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How Does Recreational Drug Use Turn into Addiction?

If you’re a recreational substance user, the chances are that you only use drugs or alcohol ‘socially,’ meaning your use is limited to social settings where a group of people is drinking or using drugs together in order to have fun. This type of use is considered acceptable, with substances only being consumed in a party-like atmosphere two to four times a month.

This can seem like a relatively harmless way to spend your time. After all, if you’re only a recreational user, what could possibly be dangerous? In actuality, the move from recreational use to addiction can sneak up on you gradually. Let’s take a look at how recreational use can turn into an addiction.

How recreational drug use turns into abuse

In a broad sense, most addictions progress, in the same way, following the same steps:

  1. Experimentation- or the first time you try drugs or alcohol. Reasons for experimentation include curiosity, trying to fit in, or to deal with negative emotions like insecurity or sadness.
  2. Recreation- the stage where your drug or alcohol use becomes more frequent — usually on weekends and up to a few times a month. You’ll associate this type of use with fun, thrill-seeking, or to conform to peer pressure. You likely won’t notice any negative consequences of doing so.
  3. Regular use or misuse- the point where you’re not truly addicted, but where drugs or alcohol begin to become detrimental to your life. You may become uninterested in things that usually bring joy and focus on having fun purely through obtaining substances. This stage could include experiences like getting a DUI/DWI or being caught using or carrying drugs.
  4. Risky use or abuse- when you continue to use drugs or alcohol despite severe consequences, like using funds set aside for bills on substances (or even borrowing or stealing money) or putting your social or romantic relationships at risk by continuing to use.
  5. Dependence- the point where drugs or alcohol have taken significant control of your life. While you may still have a job or social relationships, your performance at work has most likely declined, your friendships are probably restricted to other users, and there is usually significant tension at home. At this point, you are physically dependent, meaning your body has gotten used to a steady supply of drugs or alcohol.
  6. Addiction- the stage when you will do whatever you have to in order to get drugs or alcohol, regardless of the consequences. You are no longer seeking a high, but trying to avoid withdrawal.

What causes addiction to occur?

Essentially, drugs and alcohol produce dopamine, a chemical associated with pleasure, to be released in the brain. Your brain will produce less dopamine as a response to the continual rush that substance use brings, which means you have to continue to use to feel good. As you use larger amounts of substances or use more often, your brain programs more memories of a quick high and conditions itself to respond well to certain triggers, like the smell of beer or the sight of drug paraphernalia.

Dopamine also interacts with the motivating and planning centers of the brain, meaning that the rush of pleasure that accompanies substance use makes your brain drive you to want and seek out drugs and alcohol.

The younger you start using drugs or alcohol, the more likely you are to get addicted. Between ages 10-19, the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for sizing up a situation, making good decisions, and controlling how we react to what we want and how we feel) is still developing. You’re more likely to experiment with substance use during this time because the prefrontal cortex isn’t done maturing and those substances could impact future brain development, making it easier to continue to use.

In short, Addiction is not a lack of willpower. It is a chronic, relapsing disease, a long-lasting or lifelong condition characterized by periods where you will likely cease to remain sober. When you become addicted to drugs or alcohol, your brain’s structure and chemical composition have changed; they’re now compelled to keep using the substance your body has come to rely on.

From bad to worse: How “gateway drugs” can lead to addiction

The gateway drug theory, or the idea that using some substances increase the probability of using more dangerous drug later in life, could point to the ways that recreational use leads to addiction.

These substances are often used by children and young adults in a social atmosphere and are viewed as ‘a way to have fun,’ but using a “less dangerous” drug recreationally can often lead to using or becoming addicted to “harder” drugs. Some examples of gateway drugs and the substances that might follow them include:


Studies have shown that 44% of cannabis users go on to use other illicit drugs. The reasons include exposure to drug dealers, positive experiences with cannabis leading to curiosity about other drugs, and changes in brain chemistry that make you susceptible to want to try other drugs.

In fact, a study showed that rats that were repeatedly exposed to THC, the active agent in cannabis, became more sensitive to the effects of the THC over time, but that they also became more sensitive to the effects of morphine. As the study itself says, there could be “a neurobiological basis for a relationship between cannabis use and opiate abuse.”

Another study by the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University showed that children between the ages of 12 and 17 who use marijuana are 85 times more like to use cocaine than children who don’t, and that adults who used marijuana as children are 17 times more likely to be regular cocaine users.


Drinking can open the door to using a wide variety of other substances. For example, if you drink before the age of 18, you are 50 times more likely to use cocaine, and you are six times more likely to be a regular cocaine user as an adult.

Furthermore, a study of the participants in the adult drug court program in Las Vegas showed that 27% of people who preferred to use cocaine, methamphetamine, or heroin began their substance use with alcohol, and 86% of people whose substance of choice was not alcohol or marijuana began their substance use with one or both of those drugs.


Smoking or using nicotine orally (chewing tobacco or dip) can prime your brain for an increased response to cocaine. A 2011 study showed that treating mice with cocaine after treating them with nicotine increased their likelihood to remain near the source of the drugs by 78%. Locomotor sensitization (a movement that increases with the likelihood of substance abuse) also went up by 98%. This shows that you are likely to start using cocaine after using nicotine and, if you do, the risk of becoming addicted to coke is higher.

A study of children who smoke showed that they are 19 times more likely to use cocaine than children who don’t smoke.

Prescription stimulants

Medications like Ritalin and Adderall are abused by people who want to stay awake, enhance academic performance, or feel high. However, there is a correlation between ADD/ADHD medications and using illicit drugs.

A study of over 10,000 college students showed that 35% of prescription stimulant abusers had used cocaine, 52% had used ecstasy, and 44% had used an opiate other than heroin. A study of over 9,000 college students showed that 34% of ADD/ADHD medication abusers had also used hallucinogens.

Prescription opioids

When opioids like Vicodin or Oxycontin are abused (i.e., used by someone who wasn’t prescribed them or used to get high), the consequences can be incredibly dangerous.

One in fifteen people who abuse prescription painkillers will end up using heroin within ten years. Often, this begins during the teen years, when a friend or relative gives away opioid pills for free. Nearly half of people under 18 who inject heroin have said that they used prescription painkillers first. Usually, they turn to heroin because it’s cheaper and easier to get.

Over-the-counter (OTC) drugs

Abusing OTC cough and cold medicines can be easy since they don’t require a prescription or an age limitation to buy them. However, a study of nearly 8,000 eighth-grade students showed that kids who abused these medications also used a variety of other drugs. 31% used ecstasy, 31% used some kind of hallucinogen, 48.3% used sedatives, 56.2% used pain relievers, 25.4% used heroin, and 32.5% used either crack or cocaine. 

The implications of “recreation”

While you might start using drugs or alcohol to have fun or to see what they’re like, the truth is that you’re already 1/3 of the way down the path to addiction. So-called gateway drugs can be addictive in and of themselves, but they can also lead you to start using more addictive and destructive drugs as you get more curious or want to chase a stronger high.

The truth is that recreational use can be dangerous, no matter what substance you use. Monitor yourself for the signs of regular use, risky use, dependence and addiction and be aware of the side-effects of any substances you use. Please reach out to our Chandler drug addiction and rehab advisers if you or a loved one has become addicted to substances.

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How Does Recreational Drug Use Turn into Addiction?
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October 20th 2016 | By: Liz Lazzara | Posted In: Substance Abuse