Drug use can have social benefits, and acknowledging this could improve rehabilitation

April 2, 2018 by Jennifer Power, The Conversation
Young people have reported cultural gains from drug use, such as strengthening social ties and gaining access to social networks. Credit: www.shutterstock.com

Illicit drug use is often framed in terms of risk and antisocial or criminal behaviour. But drug use is often a highly social activity. For many people, the pleasure of using drugs is about social connection as much as it is about the physical effects.

A new study aiming to understanding the social benefits of use may help us to improve responses to risky or harmful drug taking.

Pleasure is not just physical

Pleasure is an obvious part of drug use and the short-term physical benefits are well known. Drugs can produce a "high", give people energy, make them feel good, reduce stress and aid sleep.

The social benefits of drug use are more complex to quantify. But there are now numerous studies showing people use alcohol or other drugs in social settings such as bars, clubs and parties to enhance their interactions with others through increased confidence, greater sociability and less anxiety. For some people this leads to longer-term benefits such as stronger bonds with friends.

This was shown in recent Australian studies where young people reported cultural gains from drug use, such as strengthening social ties and gaining access to social networks that offered a form of cultural capital.

The social benefits of drug use

"Party drugs" are those which, as the name suggests, are generally used in a dance party or nightclub setting. This set of drugs often includes MDMA (ecstasy), cocaine, ketamine, gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB), methamphetamine (speed) or crystal methamphetamine (crystal meth or ice).

Studies have shown people generally use party drugs to give them energy, help them socialise and have fun.

At La Trobe University, we recently conducted a study which explored party drug use – including use of crystal meth – among Australian gay and bisexual men who are living with HIV. Consistent with what we know about party-drug use, we found the men in our study almost always used party drugs socially – at nightclubs and dance parties or to facilitate sexual pleasure.

More surprisingly, we also found men who were occasional or regular users of party drugs reported significantly better social outcomes than non-users on a range of measures including a higher level of resilience, less experience of HIV-related stigma, and a greater sense of support from other people living with HIV as well as from their gay and bisexual friends.

This is important because all of these outcomes are strongly associated with greater emotional well-being among people living with HIV.

We are not claiming this study shows drug-use (in any form) has a direct impact on longer-term well-being. It's also possible people who are resilient and socially connected are more likely than others to be part of social circles in which drug use is common.

But this study does encourage us to consider the social losses some people might encounter if they stop drug use. Friendship, connection, intimacy and sex are fundamental to humanity. If these are strongly tied to the social circles in which a person consumes drugs, their social and emotional well-being may suffer if they cease drug use.

For people living with HIV, who may have experienced HIV-related stigma or rejection by sexual partners, access to social and sexual networks in which they feel accepted may be part of the appeal of drugs.

How this can help responses to drug use

Research that explores people's social experiences of drug use can usefully inform harm minimisation or drug cessation programs.

While the of a drug may pose risks, the in which drugs are consumed are not necessarily damaging or dangerous. In fact, they may be quite the opposite, providing a source of friendship, support and happiness for users.

It might be tempting to denounce this with the assertion that the potential health risks undermine any claims to benefit – or that friendships generated through drug use are not genuine. But sense of community and friendship has been successfully harnessed in drug and alcohol harm minimisation campaigns such as the "Take Care of Your Mates" campaigns directed toward young people.

Focusing on the social settings in which drug use occurs may also be useful for strategies to reduce other risks. For example, campaigns to promote safer sex among gay men who use crystal meth have focused on venues and parties where "sex on drugs" is common.

Understanding the potential social benefits of drug use may also enhance drug rehabilitation programs. Strategies to help people rebuild , friendships and support networks could be important in supporting long term cessation of drug use.

Explore further: Study finds recreational drug users not what we think

Related Stories

Study finds recreational drug users not what we think

December 7, 2017
A James Cook University researcher has been investigating why Australians are among the top users of illegal drugs in the world – and has uncovered some revealing new facts about the motivations of recreational drug users.

Young adults report differing sexual effects from alcohol, marijuana, and ecstasy

January 10, 2018
Alcohol, marijuana, and ecstasy each have very different sexual effects, from attraction and desire to sensitivity to sexual dysfunction, finds a study by the Center for Drug Use and HIV/HCV Research (CDUHR) at NYU Meyers ...

What do young people gain from drug use?

November 12, 2013
 The idea that illicit drugs could hold value in the lives of young people is bewildering to most people, who tend to assume that illicit drug use is necessarily destructive. This becomes even more distressing for many when ...

The link between drugs and music explained by science

January 25, 2018
For centuries, musicians have used drugs to enhance creativity and listeners have used drugs to heighten the pleasure created by music. And the two riff off each other, endlessly. The relationship between drugs and music ...

Most meth users too embarrassed to seek treatment

October 31, 2016
The biggest barriers to methamphetamine users seeking treatment are embarrassment or stigma, belief that help is not needed, preferring to withdraw without help and privacy concerns, according to a new study.

Revellers ready for festival drug checks, study finds

January 19, 2018
A study of the attitudes and behaviours of young people at music festivals found that a majority were in favour of drug checking, and would reconsider taking a drug if they were aware of its contents.

Recommended for you

Quitting junk food produces similar withdrawal-type symptoms as drug addiction

September 20, 2018
If you plan to try and quit junk food, expect to suffer similar withdrawal-type symptoms—at least during the initial week—like addicts experience when they attempt to quit using drugs.

Low academic achievement can lead to drug abuse decades later, research finds

September 13, 2018
A Virginia Commonwealth University researcher has found that poor academic achievement can lead to substance abuse. Data collected from Swedish participants over a period of 15 to 20 years indicate a strong correlation.

Cocaine addiction traced to increase in number of orexin neurons

September 12, 2018
A study in cocaine-addicted rats reports long-lasting increases in the number of neurons that produce orexin—a chemical messenger important for sleep and appetite—that may be at the root of the addiction. The study, performed ...

Single-step nasal spray naloxone easiest to deliver according to new research

August 29, 2018
Single-step nasal spray naloxone is the easiest to deliver, according to new research led by faculty at Binghamton University, State University at New York.

Scientists identify 35 genes associated with cannabis use

August 28, 2018
A large-scale genetic study found that some of the same genes associated with the use of cannabis are also associated with certain personality types and psychiatric conditions. The study, published in Nature Neuroscience, ...

SMURF1 provides targeted approach to preventing cocaine addiction relapse

August 14, 2018
A class of proteins that has generated significant interest for its potential to treat diseases, has for the first time, been shown to be effective in reducing relapse, or drug-seeking behaviors, in a preclinical study.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.