Introduction to Commonly Used Substances

People around the world consume a staggering range of legal and illegal psychoactive substances on a daily basis. In fact, the range of substances people use is so wide, it isn't practical, or even really possible, for us to familiarize ourselves with each substance. However, there are some substances that are more commonly used and personally and socially problematic. It is important that clinical, school, and other counselors familiarize themselves with commonly used substances, as many client's struggle with substance use or are impacted by family members' use.

Substance use is a broad, highly complex issue. Throughout this course, you will be asked to reflect on your personal reactions, values, and biases, as counselors who are aware of their values are better able to work with clients who identify with a diverse range of cultures.

NIDA Drugs of Abuse

The National Institute on Drug Abuse website contains a number of useful resources, including a detailed Drugs of Abuse list.

As you read through the list of substances consider what it would be like to work with a client with a long-term history of using a given substance. As you browse the website, pay attention to which substances you might be particularly likely to encounter in your future career and to your personal reactions to each of the substances.

NIDA Exploration Questions:

  • What reactions did you have to the list of substances? Have you used any of the substances, known anyone who struggled with using these substances, or worked with people who were struggling because of any of these substances?
  • How do you think your biases and reactions to the substances you read about might impact your future work with clients?
  • Do you believe that the information on this website is factually accurate and valid to your future work with clients? If you believe so, what markers cued you to it being accurate and valid? If you believe there are factual inaccuracies or that it is not otherwise valid, what experiences of information support your belief?


The Erowid Center website and organization are dedicated to providing resources to people who identify with drug and substance culture. Visit their website and read descriptions of the substances that you saw on the NIDA Drugs of Abuse list. After comparing the sites, dig a bit deeper on Erowid. Try to find the histories of substances you are interested in, and make sure to check out the Experience Vault. Explore a few new substances, before responding to the reflection questions below.

Erowid Exploration Questions:

  • How were the descriptions of the risks and effects of the substances similar across NIDA and Erowid?
  • How were they different across the sites?
  • Which of these sites would you be more likely to use in the future if you needed information on a substance that a client reported using?
  • What are your reactions to the Experience Vault?
  • Do you believe that a client must cease using substances in order to progress in counseling?

What Constitutes a Drug?

People have access to a wide range of plant based and synthetic substances, some of which have been scheduled as drugs by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) The DEA defines a Schedule I Drug as "...substances or chemicals... with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential abuse". Read through the following research articles regarding sweeteners, before responding to the following reflection questions.

Sweeteners are not the only things in our lives that can trick our brains the same way as substances do. Check out this news article with preliminary data (from Wayne State) regarding electronic devices stimulating pleasure neurotransmitters.

What Constitutes a Drug Exploration Questions

  1. Based on what you read do you feel that sweeteners meet the US DEA definition for a Schedule I drug? Why or why not?
  2. What makes something a drug?