There are many reasons why people use drugs – and none of them include wanting to feel worse.

Why do people take drugs?

Laura Woods

Why do people use substances like MDMA, heroin, cannabis or cocaine? The answer depends on who you ask. The media might spin a tale that people who consume those substances are risk-taking ‘outsiders’ on the fringes of society. The police may say drug-users are senseless trouble-makers, doctors may refer to an individual’s psychological or physical pain and your parents may put it down to a right of passage and the influence of ‘modern times’. 

But what about when you actually ask people who use these drugs? 

In the 2019 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, more than two thirds of people who had tried illegal drugs said the main reason was curiosity. It’s as simple as that. 

The survey also asked about why people kept using drugs. Only about one in 20 people said that they continued to use drugs because of an addiction. Meanwhile about 70% of people said that they kept using drugs because they enjoyed it.

This backs up what Unharm found in a recent survey of 800 people from across Australia: more than two thirds of people who had used drugs like cocaine, ketamine, MDMA, psychedelics or cannabis said they had overall positive experiences.

This is different from the story you often hear in the media, where drug use is equated to addiction. The idea that drug use and addiction are the same causes a lot of confusion about why anyone would ever try drugs at all. The reality is that the majority of drug use is episodic, transient and generally non-problematic

The National Drug Strategy Household Survey asks people who use cannabis, MDMA, amphetamines or cocaine how frequently they use those substances. About one in six people who use amphetamine say they use it at least once a week or more. But what’s much more common – reported by about a third of cannabis users, and about half all MDMA, amphetamines or cocaine users – is to use those substances only once or twice a year.

The mainstream story that drug use and addiction are the same thing also misrepresents the reality of addiction. Addiction is complex, not solely related to drugs, and often the result of a multitude of environmental, psychological and biological factors. Weak willpower, poor choices and substances alone do not cause addiction. Gabor Maté, physician and renowned addiction expert, defines addiction as being “any behaviour that gives a person temporary relief and pleasure but also has negative consequences.”  People can become addicted to all sorts of things – sex, video games, social media, sugary food, exercise or gambling.

People using substances for recreational, religious or medicinal purposes is hardly new. Archeological evidence of burnt cannabis seeds and illustrations depicting hallucinogenic mushrooms dates back to as early as the Neolithic Period (12,000-2,000 B.C.E). Some people will use drugs to manage physical or psychological pain related to challenging situations, life stressors or individual struggles. Many prohibited substances such as LSD and MDMA are also slowly becoming recognised for their therapeutic benefits in treating mental health conditions such as PTSD and depression. Overall, it’s clear that people use drugs because they want to access some sort of benefit or solution.

There are many reasons why people use drugs – and none of them include wanting to feel worse. By acknowledging the real motivations for drug use, we can better understand how to manage consumption, prevent or treat addiction and keep our loved ones and communities happy, healthy and safe. 

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