What Drives People to Use Drugs?
People use drugs for many reasons. It’s important to understand that drug users often do not intend to form an addiction or physical dependence.
The more people understand the driving factors for using drugs, the better equipped they are to help family members or others facing drug addiction or alcohol addiction enter recovery.
Common reasons people use drugs include:
- To experience euphoric effects: Aside from the side effects, the initial rush or high of most drugs tends to be pleasant.
- As a way to self-medicate: Many people who begin using drugs do it to manage symptoms of a mental health disorder, trauma, or other life stressors.
- To increase performance: Some drugs increase a person’s performance or energy levels.
- For an escape: Like many hobbies or other avoidance tactics, people may use drugs to escape reality.
- To avoid withdrawal symptoms: People with a physical dependence may recognize that they have a drug use problem but continue taking the drugs to avoid withdrawal and cravings.
- Because of an addiction: Once addiction forms, drug use hijacks the brain. Drug use is no longer a decision but a way to survive. The person then feels they need drugs to function, like air.
Risk Factors for Drug Use
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, all people have risk factors that can put them at risk for developing behavioral health issues. This includes substance use disorders.
Common risk factors for drug use and addiction include:
- History of drug addiction in the family
- Experiencing at-home or neighborhood violence
- Exposure to racism
- Lack of economic opportunity
- Having mental disorders
- Easy access to alcohol or drugs
Most ‘drugs’ can be divided into two categories:
- Medication and prescription drugs (legal drugs) and
- Street drugs/illicit drugs
Illicit Drugs/Street Drugs
Illicit drugs are those which are not approved by the FDA for medical use or which are approved only in certain medical settings, but have abuse potential.
People misuse illegal drugs for various reasons, largely tied to the drug’s effects. Heroin produces a calming effect by slowing breathing and heart rates. Cocaine makes a person feel energetic.
All illicit drugs come with a risk of abuse. That is, if a person uses the drug, the high they experience may rewire their brain, prompting the person toward continued use.
And most street drugs also come with a risk of addiction (mental reliance) or physical dependence (a condition that causes withdrawal).
The following list covers the most commonly used illicit drugs today.
Heroin is an illicit opioid drug that people use for its relaxation effects. It produces feelings of calm and well-being by blocking a person’s sense of pain, flushing the skin with warmth, and providing a ‘rush’ (of pleasurable feelings).
Though opioids like opium have been around for centuries, heroin can be traced back to the 1800s with legitimate medicinal use. Today, heroin is one of the most addictive drugs in use and is used at high rates throughout the U.S. and the world.
Using heroin incurs a misdemeanor charge, while heroin possession or sale results in fines up to millions of dollars and a minimum prison sentence of five years up to life.
Methamphetamine (meth) is an illicit stimulant used for the feelings of invincibility, high energy, alertness, and euphoria it produces.
Meth was developed first as a prescription alternative to amphetamine and given to soldiers during World War II to help keep them alert for up to days at a time in combat. Within decades, meth was easy to obtain and saw high abuse rates before being regulated by the federal government.
Methamphetamine remains widely abused by rural communities across the nation, and the use, possession, or sale of meth results in hefty charges and jail or prison time.
An illicit drug, cocaine is abused for its stimulating effects on the central nervous system. These stimulating effects include a ‘rush’ of warmth and pleasurable feelings, high energy, alertness, talkativeness, and confidence.
Cocaine was first hailed as a ‘wonder drug’ in the medical community for its ability to ease common ailments like toothaches and headaches. However, the dangers of cocaine use quickly came to light with reports of drug addiction associated with its use. The drug has been regulated in the U.S. since 1970.
People who use or sell cocaine, especially crack cocaine, may face large fines and prison sentences.
Marijuana (also called weed or cannabis) is a legal drug for both recreational and medicinal purposes. However, it is not legal in all 50 states.
People use marijuana for its calming side effects. They report well-being, relaxation, and a heightened sense of perception when using it.
Marijuana dates back as far as 2800 B.C.E. and has been used ever since for its healing properties.
In the U.S., marijuana is still highly regulated for medicinal and recreational use at the federal level.
States also have varying fines and penalties for people who sell or possess marijuana but are not legally approved to do so.
