Why Does a Person Start Using Drugs? Why Do They Continue?

Young man at the party got offered joint

Drug use can be a mystery to someone who never been involved in it. But it can also be a mystery for those who DO. It’s very common for a person who’s drinking excessively or using drugs to not really understand why they got started or why they went on after their first experience.

Let’s take a look at some of these reasons. I’ll give you some answers taken from interviews of people who became addicted and then went through rehab. They told me about their early days, their first drug uses and then how they gradually became addicted.

Why do people start?

It’s not a simple answer because different people have different answers, as you’ll see.

In many cases, subtle peer pressure is involved. It’s not as clear as someone mocking you if you don’t take a puff off the joint that’s being passed around. It’s more subtle, like “everyone else is doing it and I don’t want to seem like a goody-two-shoes.”

Another factor is that someone tells a person that this particular drug is harmless, others are using it and they are having fun. So why not? Maybe the person’s parents said something like “marijuana use is harmful and addicting,” but here’s a roomful of their friends smoking pot and they seem to be having a great time. These reports conflict and the person is unable to make a sound decision.

“My friends were smoking, they told me there was nothing wrong with it, that it was kind of normal and everyone was doing it. So I started.”

Like one woman said, “My friends were smoking, they told me there was nothing wrong with it, that it was kind of normal and everyone was doing it. So I started.”

A young man said, “I smoked pot to fit in. After all, they told me, ‘nobody died from smoking pot.’”

Some young people start using drugs because they don’t really have a focus in life. Like this young man: “I was in middle school, I didn’t really know who I was as a person. I wanted to get along with others so I started smoking pot to fit in.”

Drug use might give a person an easy way to fit into a new group of friends. Like this woman: “My family moved from one state to another and I was trying to find some new friends. This one group was smoking weed and drinking and it seemed like a fun way to fit in.”

A teen who’s bored and feeling rebellious might find that drug use provides a little adventure: “I was hanging with an outcast group and we’d do anything that seemed wrong or bad. When drugs came around, we started using them and liked it.”

Something is missing in these young people’s lives and it seems acceptable to reach for drugs as a solution. Unfortunately, these individuals did not have enough education on the harm that could occur as a result. All of these people became addicted and needed a drug rehab program to help them get sober.

Young guy using street pills
Photo by Motortion/iStockPhoto.com

Why did they continue?

After the first time drinking, misusing pills or opioids or smoking pot, why would a person repeat the action? Well, it’s not to become addicted. It’s safe to say that NO ONE wants to be addicted, no matter what they say. Unfortunately, almost no one believes that drinking, smoking pot or using some other drug a second or third time will lead to addiction. They don’t see that far-off eventuality. It’s something much more short-range that appeals to them as you’ll see in the following statements.

This young man started with pot and then began using party drugs like ecstasy, LSD, Rohypnol or GHB. About a year after his first use of marijuana, he lost control of his drug use and became addicted. He said, “It really was just the feeling, it felt good to smoke pot, it felt good to use these drugs, so to me that’s what I was after. I knew it was wrong, but following that feeling led me down the path of using other drugs.”

Another person may crave a departure from reality. Like this fellow: “Basically we were smoking marijuana, and we were basically doing anything we could get our hands on, anything to escape reality and look for the next thrill or high or whatever.”

There’s yet another reason a person continues. “I was out partying and I was a little drunk. Someone offered me weed and my decisions weren’t the best so I smoked it.” In other words, his ability to make the right choice was already impaired. So he had no reason to say no.

Here’s another person who had a similar experience. “When I was smoking pot and drinking, that was enough for a while. Then I was hanging with older kids and they were using harder drugs. They offered me Xanax and I wanted to see what it was about. I had no intention of using anything over and over but it just happened.”

Young man in interview
Photo by Motortion/iStockPhoto.com

Here’s another person who got caught in addiction after thinking that nothing was going to happen if they tried one or two other drugs. “I started smoking marijuana and no consequences happened at first, Then I was with a group of people and they offered me some Percocet [opioid painkiller]. My thought process was like, well, I’ve smoked weed before, that’s a drug, this is another drug. Nothing came from that so this is going to be fine. I’ll try that, it sounds fun.”

Every one of these people ended up in rehab, most for addiction to opioids or methamphetamine. They all started using drugs as teens or even earlier. Once they started, it seemed like no big deal to continue using drugs and to reach for the next substance offered. Whatever situation or problem that was alleviated by that first use of alcohol, marijuana, or whatever would just continue to not be a problem as long as they kept getting high.

Why don’t they stop themselves before they are addicted?

Because they don’t see it coming, basically. Every time they pick up a joint or take a drink, they are reducing their awareness just a little bit. When that drug wears off, they could still suffer the residual effects of that drug for a while. For example, THC has been detected in the body of a frequent marijuana user as long as 13 days after the last use. Their decisions might not be the clearest for a while.

“Because of those decisions, smoking weed and no consequences really happening, was open to trying new things. But that’s when it my life began to spiral down because I thought these other drugs were going to be like smoking pot…”

Here’s how one person described the way they got caught in addiction: “Because of those decisions, smoking weed and no consequences really happening, was open to trying new things. But that’s when it my life began to spiral down because I thought these other drugs were going to be like smoking pot. But after a while, things caught on and went downhill fast.”

An addict in a hallway
Photo by AnkiHoglund/iStockPhoto.com

This young woman had been using ecstasy, mushrooms and LSD but had not quite become addicted. “Up to that point, I still did not feel like I had a problem. I’d tell people, ‘I’m not addicted, I just use when I want to.’ But the first time I did heroin, I knew I was in a lot of trouble. The way it felt, the craving I had for it. Soon I was using it daily, and soon after that, I was in rehab.”

This fellow was also surprised by becoming addicted to heroin: “After using marijuana a while, I became okay with using other drugs. And it kind of snowballed. It’s not like I set out to be a heroin addict, I don’t think anyone does, but it ended up that way. Before I knew it, I was in too deep to pull myself out.”

Once their lives start on that downhill slide, it’s hard to stop. Some people may just escape by the skin of their teeth but others are a little too far down the skid to stop themselves. And for them, a good rehab provides them with a route back to health, back to their real lives and their real personalities. And back to the families that love them.

It’s vital to tell young people the truth. Not an exaggerated story of immediate death and destruction if a single joint is smoked, but the real story. Youth have to have enough understanding to know why drug use can eventually cause them to lose everything they love, even if a roomful of their friends look like they are having a blast. It’s a challenging job for a parent or caretaker. But it’s one of the most vital lessons a young person can learn.


Reviewed and Edited by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.