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Why Do People Use Drugs?

Written by Seth Fletcher on January 10, 2016
Medical editor Dr. Jonathan Siegel
Last update: April 26, 2024

The subject of drug use is complex and dynamic, and knowing why people do drugs is crucial to understanding and treating addictions. The reasons people gravitate toward drugs are as varied as the types of people that use drugs – and drug users come from all backgrounds and spheres of life. 47,000 Canadian deaths are linked to substance abuse each year, and an estimated six million people (21% of the population) will meet the criteria of addiction in their lifetime. 

Drug use destroys lives, families, and relationships. Friends and relatives of drug users often cannot understand why their loved ones engage in drug use. So why do people use drugs despite the numerous negative consequences? 

In reality, no one consciously decides to become a drug user. Many people who fall into drug use never believed they would be in that situation till it was too late. Drug abuse usually starts as a seemingly fun and harmless act that becomes an uncontrollable downward spiral. This guide examines why people use drugs, how they become addicts, and how you can help them. 

Key Takeaways

  • People abuse drugs for several reasons, and drug users come from all backgrounds and spheres of life.
  • Several causes of drug use and abuse include peer pressure, self-medication, grief, stress, and boredom.
  • Drug addiction is a brain disease that makes a person unable to stop using drugs despite the obvious negative consequences. The disease involves biological, emotional, behavioural, and spiritual components.  
  • It often starts as a harmless and fun activity that gets out of control.
  • Drug addiction can be treated using a combination of treatment processes depending on the specific needs of the individual. 

What is Drug Addiction?

Drug addiction is a disease of the brain that makes a person unable to stop using a substance despite its obvious negative consequences. It often starts with an individual doing drugs recreationally or experimentally in social settings, which becomes more frequent until the individual can no longer stop using the substance. Drug addictions involving opioids typically start when a person begins taking prescribed medication or gets them from someone with a prescription. The pleasure these substances elicit creates an obsession for such feelings leading the individual to want more and more of the substance. 

Drug addiction should be examined as a disease and not necessarily the result of moral indiscretion. Different substances carry varying addiction risks. A person may become hooked on a powerful narcotic like cocaine and heroin with just one use, while it will take repeated use to become addicted to alcohol.  

With continued use, individuals may need larger doses of the drug to get the same feelings. Soon, the individual finds they cannot function normally without the drug – a state known as dependence. At this point, drug use can begin to have severe adverse effects on the person’s health, finances, career, family, and relationships. Attempts to stop using the drug will cause withdrawal symptoms, typically marked by intense cravings and adverse physical and mental effects. These side effects will worsen with time and can be fatal without professional intervention. 

The stigma attached to drug addiction typically forces addicts to conceal the condition from their loved ones for as long as they can. Some signs of a drugs addiction include: 

  • Enlarged or small pupils
  • Poor hygiene and unusual body odors
  • Neglect or poor performance at school or work
  • Poor physical coordination 
  • Financial issues
  • Changes in appetite and eating habits
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Slurred or impaired speech
  • Sudden weight loss or gain
  • A shift in social circles
  • Secretive behavior
  • Repeated lying, deceit, or other dishonest behavior
  • Changes in activities or hobbies
  • Mood swings, apathy, and lack of motivation

If you spot a few of these signs in an individual, they may be dealing with a drug addiction, and you need to help them get professional help. 

Have a struggling family member that needs help? Call 1-855-499-9446 now and get the help your loved one needs or request a call, and we will take care of the rest.

What is a Trigger?

Triggers in addiction could be places, feelings, persons, activities, and anything that makes a drug user crave their drug of choice and puts them in an emotional state that enabled the drug use in the first place. Drug abuse changes how the brain works and triggers can take a drug user or recovering addict back to the time when the substance use brought those feelings of pleasure. 

Triggers prompt cravings for the user’s drug of choice, and identifying them is vital to beating drug addiction. Common addiction triggers include:

  • Stress 
  • Fatigue
  • Parties and other social gatherings
  • Boredom
  • Loneliness
  • Negative or challenging emotions
  • Movies where a character is using the drug of abuse
  • Being offered the drug of abuse

The drug cravings prompted by these triggers are temporary and will fade if the user doesn’t give in to them. Addicts need to avoid situations that expose them to their specific triggers. However, some triggers are difficult to avoid, and it’s necessary to devise a relapse prevention plan to help manage the cravings they elicit.       

10 Common Causes of Drug Abuse

People abuse drugs for several reasons, and understanding these is one of the pivotal steps for dealing with drug abuse. Here are ten common reasons why people do drugs:

Peer Pressure

Humans have an intrinsic desire to fit in and not look like the odd person out. Young people, more than most, are vulnerable to peer pressure and will do anything – including trying illicit drugs – to look cool. A simple experiment with a drug at a social event can turn into a habit that becomes drug abuse. The internal pressure to “fit in” can override the fear of consequences, leading to the abuse of illicit substances. People with self esteem issues are more vulnerable to peer pressure and are more likely to give in to pressure to try drugs.