Ecstasy/molly (3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine or MDMA) is an illicit drug with hallucinogenic and stimulant properties. This means it produces feelings of warmth, relaxation, and euphoria, as well as a distorted sense of time and reality.
MDMA was developed in Germany in 1912 as a main ingredient in medications to help treat bleeding issues. However, it gained a medical following before being officially approved for use.
By the 1970s, Ecstasy was sold and used on the streets. And by 1985, it was placed on the list of Schedule I drugs (high risk of abuse and addiction) by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
People who use or sell MDMA can face serious fines and prison time, including up to 5 years for trafficking up to 800 pills and up to 10 years for trafficking up to 8,000 pills.
LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), like other hallucinogens, produces feelings of distortions, such as an altered sense of time, delusions, and visual hallucinations in high doses.
LSD first became popular in the 1960s and is typically taken by mouth, unlike other drugs. However, the drug has been around since 1938.
The main compound in LSD was first made by a chemist in Switzerland and meant for use in bleeding medications.
Today, LSD is illegal and listed as a Schedule I drug on the Controlled Substances list. Penalties for possession, sale and use of LSD include prison terms of up to 5-10 years and up to millions of dollars in fines.
Shrooms, also called magic mushrooms or mushrooms, contain psilocybin, a naturally occurring component with hallucinogenic effects.
People use shrooms by eating them or brewing them into a tea. Magic mushrooms lead to an inability to separate reality and fantasy and hallucinations.
Mushrooms have been used for thousands of years for these properties and for the healing properties associated with psilocybin. They became popular in the U.S. around 1957 when an American mushroom enthusiast came upon an indigenous tribe using mushrooms in Mexico.
He sent the mushrooms off to the founder of LSD, who then found a way to isolate and synthesize (produce) the main component of LSD, psilocybin.
Despite decades of research into psilocybin’s effects and potential use in treating various conditions, magic mushrooms and psilocybin remain Schedule I controlled substances.
People combine drugs for several reasons and in many ways — usually to produce certain effects, such as a heightened or increased high.
They may combine only illicit drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, or combine illicit drugs with prescription drugs, such as prescription opioids with ecstasy or cocaine.
Despite the range of negative health consequences associated with combining drugs, polydrug use remains high. This is especially true among young adults in the U.S. and those of a minority or sexual minority, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
The sale, use, and possession of one type of drug can incur great penalties. Add in multiple drugs, and the charges can be extensive, resulting in multiple sentences and hefty fines.
Prescription drugs are those which have a legitimate medical purpose. People may misuse them due to forming an addiction after taking the prescription for an ailment.
This is common with medications such as benzodiazepines and opioids. They may abuse prescription medications in various ways, such as by crushing them and snorting them to get faster effects, dissolving them into a solution for injection, or rectally inserting them.
Not all prescription drugs have a high risk of abuse, but many come with a risk of drug dependence, meaning a person may rely on the drug to function.
Should they run out of the prescription or if their doctor stops prescribing it, they may become desperate to obtain the drug or something similar to stave off withdrawal symptoms.
This is a large part of the danger of prescription drug misuse: the potential for gateway drug use and the risk of drug addiction.
Prescription opioids or opiates (methadone, oxycodone, etc.) are prescribed for people with chronic pain issues, cancer-related pain, or who are undergoing surgery. Opioids are not intended for long-term use.
That’s because opioids come with a risk of physical dependence and addiction (opioid use disorder) — even after just a few days of use.
Opioids alter how a person’s brain responds to pain from the first use. With continued use, the person’s brain may be unable to manage pain without the opioid, leading to withdrawal symptoms when a person stops taking the drug.
People may not always intentionally misuse opioids. However, once their body and brain become dependent on the drug to function, they cannot help the need to seek opioids. For this reason, prescription opioid use can lead to heroin use and addiction.
Private sale and possession of prescription opioids without a prescription is illegal in the U.S., and all opioids are highly regulated.
These drugs are tranquilizers and produce feelings of deep relaxation, calm, and sedation. When they first came on the medical scene, they were prescribed for varying mental illnesses and health conditions, including anxiety, depression, and insomnia.
