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Why Do People Try — Why Do People Use — Drugs? Part 1 (Version 1.1.4)

Confused or befuddled as to why anyone would ever take drugs? Ever hear someone say there are a million reasons why people use drugs? Or perhaps you think there is only one reason why people take drugs: they are loser druggies just looking to get high? Did you know Jesus was accused of that? Whatever the harshest words were at the time, I’m sure those were the ones used against him.

In this essay you will learn of the few key reasons — the isolated variables — as to why people have tried — and why people use — drugs.

The few key reasons why people have tried — and why people use — drugs, all can have a range of inclusion from zero to significant. The variable Time works with this model and is not rejected but respected.


Are you concerned about people who use drugs? Are you concerned about people who are addicted to drugs?

Those and dozens more questions arise when the topic of drugs comes up.

As with the study of any subject, it is beneficial to create a list of questions, then organize the list to determine which questions rely on answers from other questions.

Fairly quickly it was apparent the very first question should be, “how did humanity come to use drugs?” History and chronology are very important.

However, this is not a history lesson. And one easy answer is our ancestors foraged, but those and other answers can also be answers to questions that don’t require us to be experts in history, or do a lot of research. The question of how humanity came to use drugs leads to two very related questions. Questions that seem to be a good foundation for a model with which to begin to answer far more complicated questions, and questions specific to individuals.

This essay is an attempt to document an easy-to-understand model showing the fundamental reasons for:

  1. Why do people try drugs?
  2. Why do people use drugs?

Those two questions form the fundamental model which isolates the variables, even allowing us to focus on the “before taking a drug” side of time, which is ALWAYS the best place* to meet someone.

* And by “place” I mean to imply set and setting. :-)

In answering those questions a model was created.

Model Parameters

  • Be as objective and all-encompassing as possible.
  • Imply no accusations or judgement; start free of stigma and shame.
  • Be as simple and easy-to-understand as possible, without overgeneralizing or sacrificing truth.
  • Allow for a single point-in-time analysis.
  • Allow for a duration-of-time analysis.
  • Provide a way to document mobility between reasons for using drugs.
  • Provide a way to document multiple simultaneous reasons for using drugs.
  • Allow for any period in history, including the present and future, to be studied.
  • Include every kind of drug: stimulants, depressants, narcotics, etc…
  • Encompass all drugs: prescribed, prohibited, over-the-counter (OTC), as well as plants and supplements.
  • Account for instinctual interests in various plants and their properties as a means for healing.
  • Account for interest in plants and substances through contact with others.
  • Include every socioeconomic group, culture, religion, race, nationality, etc… Exclude no one, no exceptions.
  • No age discrimination; any age can be studied.
  • No gender discrimination.
  • Be able to document from any person’s perspective (taker, offerer, bystander, friend, stranger, etc…).
  • Be able to document from any person’s physical proximity to the subject.
  • Imply no level of success as to whether the drug taking experience met with expectations.
  • Imply no level of education or degree of accuracy when learning about drugs from others.

Model Goals

  • Help us better understand and address the issues surrounding drug use and drug addiction.
  • Provide an easy way to begin to explain, document, and untangle the overlap among the reasons for using drugs. (I.e. isolating the variables.)
  • Be useful for individuals willing to, or wishing to, evaluate themselves and their drug use.
  • Be useful for people interested in studying others, either as individuals or in groups.
  • Be useful for people interested in helping others, either as individuals or in groups.
  • Provide a structure to deal intelligently with former users, current users, novice users, those expressing interest and those expressing none.

Visualizing the Model: Hierarchical Overview

Graphical depiction of why people use drugs
Graphical Hierarchy:
black on white, white on black

Before diving into an explanation of each part it’s probably best to give an overview first.

The model can be seen as a hierarchy starting with two main categories of reasons why people try — why people use — drugs.

Each of those two main categories of reasons has four sub categories. The wide rectangular box groups the reasons which generally involve more than one person, the areas outside the rectangular box indicate at least one person is involved, maybe more. In other words, outside the box means at-least-one, and inside the box usually means at-least-two.

To the right is a graphical overview as a 1920 x 1080 HD jpg file. Click on it for a larger view.

It is also possible to visualize the model as a table, or series of tables, but that will be later in this essay.

First, let’s take a look at the simplest reasons then gradually work towards the slightly more complex reasons.

