For many people, the first time they use drugs they are not alone. People use drugs for all sorts of reasons: relaxation, pain reduction, anxiety relief, and addiction are just a handful that we can easily name.
A study from the US Department of Health and Human Services showed that people fall into drug use through a combination of social, economic, and genetic factors, though social and genetic tend to be the dominating factors.
However, the social factor is a major part in reinforcing drug use behaviour in its most dangerous form because according to the study “rewarding and reinforcing effects of drugs depend on whether other individuals are immediately present and whether those individuals are also using drugs.”
This means that whenever we use drugs with friends or in a high-pressure social situation, it reinforces the part of the brain that tells us drugs are okay and fun. The study shows that drug users bring others into the behaviour because they feel worse about their drug use when they are alone.
I went and interviewed a few people who use drugs regularly to understand these situations and the reasons they use. Some are students, some are not, but all will remain anonymous.
The most common first experience with drugs I have heard from the people I have asked is smoking weed with friends at a party or with a partner. A few people have said they used LSD or cocaine at those first experiences, but pot tended to be the first drug because it can be bought legally from older friends or can be purchased by older siblings or family members. While the substance used or the setting has often varied, the social nature of that first exposure to drugs struck me.
Richard said he first got into smoking pot in college. “They were just passing around a bong, and I had never tried anything before. I felt so gross, but the rush was unreal.” Richard said that smoking pot has allowed him to make new connections. “We all go for walks to one of the nearby hiding spaces and you will just randomly run into someone else smoking a bong. I have made all my new friends from this year from those adventures.”
Fiona said that she uses it after work with her partner to help deal with her anxiety. “It is expensive as hell, but I am just fucking done and so is he. Plus, everything is funnier and tastier when you’re high.”
Despite these seemingly positive effects, there are downsides to pot use. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services and the American Lung Association, cannabis use has been shown to potentially lead to schizophrenia. They say when consumed through smoke, it contains many of the same chemicals as cigarettes, leading to lung damage and potentially lung cancer from heavy long-term use.
Those using drugs are also self-aware of the damage they are causing themselves. Jane, a regular pot smoker, described the experience as mixed. “I struggle with a lot of pain. If I don’t use cannabis, I cannot sleep; I will lie awake until four or five in the morning tossing and turning. I try not to wake my partner but if I am sore, I just cannot lie still. Once I smoke a little, I am out like a light. The problem is that it has fucked up my lungs.”
Charlie, a daily smoker said the effects on his body have been terrible. “I will just wake up in the morning, my mouth will be dry, and I will just ache, so the first thing I do is I go have a smoke to take the edge off.” Despite attempts to take a break, Charlie said that he has perpetually fallen back into the habit. “I know I am addicted to it, but I have just kind of stopped caring.”
These symptoms and ups and downs with use are typical for all drug use. The problem is that smoking pot and drinking are normalized during the ages of 18 to 30, and the social nature in which people are introduced and use these substances can lead to dangerous patterns of behaviour.
In my conversations with these people, they expressed different degrees of concern over their use. Some figured they will never quit, some are actively trying to, and some have quit only to fall back into it.
“I had quit for a year or so, but then I started partying again and yeah. Is what it is I guess,” Fiona lamented to me. “I just wish it was easy to get rid of it.”
More supports and information are needed to understand drug use and help those struggling with substance use disorder. However, even within the use of one type of drug, we see the diversity in the reasons for use. As diverse as those reasons are, the reasons to quit are just as diverse.
The social nature in which people are introduced and use these substances can lead to dangerous patterns of behaviour.
American Lung Association. n.d. Marijuana and
Lung Health. lung.org/quit-smoking/smoking-facts/health-effects/marijuana-and-lung-health
Strickland, Justin, and Mark Smith. 2014. “The
Effects of Social Contact on Drug Use: Behavioral Mechanisms Controlling Drug Intake.” Department of Health and Human Services Public Access.
Jonah van Driesum is the senior editor of Link, and co-host of our the MicroLink podcast!