Why Do People Do Drugs?

In 2021, over 100 thousand people died from drug overdose in the United States. This number is more than double that of 2015 and remains on a steady increase. With this scary projection in mind, many families with addicted loved ones fear the outlook for their family members. However, they may also be wondering how the addiction even began in the first place and why people use drugs at all.

Drug use does not always turn into drug abuse. Just ask the millions of Americans who drink caffeine every day, without fail. Our culture also shrugs its shoulders at college binge drinking or the California dispensaries that have sold over $800 million worth of cannabis in the first quarter of 2023 alone. But why do people do drugs in the first place? In order to understand why, we must first understand how drugs affect the brain.

How Drugs Affect the Brain

Drugs interact with the brain’s functioning by forcing it to interact with its internal messaging system in ways it normally wouldn’t. These disruptions in communication signal out to the rest of the body, causing the mental high and the physical symptoms of the high. Marijuana and opioids, for example, mimic chemicals that already exist in the body and can send a much stronger message from the chemical to the rest of the brain when they override the natural chemical. This includes synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. Drugs like cocaine override the brain’s pleasure center with dopamine, the ‘feel-good’ chemical, while psychedelic and dissociative drugs like LSD and ketamine affect areas of the brain responsible for perception and thought.

Why People Do Drugs

Psychological Factors

There are a number of psychological factors that contribute to drug use and abuse, including comorbidities with other mental health disorders like bipolar and ADHD and genetic elements that go on to develop as personality traits or a predisposition to addiction.  

Children with ADHD are more likely to develop substance use disorder (SUD) in adolescence and adulthood than their non-ADHD peers. This is often due to the neurological differences that also contribute to ADHD’s hallmark symptoms of inattention and hyperactivity. These children tend to have a younger age of onset for SUD, a shorter period between their first use and full-blown addiction, greater functional impairment, and more severe use of substances.

Bipolar disorder is marked by recurrent episodes of mania, a period of exaggerated emotional and physical highs, followed by periods of depression, with very low mood, outlook, and functioning. Those with undiagnosed Bipolar disorder are often unaware of what causes their highs and lows, during which thinking, mood, sleep, behavior, and judgment are affected. Some bipolar individuals attempt to speed up their depressive episodes with amphetamines and cocaine in order to soar into mania, which is perceived as a desirable and productive state with better self-esteem. Depressants may also be used to ease the emotions of depressive states.

Genetic influences play a role in what is called an ‘addictive personality.’ Those who have inherited the genetic factors that lead to addiction also inherit micro-factors including the desire to seek out drug use and risk-seeking behaviors. These factors may then lead to environmental factors that cause trauma, which in turn perpetuates psychological and genetic influences on drug use.

Social and Environmental Influences

Societal and environmental factors heavily contribute to a person’s drug use. Cultural attitudes, community norms, and macro-level organization all play a role in someone’s potential to use drugs. 

Those with exposure to poverty at a young age have a higher rate of drug abuse and drug crime convictions than their counterparts who did not ever experience poverty. Both males and females who did not originally experience poverty but experienced it as an adolescent had the highest rates of substance use issues. 

Poverty and marginalization contribute to complex PTSD, a prolonged, interpersonal, complex, and chronic type of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Poverty is associated with exposure to a higher amount of daily stressors, which causes those who experience it to continually seek out coping methods. Due to a lack of resources or access to healthcare, many individuals in poverty resort to substance abuse or other unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Others use drugs to decrease inhibition, increase sociability, and generally feel good. Marijuana and alcohol are commonly used for this effect, but other ‘club drugs’ or ‘party drugs’ do the same. 

Party drugs include ketamine, MDMA, and GHB. Frequent attendees of raves, nightclubs, and festivals have reported a high rate of drug use, with up to 61% of those surveyed reporting use. Researchers contribute a desire to heighten the experience of the lights and music, achieve spiritual enlightenment, and decrease anxiety as major factors to the correlation between drug use and this type of entertainment. 

Curiosity and Experimentation

Adolescence is a time of experimentation, curiosity, and making decisions for one’s self. Many children. Parents are encouraged to let their children assert independence and utilize critical thinking when they are faced with smaller-scale decisions like wardrobe, hobbies, and friend groups. This period, usually denoted as ages 10-19, has critical implications for who a child becomes as an adult. Testing boundaries, breaking rules, and demanding acknowledgment as a capable decision-maker are all very common during this time.

Substance use is common among adolescents, particularly in those with lifelong exposure to substance use through family members or community and those with a desire for stimulation and pleasure-seeking.

In late adolescence, many teens have already experimented with alcohol and drugs. In 2017, nearly 30% of teenagers reported current alcohol use, while 14% reported using prescription pain medication that was not prescribed to them or no longer clinically needed.

Coping Mechanisms and Self-Medication

Coping mechanisms and self-medication are extremely popular reasons given for substance use. For those with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, drugs can help alleviate persistent worries or low mood. For those with physical issues, drugs can help relieve pain in the body and promote relaxation. 

A significant risk factor for substance use disorder is the presence of trauma. Complex PTSD, as mentioned, fundamentally shifts a person’s identity, leading to hypervigilance, avoidance, feelings of fearfulness, low self-esteem, and low self-worth. This type of trauma develops out of poverty, narcissistic abuse, exposure to violence, sexual abuse, and many other types of deeply painful experiences. 