Explaining the Model

After long analysis, and initially starting with one long list, it became clear the list could be grouped into two fundamental categories. Trying to find simple one-word labels for the categories was not a big concern until I realized some people would say I had merely described a supply and demand model. However, as can been seen from the Wikipedia entry on Supply and Demand, that model is principally concerned with economics; and it should be clear my model was not created from the perspective of money, but from the perspective of people.

The Two Main Categories

The two main categories of why people try — why people use — drugs are as follows:

Means (physical delivery, supply)

How a person and drugs come together at the same place and time, irrespective of the person’s interests, pursuit, or views on drugs.

Minds (put to use for, demand)

Why a person feels like or decides to — try or use — drugs.

Let’s take a look at some of the specifics of each: means, minds.

First, means. Below are the four main physical reasons describing the means by which a person is found to have drugs in his or her system:

Means (physical delivery, supply)

How a person and drugs come together at the same place and time, irrespective of the person’s interests, pursuit, or views on drugs.

  • Innocent Humans Consume Plant
  • Offered Them by Others
  • Pressured to Try Them by Others
  • Tricked by Substitution or Stealth
Reason: Innocent Humans Consume Plant

Plants have been on the planet far longer than humans. Given our mobility and curiosity it was inevitable that sooner or later people would discover plants have various properties in addition to nutrition for our physical bodies.  

This category is meant to describe not only the evolution of humanity, but also the unknowing, the naive, who ingest something without knowing what it is. The emphasis of this category is on availability, the why’s describing the reasons are not always known, or in focus. Like mountains are climbed “because they are there,” sometimes plants or drugs were consumed because they were there. This helps point out the distinction between the need to childproof and teen-proof access to some things, and a major sticking point, that the whole world can not be childproofed or teen-proofed.*

* (Another variable which can complicate matters is the fact there are so many different ideas, standards, and implementations of what is considered childproofing or childproofed. People’s versions of childproofing can draw the spectrum of responses from “your version of childproofing is far too lax,” to “your version of childproofing is beyond totalitarian.”)

Reason: Offered Them by Others

This category and the next are mostly self-explanatory. However, please keep in mind this model is meant to cover all cases, including both legal and illegal drugs. So this means doctors suggesting medication are in this category, as are salespeople offering drugs to doctors. As are people who pass a joint and the waiter asking you if you would like a drink before dinner. Just an offer, no escalations to coercion.

Reason: Pressured to Try Them by Others

Pressured to try drugs is different than being offered them, most of the time the specifics of the situation make it easy to distinguish between the two. One must also keep in mind that as long as intense shame and violence is meted out by Prohibitionists and their supporters, there will probably be a tendency for this category to be convenient to use to deflect the shame throwers.

And keep in mind the openness of this model, both legal and illegal drugs should be considered covered by this section, as well as both OTC (over-the-counter) and prescription drugs.

Reason: Tricked by Substitution or Stealth

This category includes all the ways people trick others into ingesting a drug. Perhaps someone picks up a glass of champagne thinking it’s carbonated apple juice (non-alcoholic). Or perhaps someone with nefarious intent spikes the drink of a date with the intention of rape.

Means: Conclusion

Above was a quick overview of the main physical reasons describing the means by which a person is found to have taken drugs, in answer to the questions: why people try — why people use — drugs?

It teases out the four key threads since each one could happen in isolation, however, the model allows for the weaving of multiple reasons at a single point in time, and tracking their change over time. (There are PDFs at the end of this essay which can be printed and written on.) For instance, in some circumstances cases starting in Offered Them by Others could escalate into Pressured to Try Them by Others, possibly even resulting in someone being Tricked by Substitution or Stealth.

As we will see in the next category, minds, mixtures of reasons and moving between reasons can occur. Not every means reason stands alone in every case; not every minds reason stands alone in every case.

More often than not, the reasons why people try — why people use — drugs, are combinations of each of the two main categories of reasons (means and minds). Which, in essence, means some mixture of any of the eight subcategories.

We’ve just reviewed the four subcategories of means, now let’s take a look at the four subcategories of minds:

Minds (put to use for, demand )

Why a person feels like or decides to — try or use — drugs.

  • Rebelliousness
  • Pleasure
  • Advancement
  • Ailment
Reason: Rebelliousness

This category is filled with people of all ages. It’s not just rebellious teens who populate this reason, many adults and even some elderly carry a rebellious streak. Rebelliousness is found in every socioeconomic group. Rebelliousness can be a passing phase in a person’s life, or it can last for decades. Rebelliousness can emanate from feelings. Rebelliousness can also be a part of a person’s philosophy, i.e. stick it to the man. This was not meant to be an exhaustive list of what constitutes rebelliousness.

