Substance Use or Substance Use Disorder: A Question of Judgment

Nicolas Badre, MD, and Jason Compton, MD

October 20, 2021

Substance use disorders can be a thorny topic in residency because of our role as gatekeepers of mental hospitals during our training. Intoxicated patients often get dismissed as a burden and distraction, malingering their way into a comfortable place to regain sobriety. This is extremely prevalent, often constituting the majority of patients seen during an emergency department call.

A typical interview may elicit any or all symptoms in the DSM yet be best explained by substance use intoxication or withdrawal. Alcohol and other CNS depressants commonly cause feelings of sadness and/or suicidality. Methamphetamine and other CNS stimulants commonly cause symptoms of psychosis or mania, followed by feelings of sadness and/or suicidality.

Different EDs have different degrees of patience for individuals in the process of becoming sober. Some departments will pressure clinicians into quickly discarding those patients and often frown upon any attempt at providing solace by raising the concern of reinforcing maladaptive behavior. A mystery-meat sandwich of admirable blandness may be the extent of help offered. Some more fortunate patients also receive a juice box or even a taxi voucher in an especially generous ED. This is always against our better judgment, of course, as we are told those gestures encourage abuse.

Other EDs will permit patients to remain until sober, allowing for another evaluation without the influence of controlled substances. We are reminded of many conversations with patients with substance use disorders, where topics discussed included: 1. Recommendation to seek substance use services, which are often nonexistent or with wait lists spanning months; 2. Education on the role of mental health hospitals and how patients' despair in the context of intoxication does not meet some scriptural criteria; 3. Pep talks aided by such previously described sandwiches and juice boxes to encourage a sobering patient to leave the facility of their own will.

Methamphetamine, heroin, and alcohol are rarely one-and-done endeavors. We sparingly see our patients for their very first ED visit while intoxicated or crashing. They know how the system runs and which ED will more readily allow them an overnight stay. The number of times they have been recommended for substance use treatment is beyond counting – they may have been on a wait list a handful of times. They are aware of our reluctance to provide inpatient psychiatric treatment for substance use, but it is worth a shot trying, anyway – sometimes they get lucky. Usually it is the pep talk, relief from hunger pangs, and daylight that get them out the doors – until next time.

It is under this context that many trainees become psychiatrists, a process that solidifies the separation between drug use and mental illness. Many graduate from residency practically equating substance use disorder with malingering or futility. This can take on a surreal quality as many localities have recently adopted particular forms or requirements like the dispensation of naloxone syringes to all patients with substance use disorders. While the desire and effort are noble, it may suggest to a patient presenting for help that society's main interest is to avoid seeing them die rather than help with available resources for maintaining sobriety.

Therein lies the conundrum, a conundrum that spans psychiatry to society. The conundrum is our ambivalence between punishing the choice of drug use or healing the substance use disorder. Should we discharge the intoxicated patient as soon as they are safe to walk out, or should we make every effort possible to find long-term solutions? Where someone decides to draw the line often seems quite arbitrary.

The Calculation Becomes More Complex

A defining moment appears to have been society's reconsideration of its stance on substance use disorders when affluent White teenagers started dying in the suburbs from pain pills overdoses. Suddenly, those children needed and deserved treatment, not punishment. We find ourselves far away from a time when the loudest societal commentary on substance use entailed mothers advocating for harsher sentences against drunk drivers.

More recently, as psychiatry and large contingents of society have decided to take up the mantle of equity and social justice, we have begun to make progress in decriminalizing substance use in an effort to reverse systemic discrimination toward minority groups. This has taken many shapes, including drug legalization, criminal justice reform, and even the provision of clean substance use paraphernalia for safer use of IV drugs. Police reform has led to reluctance to arrest or press charges for nonviolent crimes and reduced police presence in minority neighborhoods. The "rich White teenager" approach is now recommended in all neighborhoods.

