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Why Do People Use Drugs, Despite Negative Consequences?

In 2018, more than 53 million people in the United States used an illicit drug. In other words, about 1 in 5 individuals used drugs that year. If you have a loved one who is using drugs, you are not alone. Drug use is all around us – but this fact, of course, does not make it any less devastating. As a parent, a sibling, or friend, you may be struggling with many questions about your loved one’s drug problem. Why are they using drugs? Why are they choosing to use drugs, even though it’s hurting so many people?

Those why questions – such as, “Why do people use drugs?” – are ones you will often hear as an addiction counsellor. Parents wonder why their teens are using drugs, having been raised in a loving and stable home. Family members wonder why a person continues to use drugs, despite the adversity it causes in their family and in their life. Why can’t they just stop?

With all the information we have about drugs and their dangers today, we might think that it’s an easy choice to stop using. Drug use can cause broken relationships, violence, arrest, mental health disorders, and tragic health effects like overdose. So, why would someone try drugs at all?

There are many reasons people turn to drugs, which we’ve previously cover here. Often, it is because they want to feel good, to feel better, or to feel like they belong. Below are some of the most common reasons people use drugs for the first time:

  • Feel-good effects. Many times people use drugs because they want to get “high.” They hear about the euphoric effects that drugs create. These effects are also what cause many people to continue using drugs, despite the risk for addiction.

  • Self-medication. Due to their feel-good effects, some people use drugs to cope with mental and emotional pain. For example, many people with mental health disorders like depression will use drugs to escape their sorrows. This is called self-medication.

  • Curiosity and experimentation. Simply put, some people use drugs because they are curious. They have heard about the effects of drugs, but wish to experience it for themselves. This is a particular issue for teens and young adults, due to their stage of brain development. Young People are highly likely to act on impulse, without thinking about the long-term consequences.

  • Performance enhancement. Some people feel pressure to do better academically or professionally, and will use drugs to enhance their performance at school or work. Adderall, a prescription stimulant drug, is often used by young people for this very reason.

  • A desire to fit in. For teenagers especially, drugs are often seen as “cool.” They may be used to “fit in” or to establish oneself amongst their peers. This may be due to a plain desire to belong, or a result of social/peer pressure.

The question remains, why do people continue to use drugs, despite the negative consequences? Why do they use drugs when they know it is hurting their family and friends? Why do people use drugs even when they know about the dangers of abuse and addiction? Why would they put their body through it?

Often, it’s because they feel they don’t have a choice.

The initial decision to use drugs is (typically) voluntary. Many people choose to try drugs in a social setting, such as experimenting with friends. It is when they continue to use drugs that it becomes a bigger problem. It poses the risk of addiction. And with addiction, drug use feels like a necessity.

Drug addiction (formally known as a substance use disorder) is a chronic disease of the brain. It is characterized by compulsive and uncontrollable drug cravings. Those who are addicted will continue to use and seek out drugs, despite the adverse consequences in their lives. Why is this the case? Prolonged drug abuse creates lasting changes in the brain, re-wiring how it works.

At first, drugs release feel-good chemicals in the brain. After using drugs regularly, however, the brain gets used to the feeling and needs more drug to feel the effects. Over time, the pleasurable effects diminish and the brain tells the body it needs drugs to feel “normal” and to function properly.

Without drugs, an addicted person will feel sick, anxious, and irritable. The withdrawal symptoms can be so severe that it becomes dangerous. To alleviate those effects, the person must use drugs again, thus beginning the vicious cycle of addiction. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA):

“Drug addiction is when you can’t stop taking the drug even if you want to. The urge is too strong to control, even if you know the drug is causing harm. The addiction can become more important than the need to eat or sleep. The urge to get and use the drug can fill every moment of your life. The addiction replaces all the things you used to enjoy. A person who is addicted might do almost anything—lie, steal, or hurt people—to keep taking the drug.”

The NIDA also cites the results of recent brain imaging studies, which prove addiction causes visible, physical changes in the brain. Specifically, it affects the areas that are critical to judgement, decision-making, learning and memory, and behavioral control. This provides tangible evidence that addicted individuals do not have control over their drug use or the easy ability to stop, even if they want to. Their body, their brain, and their cravings too often take over.

This is also a common reason why people relapse. The changes that drugs cause in the brain are long-lasting. They do not go away overnight, and take significant time to heal. Those who only attend treatment for a short period of time, and do not fully learn how to avoid or cope with their triggers, will have difficulty overcoming drug addiction for good.

Now you may be wondering, why do people get addicted to drugs? Physiologically, it relates back to the way drugs affect the brain. When drugs are used repeatedly over a period of time, they cause changes in the brain that make the body dependent on drugs. That said, some people are more at risk for addiction than others. Some of the top reasons people get addicted to drugs are:

  • Genetic predisposition. Science shows that biology accounts for approximately 40 to 60 percent of a person’s risk of addiction.

  • Mental health disorders. When someone has a mental health disorder, they are at a higher risk of abusing drugs. Those suffering from anxiety and mood disorders like depression, for example, are twice as likely to become addicted to drugs (compared to the general population).

  • Early drug use. Those people who start using drugs in adolescence or young adulthood, before age 25, are more likely to develop drug problems down the road. About 70 percent of those who try an illicit drug before age 13 develop a substance use disorder within seven years.

  • Greater access to drugs, and less risk of getting caught. Those who grow up in environments where there is easy-access to drugs (such as low income neighborhoods), and where kids are all using drugs, have a higher risk of becoming addicted. This is also true for children who grew up without adequate supervision, and could use drugs without consequences from their parents.

There are many reasons why people use drugs and why people get addicted, but the fact of the matter is: anyone can become addicted to drugs. Over time, with continuous drug use, drug addiction is always a risk. No matter their economic standing. No matter their upbringing. No matter their genetic make-up. If you are concerned about your loved one’s drug abuse, now is the time to act. You can get your loved one help before it is too late.

Originally appeared on


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