Many people dealing with physical, mental, or emotional challenges would rather self-medicate rather than seek professional help. This decision is often unwise as it puts them at risk of drug abuse. Painkillers such as opioids carry a strong addiction potential even though they may provide temporary pain relief. 

Continued use of painkillers without a prescription will lead to tolerance, where users require larger doses of the drug to get the same measure of pain relief. With time, they can become dependent and start to abuse their medication. Using prescription medications without supervision can trigger other health issues and even death. 

Grieving after Loss

Coping with a loss is never an easy experience, and some people find it more difficult than others. Grieving the death of a loved one or the loss of a relationship can have severe mental and emotional impacts. Grief can trigger bouts of depression, anxiety, and even physical pain. Everyone grieves differently, and while people go through the process with different degrees of emotional upset, some people may try to cope with the grief by turning to drugs for relief. 

It is best to seek professional help if one finds it difficult to cope with grief. 


Stress is one of the emotions many people deal with daily and about a quarter of Canadians state that they feel stressed on most days. Unfortunately, many people do not know how to deal with stress from work, school, family, and other aspects of their lives. 

Stress can cause trouble sleeping, diminished concentration, fatigue, pain, tensed muscles, and headaches. Some people turn to alcohol and drugs to fight stress, and while they may initially ease symptoms, it could be the beginning of abuse that can lead to more severe issues. It’s best to talk to a professional about stress or try natural ways to reduce stress, like exercise, meditation, walking, and practicing mindfulness. 

Curiosity and Thrill Seeking

Drug use is often glorified in the media and popular culture. Alcohol and drug use is presented as a harmless act with no consequences. There is a tendency for curious and impressionable individuals to want to see what the excitement is all about. The more people see these substances used, the more likely they will abuse them.

Thrill seekers love to take part in exciting activities that carry some risk. The fact that most drugs (except alcohol and nicotine) are illegal in most places fuels the desire in some people to try them. Recreational marijuana use is legal in Canada but still outlawed in many parts of the world. The thrill of breaking the law, combined with the euphoria from using drugs, increases the potential for drug abuse. 

Abuse and Trauma/Broken Homes

Traumatic experiences like abuse, accidents, and a broken home can leave lasting psychological impacts. Individuals who have had these experiences may struggle to move past them and turn to drugs. A traumatic experience can affect an individual’s worldview and how they view themselves. The impact of childhood traumas can also resurface in adulthood, bringing up unwanted thoughts and feelings. 

A person dealing with trauma may turn to drugs to get past unwanted memories. However, the relief from drugs is always short-lived, and the individual may have to keep using the substance to keep the memories away. Continued drug use in this manner will inevitably lead to abuse and addiction. The best way to deal with trauma is to get help from a therapist or other professionals. 


Even with the unending stream of entertainment available in the world today, many people still complain of boredom. Being bored can play a part in drug abuse, especially in young people. It is also one of the triggers for relapse in recovering addicts. A bored person will do anything to escape, including drugs. 

While the initial euphoria of drugs will quickly clear feelings of boredom, it can soon spiral into a dangerous substance abuse habit. If this behavior continues, the individual will become addicted before long. It’s always better to deal with boredom by mingling with friends or getting a new hobby. 

Mental Illness

Mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorders are among the most significant risk factors for substance abuse. People with mental illness are twice as likely to have a substance abuse disorder compared to the rest of the population. Individuals with substance abuse disorder are also three times more likely to develop a mental illness. The best way to deal with a mental illness is to seek professional help rather than self-medicate or use drugs. 

Feel-good Effects

Drugs provide intense feel-good effects that are incomparable to any other thing. Many people hear about these euphoric effects and also want to feel that “high.” The euphoric sensations are why people continue to abuse drugs even with their potential for addiction and other adverse consequences. 

Performance Enhancement

The need to do well academically or on the job can pressure people, driving them to drug abuse. Drugs like Adderall, prescribed for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), improve focus and may be abused, especially by young people who want to enhance their performance. 

How Drug Use Develops Into Addiction

No one who tries a drug thinks they will become addicted, but anyone can become hooked on a substance. Genetic and environmental factors may also increase an individual’s addiction risk. Addiction starts with prolonged drug use, but a person can become hooked on some of the world’s most addictive drugs with one use. Drugs alter brain chemistry and function, making the need for the drug compulsive rather than voluntary. 

When a person takes a drug, the brain releases dopamine, a pleasure chemical that results in the feel-good effects associated with the drug. If the person continues to use the drug, the brain becomes reliant on the euphoria and rewires those experiences into its circuitry. The brain will begin to produce less dopamine than usual with the substance, leaving the user feeling low without the drug. 

