July 18, 2017
People use alcohol and other drugs (AOD) for a variety of reasons: to relax, for enjoyment, to be part of a group, sometimes to avoid physical and/or psychological pain. Others may experiment out of a sense of curiosity, excitement or rebellion.1 Alcohol and other drugs may also be used to cope with problems, relieve stress, or overcome boredom.
AOD use is influenced by a number of factors, but most people use substances for the benefits (perceived and/or experienced) – not for the potential harm. This applies to both legal and illegal substances.
No one takes a drug to feel worse.
It’s important to remember that the vast majority of people who drink alcohol and/or use legal or illegal drugs do not become dependent on any of these substances.2
The majority of Australians drink alcohol (85.5%) with 15.6% of the population using illicit drugs. Cannabis is the most commonly-used illicit drug (10.4%). A much smaller proportion use illegal drugs, such as crystal methamphetamine (ice) (1.4%), cocaine (2.5%) and ecstasy (2.2%), and even smaller misuse inhalants (1%).3 Prescribed and over-the-counter drugs to treat medical conditions can also be misused, and this is a growing problem in Australia. A drug being used off-script, or not for the prescribed purpose, leads to an increased risk of harms.
Drugs are used in different situations and frequencies, and for different reasons, depending on the individual and at the specific point in their life. People can move between categories, one stage will not inevitably lead to another, and there is no clearly defined start or end stage. The majority of people who use AOD do not become dependent or develop serious problems as a result.
Experimental use: a person tries a substance once or twice out of curiosity.
Recreational use: a person chooses to use AOD for enjoyment, particularly to enhance a mood or social occasion. The majority of people use substances for this reason and rarely develop problems as a result.
Situational use: AOD is used to cope with the demands of particular situations such as responding to peer group pressure, overcoming shyness in a social situation or coping with some form of stress.
Intensive use or ‘bingeing’: a person intentionally consumes a heavy amount of AOD over a short period of time, which may be hours, days or weeks.
Dependent use: a person becomes dependent on AOD after prolonged or heavy use over time. They feel the need to take the substance consistently in order to feel normal and/or to avoid uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms.
Therapeutic use: a person takes a drug, such as a pharmaceutical, for medicinal purposes.4
People choose a particular drug mainly for the specific feelings they get as a result of using them. For example, people may use codeine to relieve pain, drink alcohol to relax and relieve stress, take amphetamines to increase energy or use hallucinogens to alter their perception.5 Using one drug does not necessarily lead people to trying other drugs. Research is dismissive of concerns about so-called ‘gateway drugs’.
There is no evidence suggesting people who use cannabis will ‘graduate’ over time to other drugs such as heroin or amphetamines.6
A person’s AOD use may be influenced by the availability, price and purity of specific drugs – often it is the combination of such factors that determine which drug a person uses. Usually if supplies of a preferred drug fall (which in turn can significantly increase the price) then people may switch to an alternative drug to satisfy their needs. 7
Some people combine different kinds of AOD to increase the intensity of the experience.5 They may not be aware of the harms that may be caused when the different drugs, such as alcohol and prescriptions drugs, interact with each other.16,17
People may also use some drugs to counteract the effects of another drug. For example, people may smoke cannabis to ‘come down’ from the stimulating effects of amphetamines. However, using one drug after another means the person may suffer the side effects from both drugs.5