What Do Young People Gain From Drug Use?

For many people, the suggestion that illicit drugs hold value in the lives of young people is perplexing. Illicit drug use, historically, has been categorized as destructive. Users are assumed to be individuals to which the adjectives pathological, irrational and dangerous apply. Above all, drug users - particularly young people - are viewed as disenfranchised members of society in need of help.

However, if you ask young people about their substance use, many will say that drugs play a range of roles in their lives. Interestingly enough, these roles are not usually negative ones.

An increasing number of studies attempt to understand the underlying reasons young people choose to use illicit drugs. A study conducted by the Centre for Social Research and Health in Sydney discussed “disenfranchised” drug users 16-24 years old. The report found that self-described drug use helped participants to positively manage “daily stresses” and to escape the difficulties of day-to-day life.

One participant in the study, Ned age 23, discussed the concept of drugs as an escape saying, “they make you forget your problems. Thats mainly the reason why I started using [drugs].”

Participants also cited drug use as a means to build and strengthen friendships or other relationships they have with their peers. Bella, age 20, discussed how drugs can be a opportunity for bonding saying, “I guess it kind of brings people together in a sense. So its like a social sort of thing.”

A second study, conducted in Melbourne and published by the Journal of Youth Studies, focused on regular alcohol and drug users aged 13-15 years old. The report found young people gave similar reasons for illicit substance use, including “for pleasure and to have fun”. Drug use was also described by participants as “improving social ties” and a means to help cope with negative aspects of their lives. An interesting aspect of the study notes that almost all participants stated that, in their opinion, their drug use was controlled.

A third study, conducted in the United Kingdom, focused on young drug users16-22 years old. This study, just as the previous two did, found that young people view their drug use as serving a specific purpose in their lives. These purposes included relaxation, staying awake while socializing and alleviating depression.

When all three studies are compared, they indicate certain gains young people feel accompany illicit drug use. In the eyes of youth, drugs enhance many aspects of daily life and offer a coping mechanism. Drug use can also strengthen social ties for these young people, offering a sense of belonging to groups they identify with.

By saying drug use facilitates a social life, pleasurable experiences and manages stress, young people are essentially saying that they use drugs with intention - something that is not widely recognized. When drug use is seen as purposeful by young people, it stands to reason that these same young people view themselves as rational and competent “managers” of their own drug use - and why should they not be?

While it is important to acknowledge the gains of drug use for young people, it is just as important not to forget the potential problems that can accompany illicit drug use, including sense of stigma, problems with school and family, poor mental health, involvement in crime, and vulnerability to overdose. Many of these potential problems, however, result from a disconnect between how young people view their drug use and ideas others have about drug use. Many times, failure to acknowledge that young people gain something from drug use can lead to more problems than illicit drug use itself.

The majority of youth choosing to use illicit substances see it as adding a positive aspect to their lives. Their drug use is intentional and purposeful and it’s time to acknowledge that. Let’s throw out the old, pejorative adjectives used to stereotype drug users - it’s about time for some new ones.