Why Do People Use Drugs?
Drugs and Alcohol Within the Criminal Justice System – CJ411-01
Why do people choose to use drugs? With all the research that has been conducted and all the evidence that has been discovered which proves that illicit (and most prescription drugs) are harmful to the human body, why do people still choose to use and abuse drugs? These are questions that have baffled law enforcement officers, medical professionals, researchers, and politicians for hundreds of years. There is no easy answer to either question, however, because it is subjective to the individual. Some users are genetically predisposed to drug use, while for some, drugs provide a much-needed escape from reality; still others use drugs because it “cool,” accepted, or something they feel pressured into doing.
The physiology and genetic makeup which are unique to every individual person contribute to their choice to use and/or abuse drugs according the Biological Theory of Addiction. This theory holds that our genetics make us more susceptible to addiction and leave us vulnerable to substance abuse problems. Additionally, individuals who lack certain brain functions such as impulse control and problem-solving skills will likely pass this deficiency onto their children genetically. (Horvath, Misra, Epner, & Cooper, 2006) Many researchers have proposed their own sub-theories, but ultimately, neuroscientists and biologists believe that the use and/or abuse of drugs depends on the internal biochemical factors occurring within the individual person. Religious and spiritual groups claim that only a “bad” person that is void of morality would choose to consume drugs and pose a risk to public health. Psychotherapists and trauma specialists conject that drug abuse is directly linked to unresolved trauma from the individual’s past. Environmentalists and social scientists blame addiction on “external factors.” (Jaffe, 2018)
The Psychological Theory of Addiction suggests that individuals use/abuse drugs as an escape. This could be an escape from bills that cannot be paid, an emotion the individual does not want to experience, a traumatic experience they do not wish to remember, or a myriad of other possible undesirable circumstances. (Abadinsky, 2018) According to psychologists Dr. Tom Horvath, Ph.D., Dr. Kaushik Misra, Ph.D., Dr. Amy K. Epner, Ph.D., and Dr. Galen Morgan Cooper, Ph.D. in their article entitled “the Psychological Causes of Drug Addiction,” human behavior is learned. In the same way that an individual learns about drug use/abuse and other unhealthy behaviors by observing their friends or family members engaging in it, it can be unlearned and combatted if the user is willing to change and comply with their treatment plan. Additionally, the individual’s thoughts and beliefs serve as determining factors in the success or failure of their recovery. For example, if they do not begin rehabilitation with and open mind and hold the belief that treatment cannot and will not help them, (or they do not genuinely desire to be rehabilitated,) it is unlikely that the experience will be successful. Developmental maturity (or lack thereof) also contributes to a person’s decision to partake in or abstain from drugs. (Horvath, Misra, Epner, & Cooper, 2006)
Movies and television shows glamorize drug use. They portray attractive actors engaging in heightened sexual intercourse while using ecstasy, they show hardened gangsters shooting up a building because someone didn’t pay for a shipment of cocaine they sold them, and they send the message to our teens and young adults that in order to have fun in college, you must smoke marijuana and make poor decisions. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Twitter, and even Pinterest are full of images and videos of half-naked girls and guys who either have a joint in their mouth or a bong in their hands. The evening news is filled with stories about overdoses and the current opiate crisis, yet the subconscious minds of many adolescents and young adults still state, “I want that.” (therecoveryvillage.com, 2019) Why? A kingpin or mob boss in the movies always has several girls on his arm and an awkward or socially misunderstood teen might think that their sexual and social acceptance will improve if they were perceived to have money, power, authority, and use drugs themselves. The most popular guy in school is smoking a joint and holding up a middle finger to the camera in his profile picture on Facebook so if they use drugs, they might become as popular as him. All of that teen’s friends are doing it… Isn’t that a reason to engage in it too? (pediatrics.aappublications.org, 2010) This kind of peer pressure, acceptance, and viral sharing of drug paraphernalia by both society and the media are what believers of the Sociological Theory of Addiction blame for drug use and abuse.
It is human nature to seek acceptance and affection from our peers; we all long to feel understood and validated by people who care about us. That is completely normal. What is not normal or healthy, however, is when a teen or young adult is so desperate to feel like they are a part of a group or organization (usually because their parents are not very involved in their lives or are absent entirely) that they are willing to compromise their values and do things that they normally wouldn’t. (Abadinsky, 2018) Acceptance by peers becomes more attractive than obeying the law and rules that they know they should, so they give into temptation and submit to the group’s influence. This influence could include criminal behaviors such as stealing, defacing private property, assaulting someone in public, and using illicit drugs. When drugs and other substances are introduced to an individual and the perceived message from the group to the individual is “you must do this or we will no longer accept you,” that crosses a line. I feel that many teens and young adults who have not fully reached developmental maturity are social creatures desperate for acceptance and have rebellious streaks which make the challenge of infiltrating a new group new and exciting. Therefore, Edwin Sutherland’s Differential Association Theory offers the most plausible explanation of why people choose to use and abuse drugs in my opinion. This theory is like Learning Theory in that it holds that criminal and otherwise socially undesirable behavior is learned through observation of your peers and inner circle.
In researching Differential Association Theory, I observed many similarities between why people begin to use drugs and why people become affiliated with gangs. Many young people become involved in gangs for several of the same reasons. According to the Los Angeles Police Department’s website, there are several reasons why a young person or adult might feel compelled to join a gang including: identity/recognition, protection, fellowship/comradery, intimidation, and to participate in criminal activity. Some have never experienced familial acceptance or had a role in a family’s dynamic, so the sense of community that gangs provide for their members is very attractive to some people who have either experienced broken homes or have essentially raised themselves out on their own. Joining a gang does not always feel like a choice; members are sometimes coerced or intimidated into joining or participating in criminal activity. (lapdonline.org, 2017) Once someone has either been coerced into joining or has willingly joined, the gang makes it as difficult as possible to leave. While this is good for people who want to feel assured of membership and loyalty, this is bad for people who later down the line realize that this was just a rebellious phase they were going through and seek to leave this lifestyle behind. (Young, 2009) This coercive mentality is exactly the phenomena that I feel Edwin Sutherland was trying to express and explain in his Differential Association Theory.
No matter what an individual’s reason is for beginning drug use, they must realize that actions have consequences. Drug use is not “no big deal” or a victimless crime; people get hurt, lives are lost, and families are torn apart daily. Abusers who make adult decisions to use drugs or ingest other substances must be prepared to receive adult retributive punishments such as serving time, probation, parole, or community service as well as paying costly attorney fees in addition to losing the trust of their family members and employer.