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Is there such a thing as a ‘recreational drug’?

Put simply, there is no such thing as a ‘recreational drug’.
It is a term not used in the scientific literature and anyone from the alcohol and other drug field who knows what they’re talking about would never use it.
Politicians and the media love the term, tossing it around frequently and then yell and scream about the
term being ‘inappropriate’ – when in actual fact, they are the only ones who really use

Although there are no such things as recreational drugs,
there is ‘recreational drug use’. Maybe that seems like semantics but there
really is a huge difference. It would appear that the media and some
politicians use the term to describe a particular drug that is somehow less
problematic than others. It is frequently used to describe drugs such as
ecstasy and amphetamine (‘speed’), but has also been used in discussions about
many other substances.

This is a little like the terminology ‘soft drugs’ and ‘hard
drugs’, words used to categorize particular substances as less or more harmful,
although it is not quite clear how these assumptions are always made. Once again, as
far as I’m aware, these are not terms that are used by anyone who knows what
they’re talking about.

So what is recreational drug use? Essentially, although the
drugs can change, there have been five patterns of use identified, these are as

  • Experimental use – is usually motivated by curiosity and a desire to experience the effects the person has heard about. Experimental use is generally in social settings and among close friends and is limited in the number of times it occurs. An example could be a young girl having her first drink of alcohol at a party.
  • Recreational use (also known as social-recreational use) – this use tends to occur in social settings among friends who wish to share an experience. Unlike experimental use which is limited to a few episodes, social use tends to be repeated regularly.
  • Circumstantial-situational use – this usually takes place in response to a specific situation. A great example of this is the person who can’t have a drink without lighting up a cigarette. The smoking of the cigarette is defined as circumstantial use.
  • Intensified use – this is long-term patterned drug use at least once a day. This type of use takes place to relieve a persistent problem or stressful situation or a desire to maintain a certain self-prescribed level of performance. A cocaine user who uses the drug to keep him alert while at work would be an example of this type of drug use.
  • Compulsive use – drug use that has gotten completely out of control and producing some degree of dependence. They often keep using even though they are experiencing major problems, often to prevent withdrawal. This is the most widely discussed type of drug use with an example being a heroin user who needs to inject regularly. 

Recreational drug use does not try to describe the drug, rather it examines the way a particular drug is used. A person who is demonstrating recreational drug use may eventually start to use it intensively or compulsively – it all depends on the person and the situation they find themselves in. Of course, there are some drugs that by their very nature (i.e. their addictive qualities) are more likely to lead to compulsive use than others, e.g. heroin. Others are far more likely to be used in an experimental way due to their availability and effect, e.g. magic mushrooms and inhalants.

Where the confusion comes in is that a drug like ecstasy or LSD is
much more likely to be used in a recreational (or social-recreational) manner
than say an intensive or compulsive way (although it can happen in rare cases).
It is usually used in a social setting amongst a group of friends who wish to
share an experience and use is repeated regularly over time. Another important
aspect of this pattern of drug use is that it is rare to see use escalate to
abuse, which once again tends to be a characteristic of ecstasy or LSD.

That said, ecstasy or any other drug should not be
classified as recreational drug. To describe a drug as ‘recreational’ is just
as ludicrous as calling them ‘intensive drugs’, ‘experimental drugs’ (a completely different meaning to that term!) or
‘compulsive drugs’.

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