What Does it Mean to be a Poly-Drug Addict and How Do We Help Such Individuals?

Alcohol with pills

One of the problems that we are seeing now more so than perhaps ever before is the problem of poly-substance abuse. This is also called poly-addiction, or poly-drug addiction. What it means is simply to have multiple addictions at once. Several common examples of poly-drug addiction are:

  • A person who is addicted to both alcohol and crack cocaine.
  • An individual who is addicted to heroin and prescription opioid painkillers.
  • A person who is addicted to both pharmaceutical antidepressants and pharmaceutical anti-anxieties.
  • A person who is addicted to both ADHD medicine and illegal amphetamine street drugs.
  • A person who misuses both MDMA/ecstasy drugs and hallucinogenic drugs like LSD or mushrooms.
  • A person who goes back-and-forth between using crack cocaine and powdered cocaine.
  • A person who is addicted to both cocaine and crystal methamphetamine at once.
  • A person who uses alcohol and marijuana together.

In all of the above examples, the types of drugs that the hypothetical person is using are similar enough that the person will often jump back-and-forth between one or the other, depending on what is available, what is affordable, what is easy to get, or whichever one the person is most interested in at the time.

But as one can probably imagine, poly-drug abuse is a very dangerous and unpleasant phenomenon to have occur. It is so serious because this means that the person now has to get off of more than one drug to get clean. As we all know, it is hard enough to get someone off of one drug, to begin with, so getting a person off of more than one drug is a pretty daunting prospect indeed.

Also, there is the factor of one’s willingness to get clean. People who abuse multiple drugs are statistically speaking far less likely to be willing to get off of drugs as someone who is only addicted to one drug. Case in point, one of the primary incentives for a person when they do finally decide to get off of drugs is when they have a bad experience with their one drug of choice, or when they run out of their one drug of choice or can no longer afford that one drug of choice.

However, when one has multiple drugs of choice, if they have a bad experience with one, they often just go for a different one, or when they can’t afford or can’t get ahold of one, they often just get a different one. This phenomena of jumping back-and-forth from one drug to the next makes it very difficult to convince that person to get off of all of the drugs. And as we know, one must get off of all of them to actually achieve a new level of sobriety.

How to Help People Who are Addicted to Multiple Drugs at Once

Multiple drugs on the floor
“All for one and one for all”

“All for one and one for all” was the battle cry of the three musketeers, and a similar approach has to be used for people who use multiple drugs at once. It is not enough simply to try to get them off of one drug. They’ll just become even more addicted to the other drug, or they will relapse back onto the one drug when they can’t get the other one.

This is like taking someone who is using both marijuana and alcohol and trying to just get them to stop drinking. You might be able to get them to stop drinking, but they will continue to smoke marijuana, and they’ll probably start smoking it more. Then, when they go through a particularly bad day or when they run out of marijuana suddenly and can’t seem to get a hold of more of it, they will likely go right back to drinking again.

So the important thing to remember with poly-drug users is that we have to help them get off of everything all at once.

But how do we do this?

The answer, like with anyone who is addicted to anything, lies in getting that person to agree to beat his/her addictions and enroll into a drug and alcohol addiction treatment program or center. More often than not, a poly-drug user will require intervention, which is simply the process of sitting the person down with his or her family members and loved ones and hashing it out with him or her. By this is meant communicating with the individual, letting each person in the group say their piece, talking about what the person is doing that’s hurting them, talking about what the person is doing that’s hurting everyone else, and having everyone present make their strong request for the person to get help. Such an intervention may need to be repeated more than once to actually get the person to agree to get treatment. The purpose of the intervention is not to degrade or invalidate the addict, but to get him/her to see the effects they are creating on their loved ones with the end goal of them be willing to enter treatment.

But once the person does agree to get help, his or her family members should be more than a little bit cautious in what kind of treatment center or program the person goes to. The truth of the matter is that some rehab centers are more effective and efficient than others are. With a poly-drug user, the more treatment they are able to get, the better. A twenty-eight-day program is absolutely not enough time for somebody who is addicted to multiple substances. A poly-drug user needs to go to rehab for several months or more.

Such a person is going to need a lot of time in detoxification and withdrawal to come down off of the multiple substances they have in their body. They are also going to need a lot of time in the actual rehabilitation program itself, receiving the tools and education and counseling and life skills and the necessary therapies that they need to be able to tackle multiple different addictive substances.

The keynote of helping someone who is using more than one drug at once is that one should use all of the same techniques that they would use to help someone who is only addicted to one thing, but they should expect to have to try harder, to have to be more persistent and persuasive, to have to use more resources to convince the person to get help, and once they are willing to get help, to be willing to pass them over to a treatment center that uses more services and which offers long-term programs.

Don’t Ever Lose Hope

As a closing note, we should not let ourselves be dissuaded from helping our loved one get off of drugs and alcohol just because he or she is using more than one substance. In fact, poly-drug use should act as an added incentive to help that person.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the organization that monitors overdose deaths and fatality statistics regarding drug users, the average drug addict or alcoholic has about a five-year lifespan unless they get help. But that is for someone who is only using one substance. From a logical perspective, a person who is using two substances would likely only have a two-and-a-half year lifespan, and a person who is using three substances is someone who will likely die within a year or two of beginning that kind of drug use unless they are helped. The sense of urgency could not be more clear. These people need our help, and they need our help badly.




After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.