Reason: Pleasure

The first reason that comes to many people’s minds of why people try drugs is “to get high; for pleasure.” However, it should be noted that lots of people have taken drugs willy-nilly and found the experience to be anything but pleasant or pleasurable; for example, perhaps they were expecting a relaxing feeling, but instead their mind raced for hours and they were jumpy.

This introduces us to the next part of the model, that there are different aspects of a person’s being which can be targeted.
Physical — Your body. Your earthly biology. With your body you act, feel, and think.
Emotional — Your feelings. Passions, lack of passion, and gut instincts. These, mixed with your physical body (and time), leads to actions.
Cognitive — Your thoughts. Thinking things through and explaining them. Useful for reflecting on the Emotional and Physical aspects of a person’s being; as well as metacognition (thinking about your own thinking).

Therefore, in this Pleasure reason there are these three aspects which can be written like this: Physical Pleasure, Emotional Pleasure, and Cognitive Pleasure.

A comprehensive analysis, which this is not, it’s merely an overview, would also itemize each drug coupled with the desired effect, i.e. the reason it was taken, and an example situation.

It is currently not my intent to provide lots of examples for each, and I am not going to provide an exhaustive list of drugs people take. This is for a number of reasons, partly to KISS, partly because the list would never end due to drugs being invented and (re)discovered, but also because some of them are obvious. However, some examples will be given.

This is probably a good place to reiterate that these three targetable aspects are also intimately tied together — kind of like electricity and magnetism. And some drugs can take their main effect first in one aspect of a person’s being, but lead to either or both of the other two aspects. For example a drug might initially bring on Physical Pleasure but lead to Emotional Pleasure. Please note mobility over time can also take place among the eight main reasons.

So here are the three main aspects of Pleasure. With a few examples of drugs; the drugs listed here are not recommendations but reflect a general consensus. WARNING: taking pills and alcohol together can cause death.
Physical Pleasure — Alcohol, erectile dysfunction pills, etc…
Emotional Pleasure — Alcohol, MDMA, etc…
Cognitive Pleasure — Cannabis, psychedelics, entheogens, etc…

In each of the next two reasons there are also physical, emotional, and cognitive aspects.

Reason: Advancement

People sometimes take drugs to enhance their capabilities. Some of the Advancement is relatively easy to document while some of it is not. (Again, please note the drugs listed here are not recommendations.)
Physical Advancement — Caffeine, steroids, amphetamines, drugs taken to maintain health, etc…
Emotional Advancement — MDMA, psychedelics, etc…
Cognitive Advancement — Coffee, psychedelics, marijuana, amphetamines, etc…
Spiritual Advancement — Psychedelics, entheogens, etc…

Finally, sometimes people take drugs because they are ailing; in some sort of pain or discomfort.

Reason: Ailment

Taking drugs due to an ailment probably constitutes the biggest reason of all for why people take drugs, whether legal or not.

Chances are, if you’ve been very sick or injured, you’ve taken prescription drugs on the advice of a doctor or nurse. In addition to drugs prescribed by a doctor you can also buy drugs “over the counter,” (OTC) at various stores. Then of course there is the underground market that also sells drugs.

Ailments, as reasons for taking drugs, also have physical, emotional, and cognitive aspects. In other words people can suffer from Physical Ailments, Emotional Ailments, and Cognitive Ailments.

A few examples:
Physical Ailments — allergies, headache, broken bones, rash, bruise, etc…
Emotional Ailments — breaking up with a partner, death of loved one, rape, suffering and frustration due to wanting something you can’t have, emotional abuse, panic attacks, etc…
Cognitive Ailments — being lied to, being insulted, believing in lies, emotional abuse, brain tumor, Alzheimer’s disease, listening to people you very much disagree with, etc…

There is also an Inside layer and Outside layer describing where the Ailment is located.
Inside — Inside the person
Outside — Outside the person

Graphical depiction of why people use drugs: Focus on Ailment Reason, black text on a white background
Graphical Hierarchy, Ailment Focus:
black on white, white on black

Graphical depiction of why people use drugs
Graphical Hierarchy:
black on white, white on black

Thus instead of three separate aspects to Ailments there are six. You may recall this from the graphical overview at the beginning. On the left is a close up of this specific section.

By combining the words, simple labels are formed:
Inside Physical Ailment
Inside Emotional Ailment
Inside Cognitive Ailment
Outside Physical Ailment
Outside Emotional Ailment
Outside Cognitive Ailment

I know what some of you are thinking, “what kind of cognitive ailment can a person have which is outside the person? How and why would a person take drugs for that?!” And “what is an emotional ailment that’s on the outside?”

