Home Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy What Factors Influence Whether a Person Takes Recreational Drugs?

What Factors Influence Whether a Person Takes Recreational Drugs?

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The decision to engage in recreational drug use is complex and multifaceted; it is a behaviour that can be influenced by a broad spectrum of psychological, social, and environmental factors. It can also vary significantly from individual to individual.

According to the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), an estimated 61.2 million people aged 12 or older used illicit drugs in the past year – a figure that represents about 21.9% of the population in that age group. Notably, marijuana was the most commonly used illicit drug, with nearly two-in-five young adults aged 18 to 25 reporting its use in the past year.

Here, we explore the various influences that can lead to the initiation and continuation of using recreational drugs, including detailed insights from leading professionals in the field of drug recovery.

Psychological factors

Emotional distress

Psychological discomfort, such as feelings of anxiety, depression, or stress, is an all-too common driver behind the consumption of recreational drugs. These substances often provide a temporary escape or a way to cope with negative emotions; as they wear off, however, many also cause emotional discomfort or distress, leading to more use – the dreaded cycle of misuse and abuse.

Michelle Beaupre, Clinical Director at Villa Oasis, shares: “Many individuals who engage in recreational drug use are often trying to manage unresolved emotional or psychological issues. They may feel that drugs offer temporary relief from their distress. In therapy, we focus on understanding these emotions and developing healthier coping mechanisms.”

Seeking pleasure

The human brain is wired to seek out activities that release dopamine, the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter; recreational drugs can provide a rapid and intense dopamine release, leading to the reinforcement of drug use behaviours.

Personality traits

Traits such as impulsivity, sensation-seeking, and nonconformity have been linked to higher drug use; people with rather more adventurous personalities, for example, may be more inclined to experiment with drugs for new experiences.

Social Factors

Peer pressure and social environment

The influence of friends and acquaintances can significantly impact one’s decision to use drugs. Particularly among teenagers and young adults, the desire to fit in or be accepted is a powerful motivator.

Family influence

Family behaviours, especially those of parents and siblings, play a crucial role in shaping attitudes towards drug use. A family history of drug use can normalize the behaviour or increase exposure to drugs at an early age.

Cultural and social norms

Cultural acceptance of drug use, as seen with alcohol and, increasingly, marijuana in various societies, can diminish perceived risks and barriers to usage. Media portrayal of drug use as glamorous or rebellious can also play a role.

Dr Michael Kane, Chief Medical Officer at Indiana Center for Recovery, notes: “Our society’s depiction of drug use can often mask the severe consequences associated with it. It is important to balance this with education on the real risks and damages caused by drugs.”

Environmental Factors

Accessibility and legality

The availability of drugs in a community and the legal status of certain substances significantly influence usage rates. Legal substances like alcohol and tobacco are the most commonly used, while the legalisation of marijuana in some areas has led to increased use.

Economic factors

Economic instability can drive individuals towards drug use as a form of escape from financial stress or as a coping mechanism for the uncertainties of life.

Environmental stressors, including economic downturns and lack of access to recreational and occupational opportunities, can lead people to seek out the temporary solace offered by drugs.

Educational and policy considerations

Education and awareness

Effective drug education programmes that start early in life can help reduce drug use; these programmes need to accurately reflect the risks and consequences of drug use, while also providing young people with skills to resist social pressures.

Policy and community interventions

Community-based programmes that provide recreational activities, job training, and educational opportunities can mitigate some of the environmental and economic factors that contribute to drug use.

By no means cut and dried

The factors influencing an individual’s decision to use recreational drugs are deeply intertwined, involving personal experiences, social interactions, environmental cues and more. By understanding these complex dynamics, professionals, families, and communities can better support individuals at risk and develop more effective intervention and prevention strategies. Addressing the root causes of drug use, rather than just its symptoms, is essential for fostering healthier communities and reducing the prevalence of drug-related issues.




Samantha Green, a psychology graduate from the University of Hertfordshire, has a keen interest in the fields of mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.

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