This low feeling makes the user crave more of the drug, and they will gradually need more doses to get the same feel-good effects (tolerance). With prolonged use, the user starts to feel like they cannot function normally without the drug and become addicted.

The best way to prevent drug addiction is not to use the substance in the first place. However, a person already addicted to a drug would require professional intervention to break an addiction. Trying to quit an addiction without help can lead to severe and possibly fatal withdrawal symptoms.

Treatment Options for Drug Addiction

Drug addiction is a complex disease, and treatment approaches depend on the specific needs of the individual. The treatment options for drug addiction include:


Detox is usually the first step in treating drug addiction. It is a medical process that helps to get every trace of the addictive substance out of the addict’s system in a safe environment. Detox is necessary to avoid the unpleasant and life-threatening withdrawal symptoms associated with drug use. 

Inpatient Treatment

Inpatient treatment is an intensive form of drug addiction treatment that requires living at a treatment facility while receiving treatment, including therapy, support, and constant monitoring by a team of professionals. 

Outpatient Treatment

Outpatient treatment intensity depends on the specific needs of the patient. Usually, the patient lives at home and regularly visits an outpatient clinic for counseling and other forms of therapy. Outpatient treatment may also involve staying in a sober living facility until the addict can live independently. 

12-Step Program

A 12-step facilitation therapy is often incorporated into an addiction treatment plan. It is a form of group therapy that aims to allow the addict to recognize the social, spiritual, physical, and spiritual effects of their disease. These programs take advantage of the social reinforcement provided by peer discussion that helps encourage drug-free living. 

Medication Assisted Treatment 

Doctors may also prescribe medications in addiction treatment to reduce cravings, improve mood, reduce withdrawal symptoms, and deter the use of addictive substances. Drugs like Lofexidine can reduce cravings for opioids, while Acamprosate can help maintain alcohol abstinence. 

Behavioral Therapy

Behavioral therapy employs individual and group sessions to help addicts acquire the skills required to face triggers without giving in to their cravings. Addicts learn to recognize and deal with unhealthy behavioral and thought patterns and develop the necessary coping skills for staying sober. 

Can Drug Addiction Be Treated?

Today, we understand addiction better. Drug addiction can be treated using a holistic approach that caters to the patient’s specific needs. Addictions are progressive, and it’s always better to commence treatment early. Treatment of addiction involves various levels of care depending on the individual’s present needs. 

Addiction treatment starts with first determining where the patient should begin their journey to healing. Treatment may start with detoxification and intensive inpatient care before moving to an outpatient facility to continue their healing. The treatment process will typically involve a combination of options deemed necessary for recovery. 


People do drugs for several reasons, and knowing why can help recovery. When a person tries drugs for the first time, it’s usually because of one or more of the reasons discussed, and they usually never consider the potential causes of addiction. However, a naive experiment can turn out to be a life-destroying decision. 

Fortunately, people who are already abusing drugs can get help. If you or a loved one is abusing drugs or already addicted, don’t wait to get help. You can take the first step towards recovery by contacting us immediately by calling1-855-499-9446 or request a call

Frequently Asked Questions

If I stay off drugs for a while, will it be easy to remain drug-free?

Yes. Going off drugs for a while can make it easier to remain drug-free. Staying off drugs can cause withdrawal symptoms that may be mild to life-threatening. However, if you can ride out these symptoms, it will be easier to resist the cravings for your drug of choice. 

Can you use willpower to stop using drugs?

In most cases, willpower is not enough to stop using drugs, as chronic drug use is not often a choice. Drug addiction is a brain disease, and people who cannot stop using are not necessarily weak, flawed, or immoral. The effective way to treat drug use is by getting professional help and support. However, willpower has a role in recovery from drug use, as it means you have taken responsibility for your recovery and also helps you to stay engaged. 

Can you become addicted if you use a drug just once?

Some drugs are more addictive than others; most drugs will require repeated use before addiction can form. However, highly addictive drugs like heroin and cocaine can produce a powerful high that makes a user hooked after a single use.

Can a person completely break free from drug addiction? 

Addiction recovery is often a tough and challenging process. However, with the right resources, treatment approach, and a solid support structure, it is possible to break free from drug addiction completely.

Is alcohol a drug?

Yes. Alcohol is classified as a central nervous system depressant, which slows down vital functions resulting in slurred speech, unsteady gait, cognitive impairment, and diminished reaction time. However, alcohol produces stimulant effects in smaller quantities and is consumed in social settings for these effects, including euphoria, improved confidence, elevated mood, and chattiness.

Certified Addiction Counsellor

Seth brings many years of professional experience working the front lines of addiction in both the government and privatized sectors.


Dr. Jonathan Siegel earned his doctoral degree in counselling psychology from the University of Toronto in 1986. He is a registered psychologist in private practice and has 30 years of experience conducting both assessments and counselling with a diverse group of individuals presenting with a broad range of psychological adjustment difficulties, such as depression, anxiety, and addictions.

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