I’m glad you asked. But before we get more specific here is a quick generalization, Inside Ailments are on the inside of a person. An Outside Physical Ailment is at the skin level. And Outside Emotional Ailments and Outside Cognitive Ailments are problems afflicting others so much they end up being the impetus for someone else to try — or use — drugs.

As I wrote above, this writeup is not a comprehensive analysis, if it were, it would include information like this for each of the six aspects of Inside Ailments: Description, Relief Sought, Case-in-Point or Examples, Drugs, and more. Also, this is not meant in any way to be taken as a recipe book; it is meant to point out a model, a logical foundation; it is not meant to be a reference manual for drugs to consume.

We’re about to introduce a new important point beyond what’s already been covered. But I think it would be good to have a miniature review here.

Miniature Review
It turns out there is more than one reason people use drugs, it’s not just about “getting high;” and there are far fewer than a million reasons, at least fundamental reasons, why people use drugs.

In order to have a foundation to evaluate and address drug misuse, current drug use, and potential use, we need an accurate model to double check our work and make sure we’re not overlooking important variables.

There are two main categories of reasons why people try — why people use — drugs: the physical means by which they obtained them and whatever mindset they had to try them.

Each of those two categories contains four distinct reasons.

  • Means — Innocent Humans Consume Plant, Offered Them by Others, Pressured to Try Them by Others, Tricked by Substitution or Stealth
  • Minds — Rebelliousness, Ailment, Pleasure, Advancement

In the Minds category, the Ailment, Pleasure, and Advancement reasons of why people use drugs all have these three aspects: Physical, Emotional, and Cognitive.

This means the above reasons can more specifically said to be:
Pleasure — Physical Pleasure, Emotional Pleasure, and Cognitive Pleasure
Advancement — Physical Advancement, Emotional Advancement, Cognitive Advancement, and Spiritual Advancement

The Ailment reason has Inside and Outside sources thus multiplying the three aspects by two:
Ailment — Inside Physical Ailment, Inside Emotional Ailment, Inside Cognitive Ailment, Outside Physical Ailment, Outside Emotional Ailment, and Outside Cognitive Ailment.

And this is where we left off above, right before this miniature review.
End of Miniature Review

There’s one more very important angle to track for the Ailment reason. It is something drug users and observers of drug users can use to improve accuracy, or at least try. It’s based on the fact people can misdiagnose themselves, as well as misdiagnose others. In other words oftentimes people can be so distracted or in pain by a symptom, they only medicate the symptom, and the cause of the Ailment is not addressed.

Therefore adding a Cause and Effect field to each of the six Ailment areas means there are twelve distinct cells; which means twelve distinct reasons. This can be seen in the table below.






















I imagine this is some of where the notion of “there are a million reasons why people take drugs,” comes from.

Thumbnail of PDF document for writing on
Thumbnail of PDF document,
see download links below

This table is more than just a visual aid to help people understand the model. Expand the size of the cells, make the text in them a bit more subtle, and put them on one page designed to be written on, the result is a bunch of PDFs; I have done just that, links below.

This distinction between Cause and Effect provides a nonjudgmental opportunity for reflection and can help people think more objectively about their own drug use. Perhaps the Cause and Effect cells can be used by observers to jot notes as they get to know drug users, or even in anticipation of meeting them; to record what they already know and perhaps identify assumptions they may hold.

This is the end of part 1. In part 2 we will take a slightly deeper look into the various ways to divide Ailments and some specifics. In the mean time here are some PDFs with fill-in-the-blank spaces.


2013-03-29 — version 1.1.0

  • Swapped out “framework” for “model.” Model seems to be the industry jargon instead of framework.
  • Swapped out “article” for “essay,” to lend it more of a work-in-progress perspective and hint at the fact it was written by a non-journalist who is a beginner.
  • Moved a few items from Model Goals to Model Parameters.
  • Added another clarifying Model Parameter, “Provide a way to document multiple simultaneous reasons for using drugs.”

  • This essay is not meant to be a bastion of reform strategy or convincing as to why to end drug prohibition. Please see the handouts if you are looking for that kind of stuff.

I confess I have not yet read Drugs, Set & Setting, and heard just a little about it over the years (not realizing it was a book at first). But, out of respect, I do not wish to dwell on theories I know little of (but am glad to know more of :-).

I look forward to reading Dr. Zinberg’s book since I have so much respect for Stanton Peele.