visit The Canadian Mental Health Association’s website.  

Note: This page is not for emergencies. If you are with someone who has overdosed, call 911 immediately.

Drug use warning signs:

  • Sudden weight loss: People who are addicted to cocaine, ecstasy or methamphetamine may lose their appetite and subsequently lose weight quickly.
  • Interrupted sleep patterns: Common signs of substance abuse include insomnia (difficulty sleeping at night) or hypersomnia (sleeping for too long).
  • Change in complexion: Repeated drug use can lead to acne, paleness, and jaundice. There may also be scabs, scars, bruises, and track marks on the body.
  • Depression and anxiety: You may notice signs of depression and anxiety where they did not exist before, including your loved one losing interest in things they used to love, sleeping too little or too much or gaining or losing dramatic amounts of weight, to name a few.
  • Low self-esteem: Individuals with drug dependence may demonstrate a marked lack of confidence in their abilities or other aspects of their life.
  • Irritability and mood swings: Another symptom of substance use can manifest as sudden agitation and unpredictable temperaments.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association these may be signs of problematic drug use but could also be a sign of mental health issues or other challenges. It is important to not ignore these signs in your loved ones.

Do you or someone you know need help

Treatment is available for serious substance use problems. Addiction is a chronic and repetitive disease. It may take several attempts to help an individual.

Treatment can include counselling and medication. Your doctor can help you find the treatment that is right for you or your loved one.

To learn more about drug and alcohol treatment:


Opioids include drugs like heroin, morphine, fentanyl, methadone, and codeine.

There are thousands of opioid-related deaths across Canada every year. It is important for people who are prescribed opioid medications to regularly consult their physician about their opioid use and to store their medications in a secure location

To learn more about opioid use visit The Government of Canada’s website on opioids.

Do you or someone you know need help

Harm reduction

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association harm reduction is an approach to reduce the health and social harms associated with substance use. Harm reduction does not necessarily require individuals to abstain from substance use.

Harm reduction is a non-judgmental and non-coercive strategy to minimize risk and offer knowledge to allow individuals to live safer lives.

Visit the Ottawa Public Health website to learn more about the harm reduction services that are available in Ottawa.

How you can reduce the risk of an opioid overdose

If you use opioids, you can reduce your risk of overdose by:

  • Not using alone
  • Knowing your opioid tolerance (how much you normally take)
  • Avoiding alcohol or other drug use while using opioids
  • Having and knowing how to use a naloxone kit
  • Starting with small amounts of an opioid to check the strength

For more information on opioid overdose visit the Government of Canada’s website.


The health effects of alcohol are unclear. Just one drink of alcohol a day increases the risk of several other chronic diseases. There is no safe level of alcohol consumption when it comes to adverse health effects and cancer causation. Youth do not benefit from alcohol use at any level.

Alcohol related harms are preventable. For more information visit Ottawa Public Health’s Status of Alcohol in Ottawa Resource.

Do you or someone you know need help


The Government of Canada has legalized the recreational use of cannabis nationwide in 2018. This means that the possession and use of cannabis products is no longer a crime in Canada.

Cannabis use is relatively common in the Canadian population, especially among adolescents and young adults. About one in seven Canadians aged 15+ reported using cannabis in the past year.

It is still illegal to possess and consume cannabis under the age of 19 in most provinces and territories of Canada. It is also illegal for anyone in Canada to drive under the influence of cannabis.

For more information on cannabis use in Canada visit The Government of Canada’s lower-risk cannabis use guidelines.


Discarded needles

Discarded needles are a public safety hazard. If you find discarded needles, call Ottawa Public Health at 3-1-1 to report the problem.

Note: Children should never touch a discarded needle or any other drug paraphernalia.

For more information regarding discarding needles in your community visit Ottawa Public Health.

Ottawa Public Health offers confidential or anonymous HIV testing through the Sexual Health Clinic.

Vaping and Tobacco

Vaping is the inhaling or exhaling of vapour from an electronic cigarette, whether the vapour contains nicotine or not.


More information for parents regarding substance use