Illicit Drugs

Sex and Gender-based Analysis of this topic


Men are more likely to use illicit drugs, however, emerging trends in illicit drug use by girls and women and gender-specific risks and consequences of illicit drug use are important to examine. Cannabis is the most widely used illicit drug. Approximately 40% of Canadian women have tried cannabis in their lifetime and cannabis use has substantially increased among girls and women in the past 15 years[1]. The McCreary Centre Society has found that adolescents who used illegal drugs were more likely to be both frequent drinkers and frequent binge drinkers, as well as be more likely to smoke tobacco and use marijuana frequently[2]. Methamphetamine use is a growing concern for many communities and use among high-risk populations is of particular concern[3]. While it is difficult to know the exact rates of methamphetamine use, and it is assumed use among males is higher, similar numbers of males and females are accessing treatment for methamphetamine use in BC[4].

Sex Issues

Sex differences exist in the health consequences of illicit drug use, related to differences in the way women metabolize drugs, in the effects of stress on the response to drugs, and in women’s vulnerability to drug initiation, dependence, and relapse[5]. For example, women metabolize cocaine more slowly than men and experience fewer negative effects, such as paranoia or heart racing/pounding[6]. On the other hand, female ecstacy users report more intense perceptual changes and impaired decision-making when given the same amount as men and report more long-term effects such as depression, mood swings, paranoia, and anxiety[7].

Gender Issues

Significant gender differences have been found in the pathways to illicit drug use and dependence. Health care professionals and prevention programming planners are often unaware of women’s specific vulnerabilities to substance use and misuse. Illicit drug use is associated with a history of physical and/or sexual abuse and depression, to which women are more vulnerable[8]. As well, women experience higher rates on a range of co-occurring mental health problems associated with their drug use, such as depression, PTSD, disordered eating, and anxiety disorders[9-10].


Injecting drug use is the most common mode of HIV infection among Aboriginal men and women (53% versus 14% in the non-Aboriginal population)[11]. Aboriginal women are at an increased risk for HIV infection associated with injection drug use and linked vulnerability to violence, poverty, involvement in sex work, and related determinants of health[12]. In a study of club drug use in Vancouver, young lesbians in high schools commonly used metamphetamines[13].


Due to the legal issues associated with illicit drug use, and the significant stigma directed to women and in particular to mothers who use illicit drugs, it is likely that data available on patterns of use is an underestimation of actual use. Individual assessment, as well as surveying related to women’s illicit drug use, needs to attend to sex and gender specific risks and consequences and ensure that women feel comfortable and safe discuss their patterns of use.

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health determinants > substance use > illicit drugs