Yet abuse of benzos quickly grew. Today, benzos are listed as Schedule IV controlled substances, with a lower risk of abuse and addiction than some other drugs of abuse.
Penalties for sale or possession can result in misdemeanor charges for small amounts and felony charges for large amounts of benzodiazepines.
Amphetamines are stimulant medications used to treat conditions such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obesity, and narcolepsy. They work by making brain messages work faster, which results in increased alertness, energy, and productivity.
This is why amphetamines are popular for misuse among college students, truck drivers, and others who need to remain alert for long periods. They may crush and snort the drugs for faster effects.
Amphetamine was first discovered in the 1920s and explored for use as an antidepressant and diet medication throughout the 1930s and 1940s.
Misuse of amphetamines and the drugs’ high abuse potential led to their regulation in the 1970s.
All non-medical use of amphetamines is illegal in the U.S. today. People who sell or possess amphetamines without a prescription could face up to 20 years in prison and up to $1 million in fines.
Sleeping pills are prescribed to help people fall asleep and stay asleep. At first, people may misuse sleeping pills if they develop a tolerance to the medication. If it no longer works, they may try taking higher or more frequent doses to get a good night’s sleep.
However, when someone takes a sleeping pill but fights off urges to sleep, the pills can lead to hallucinations. This is what may lead to sleeping pill drug use.
It’s difficult to determine how long sleep aids have been around. People have been using substances such as alcohol or opioids to help aid sleep for centuries.
Different medications used in the last century for sleeping pills included benzodiazepines and z-drugs (i.e. zolpidem). Benzos and zolpidem are controlled substances in the U.S. This means use without a prescription is illegal, and all sales of the medications are illegal and can result in charges.
Skeletal muscle relaxants treat muscle spasms, back pain, and other chronic pain. When used as prescribed, they come with a low risk of abuse.
However, in recent years, these medications have been prescribed at high rates to older adults. They are often prescribed in combination with opioids, despite medical warnings against this.
People may misuse muscle relaxants for both their dissociative and euphoric effects. Yet the drugs are illegal for use without a valid prescription.
One of the main compounds found in muscle relaxants (curare) dates back to the 16th century, but these prescriptions were not recognized for medical use until the 1930s.
Muscle relaxers like Flexeril (cyclobenzaprine) and Neurontin (gabapentin) have a lower potential for misuse than other drugs, so they are not controlled substances.
Other Substances People Use for Drug-Like Effects
Not all substances people use for the purpose of getting high or experiencing mind-altering effects are well-known drugs.
Common substances people may misuse to get high include:
- Inhalants: People may ‘huff’ (inhale) the fumes from aerosol cans for a high. Examples include hair spray cans, cigarette lighters, cooking sprays, paint thinners, and nail polish removers.
- Cooking wine: This type of wine isn’t meant for consumption. Some people may drink it if they cannot get alcohol, such as adolescents or people with an alcohol use disorder.
- Rubbing alcohol: People with alcoholism may also consume rubbing alcohol. However, this type of alcohol is not meant for consumption and can have dangerous effects.
5 Tips for Helping Someone Who Is Battling Drug or Alcohol Use
Drug use occurs at high rates in the United States and worldwide, but reversing this trend is possible.
If you are seeking help for yourself or loved ones with drug use disorders, here are some considerations to keep in mind:
- Substance use disorder is a medical condition, not a choice. People often need medical care to enter addiction recovery.
- Stopping drug use will likely involve a long-term plan. Addiction recovery is a long-term goal, as with many medical conditions.
- Relapse is an expected part of recovery. Don’t be angry with your loved one for lapsing into drug use. Support them as best you can and help them continue to seek recovery.
- Your loved one may need multiple treatment programs. This is true of most chronic diseases, and addiction is no exception. Many addiction treatment options are available from behavioral therapy to intensive inpatient programs.
- Support is a large component of addiction recovery. People recover when they have the right resources, including a strong support system from loved ones and others in recovery.
Speak to your healthcare provider if you or a loved one are battling drug use. They can perform an assessment to diagnose your SUD and suggest an appropriate level of care.
To find a quality rehab program for you or a loved one, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website and use their treatment locator.