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder related to one-off incidences may also contribute to substance abuse as a coping mechanism for the residual trauma. There is a high level of fear, functional disturbance, and unwanted responses to a trauma trigger that many with PTSD choose to alleviate with substances. These types of traumas include surviving catastrophic or violent events, witnessing these events, or being a first responder to this type of event. 

Finally, the opioid crisis in the United States was born out of increased prescribing of opioid medication to address pain. These expensive and prescription-required drugs like OxyContin created a powerful dependence for those experiencing chronic physical pain. As regulations became more strict and the price of medication remained high, many users turned to heroin, then fentanyl, to achieve the same pain relief and high. 


There are many reasons why someone may use drugs. Psychological factors, such as comorbidities with other mental health disorders and genetic predispositions, contribute to the vulnerability to addiction. Social and environmental influences, including poverty, marginalization, and cultural attitudes, also play a significant role in a person’s drug use. Furthermore, curiosity and experimentation during adolescence, as well as the desire for coping mechanisms and self-medication, can lead individuals down the path of substance abuse. It is crucial to address these underlying factors and provide support and resources to help individuals overcome addiction and maintain a sober lifestyle.

If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use, help is available. Consider reaching out to New Life House sober living. They provide a nurturing and supportive environment for young men in recovery, offering guidance, accountability, and the tools necessary to build a fulfilling and sober life. Remember, there is hope, and a sober life is possible with the right support and dedication.


Centers for Disease Control. (2018, June 15). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance — United States, 2017 | MMWR. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved June 30, 2023, from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/ss/ss6708a1.htm?s_cid=ss6708a1_w

Centers for Disease Control. (2022, June 1). Understanding the Opioid Overdose Epidemic | Opioids | CDC. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved June 30, 2023, from https://www.cdc.gov/opioids/basics/epidemic.html

Cleveland Clinic. (2023, April 5). CPTSD (Complex PTSD): What It Is, Symptoms & Treatment. Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved June 30, 2023, from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/24881-cptsd-complex-ptsd

Ducci, F., & Goldman, D. (2012, November 26). The Genetic Basis of Addictive Disorders. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 35(2), 495-519. 10.1016/j.psc.2012.03.010

Loftfield, E., Freedman, N. D., Dodd, K. W., Vogtmann, E., Xiao, Q., Sinha, R., & Graubard, B. I. (2016, August 3). Coffee Drinking Is Widespread in the United States, but Usual Intake Varies by Key Demographic and Lifestyle Factors. The Journal of Nutrition, 146(9), 1762–1768. 10.3945/jn.116.233940

Manhica, H., Straatmann, V. S., Lundin, A., Agardh, E., & Danielsson, A. (2021, Jan 20). Association between poverty exposure during childhood and adolescence, and drug use disorders and drug‐related crimes later in life. Addiction, 116(7), 1747–1756. 10.1111/add.15336

National Institute of Mental Health. (2023, May 1). NIMH » Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. NIMH. Retrieved June 30, 2023, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016, May 6). How does cocaine produce its effects? National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved June 30, 2023, from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/cocaine/how-does-cocaine-produce-its-effects

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, July 10). Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction: Drugs and the Brain | NIDA. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved June 30, 2023, from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drugs-brain

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2022, August 22). Psychedelic and Dissociative Drugs. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved June 30, 2023, from https://nida.nih.gov/research-topics/psychedelic-dissociative-drugs#work-in-the-brain

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2023, January). Drug Overdose Death Rates. NIDA.NIH.GOV | National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Retrieved June 30, 2023, from https://nida.nih.gov/research-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates

Palomar, J. J., Griffin-Thomas, M., & Ompad, D. C. (2015, July 1). Illicit Drug Use among Rave Attendees in a Nationally Representative Sample of US High School Seniors. Drug Alcohol Dependence, 152(1), 24-31. 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2015.05.002

Preuss, U. W., Schaefer, M., Born, C., & Grunze, H. (2021, November). Bipolar Disorder and Comorbid Use of Illicit Substances. Medicina (Kaunas)., 57(11), 1256. 10.3390/medicina57111256

State of California. (2023). Cannabis Tax Revenues, Grid View. CDTFA. Retrieved June 30, 2023, from https://cdtfa.ca.gov/dataportal/dataset.htm?url=CannabisTaxRevenues

Wade, N. E., Palmer, C. E., Gonzalez, M. R., Wallace, A., Infante, M. A., Tapert, S. F., Jacobus, J., & Bagot, K. S. (2021, May). Risk factors associated with curiosity about alcohol use in the ABCD cohort. Alcohol, 92(1), 11-14. 10.1016/j.alcohol.2021.01.002

Zualuf, C. A., Sprich, S. E., Safren, S. A., & Wilens, T. E. (2014, March). The Complicated Relationship Between Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Substance Use Disorders. Current Psychology Report, 16(3), 436. 10.1007/s11920-013-0436-6

Last Updated on February 15, 2024


Contact Us

    Call Us Now: (888) 357-7577

    Call Us Now: (888) 357-7577