Society's attempt at decriminalizing drug use has run parallel with psychiatry's recent attempts at reduced pathologizing of behaviors more prevalent in underprivileged groups and cultures. This runs the gamut, from avoiding the use of the term "agitated" because of its racial connotations, to advocating for reduced rates of schizophrenia diagnoses in Black males.1 A diagnosis of substance use disorder carries with it similar troublesome societal implications. Decriminalization, legalization, provision of substances to the population, normalization, and other societal reforms will likely have an impact on the prevalence of substance use disorder diagnoses, which involve many criteria dependent on societal context.

It would be expected that criteria such as hazardous use, social problems, and attempts to quit will decrease as social acceptance increases. How might this affect access to substance use treatment, an already extremely limited resource?

Now, as forensic psychiatrists, we find ourselves adjudicating on the role of drugs at a time when society is wrestling with its attitude on the breadth of responsibility possessed by people who use drugs. In California, as in many other states, insanity laws exclude those who were insane as a result of drug use, as a testament to or possibly a remnant of how society feels about the role of choice and responsibility in the use of drugs. Yet another defendant who admits to drug use may on the contrary receive a much more lenient plea deal if willing to commit to sobriety. But in a never-ending maze of differing judgments and opinions, a less understanding district attorney may argue that the additional risk posed by the use of drugs and resulting impulsivity may actually warrant a heavier sentence.

In a recent attempt at atonement for our past punitive stance on drug users, we have found a desire to protect those who use drugs by punishing those who sell, at times forgetting that these populations are deeply intertwined. A recent law permits the federal charge of distribution of fentanyl resulting in death, which carries the mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison. Yet, if the user whom we are trying to protect by this law is also the one selling, what are we left with?

Fentanyl has been a particularly tragic development in the history of mankind and drug use. Substance use has rarely been so easily linked to accidental death. While many physicians can easily explain the safety of fentanyl when used as prescribed and in controlled settings, this is certainly not the case in the community. Measuring micrograms of fentanyl is outside the knowledge and capabilities of most drug dealers, who are not equipped with pharmacy-grade scales. Yet, as a result, they sell and customers buy quantities of fentanyl that range from homeopathically low to lethally high because of a mixture of negligence and deliberate indifference.

Another effort at atonement has been attempts at decriminalizing drug use and releasing many nonviolent offenders. This can, however, encourage bystanders to report more acts as crime rather than public intoxication, to ensure a police response when confronted by intoxicated people. Whereas previously an inebriated person who is homeless may have been called for and asked to seek shelter, they now get called on, and subsequently charged for, allegedly mumbling a threat by a frustrated bystander.

The release of offenders has its limits. Many placements on probation require sobriety and result in longer sentences for the use of substances that are otherwise decriminalized. The decriminalization and reexamination of substance use by society should widen the scope from simply considering crime to examining the use of drugs throughout the legal system and even beyond.

The DSM and psychiatry are not intended or equipped to adjudicate disputes on where the lines should be drawn between determinism and free will. We are knowledgeable of patients with substance use disorders, the effect of intoxicating substances, and the capacity of patients with substance use disorders to act in law-abiding ways. Our field can inform without simply advocating whether our patients should be punished. While society is currently struggling with how to apportion blame, psychiatry should resist the urge to impose medical solutions to social problems. Our solutions would almost certainly be grossly limited as we are still struggling to repent for lobotomizing "uppity" young women2 and using electroshock therapy to disrupt perverse impulses in homosexual males.3 Social norms and political zeitgeists change over time while the psychological and physiological principles underlying our understanding of mental illness should, in theory, stay relatively constant. Psychiatry's answers for societal ills do not usually improve with time but rather have a tendency to be humbling.

Badre is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist in San Diego. He holds teaching positions at the University of California, San Diego, and the University of San Diego. He teaches medical education, psychopharmacology, ethics in psychiatry, and correctional care. Badre can be reached at his website,

Compton is a psychiatry resident at University of California, San Diego. His background includes medical education, mental health advocacy, work with underserved populations, and brain cancer research.


1. Medlock MM et al., eds. "Racism and Psychiatry: Contemporary Issues and Interventions" (New York: Springer, 2018).

2. Tone A and Koziol M. CMAJ. 2018:190(20):e624-5.

3. McGuire RJ and Vallance M. BMJ. 1964;1(5376):151-3.

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