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Why do young people take drugs?

Last week I was approached by a parent after he’d heard me present and when he was sure that nobody was within earshot he gently dug me in the ribs and said “C’mon, everybody does it … it’s just that not everyone admits to it …” I wasn’t absolutely sure what he was talking about at the start but it became obvious as the conversation went on that he was referring to illicit drug use. His line was that there wasn’t anybody who hadn’t dabbled at least a couple of times, whether it was a puff on a joint when they were in uni, or a line of coke at a party once – it was just that although everyone had done it at some point, it was only a brave few that talked about their past use openly.

He had come forward because of some of the data I had presented earlier that evening – i.e., the 2010 National Drug Household Survey results that clearly show that the majority of Australians have never used any illicit drug. It was quite clear that he found this extremely hard to believe – it didn’t match his own personal experience and so he rejected it … My response was simple and the one I always give to people who find this data difficult to comprehend – “Come and travel with me around the country and meet the many parents who have no understanding or experience of the drug world. It wasn’t part of their life when they were growing up, they never saw it, weren’t interested in it and never will be!”

It is often these people, who are now parents, who have the greatest problem understanding why anyone, particularly their child, would ever take drugs. Although all illicit drug use is confusing to them, it is the newer drugs such as ecstasy that really strikes fear into the hearts of these parents. I’ve had three emails this week from mothers who have recently discovered that their teens have been using ecstasy. They are totally at a loss at what to do and where to go – but they’re biggest question is why would they take it and put their lives at risk?

So why do people, particularly young people, take
ecstasy, or any drug for that matter? My usual response to parents who ask this is to get them to examine their own drug use – whether
that be alcohol, tobacco or even coffee (caffeine) – and the answer usually comes
down to pleasure! Although there are exceptions (and we’ll get to that later) most people take drugs because they derive some sort of fun or
pleasurable experience from it – whether
it calms them down, relaxes them, supplies energy or gives them confidence. It’s not something that people like to admit but it’s the truth … drugs can be fun!

One of the very first times I appeared on television was on
the TODAY program. I was interviewed by Liz Hayes about ecstasy use and was asked about the negative effects of the drug. I reeled them off and she then asked me why anyone would
take such a substance, those risks sounded terrible. My response was naïve to say the least – quite
innocently I said that they enjoyed the perceived positive effects and had fun on the drug. The
Channel 9 switchboard subsequently rang hot with complaints – how dare someone
say that drug use was fun!

Different people take different drugs for different reasons.
Most people who have little contact with illicit drugs believe that many of
those who experiment with substances such as cannabis, ecstasy and the like have some bizarre psychological problem or that
they are using to block out pain they are experiencing in their lives (i.e., they must come from terrible homes and have awful lives). For most, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Most people who take drugs like ecstasy derive great pleasure from their drug use, they wouldn’t keep taking the drug if they didn’t, and not surprisingly, when they stop having fun, the vast majority of them cease their use. This can be a terribly difficult concept for a parent to grasp if they have never had any experience with drugs themselves – all they know is what they read in the papers and see on the television about young people’s lives ruined by drug use. Getting them to understand that this is not everyone’s experience (particularly when they first start taking the drug) is nigh on impossible.

At the same time, let’s not minimize the risks associated with any drug use, let alone illicits. There are so many things that can go wrong and when it comes to illicit drugs, one of the greatest risks is that they are illegal, if you get caught, you could get a criminal record and your life could change forever. There are a range of physical, psychological and social risks associated with all drugs and of course, there are some young people who die as a result of their drug use. It is no surprise that parents worry …

For those who make the decision to use drugs, however, they
believe the perceived benefits far outweigh these potential negatives – trying to tell an ecstasy user about the possible risks is incredibly difficult. The positive experience that he or she is having when they take the drug is far more powerful than any information on short or long-term harms will ever be. For many, however, the pleasurable effects do not
last forever – as time goes on they build up a tolerance to the drug and
things change.  As I’ve said, this is why many people
simply stop using drugs – they simply don’t have the positive experiences on them that they used
to. The trouble is that some don’t stop using, even though they’re having a bad time and that’s where things can go horribly wrong … dependence, both physical and/or
psychological, can develop making it difficult for people to break out of what
can be a very destructive cycle.

As I mentioned above, of course there are those who use drugs for different reasons – to remove themselves from their life, block out bad feelings and ‘self-medicate’ and, not surprisingly, these are usually the people who end up having major problems with their drug use. And once again, it needs to be acknowledged that someone who started using a drug for ‘fun’ can very quickly find themselves in great difficulty – you only need to look at the abuse of alcohol to see that this is a very real possibility.

Currently, one of our greatest problems is that the age of
initiation into drug use is getting younger and younger. Available evidence shows that there are not more teens experimenting with illicits, but those that do are using earlier than in the past. We know that the
younger a person begins using drugs, the greater the problems they will have in
the future. When we attempt to give drug education to anyone it is imperative
that we give them accurate information – this includes the reason why most
people use drugs. If we don’t acknowledge that some people enjoy the effects of
drugs, how will we ever appear credible enough to be able to challenge them
with the negative consequences?

Looking for information or support services on alcohol or drugs?

If you or a friend or family member needs assistance in this area, Alcohol and Drug Information Services (ADIS) are available in every state and territory. Each of these are each staffed by trained professionals who can help with your query and provide confidential advice or refer you to an appropriate service in your area.

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