Each person’s perspective on drugs is shaped by:

  • How their parents took drugs and their attitudes toward them
  • How their friends take them
  • Their professional experiences with illicit drug users
  • Their general attitudes to society
  • Their own experience with drugs
  • Societal laws and customs
  • Cultural affiliations
  • Their general political views and attitudes to authority
  • Their views toward illegal drugs and drug users might be positive or negative, and held strongly or weakly.

At a broader level and throughout history, attitudes and beliefs about drugs (including alcohol) are subject to massive shifts. Debates and discourses concerning drugs, consumption patterns and drug users or abstainers are highly emotive, subject to interpretation and generally ignorant of the historical foundations on which they are based (For further information on this topic follow the links on the sidebar).

A minority of people who use substances go on to develop problems. Why would a young person actively use substances in the knowledge that problems and potentially serious consequences could be the result?

There are those, some of whom are from the fields of medicine, religion, psychology and sociology, who believe that this question can be answered without knowing the young person or their context (See Brook and Stringer, 2005). Conclusions drawn about young people and others on this basis are bound to be dehumanising, demeaning and counterproductive. 

Kellehear and Chetkovski (2004) shed light on three “grand theories”, each providing its own universal explanation for substance use. Regardless of intent, the images they create are of “…users as people who are somehow different from the rest of us”(p. 53).

The image of “the sinner” denotes a lack of moral fibre or will; the “sick person”, one who is powerless to intractable disease processes and; the “social victim”, made helpless by social injustice and oppression. Such “grand theories” render invisible the agency of each young person in negotiating for themselves a viable existence and the complex influences that shape their capacity to do so.

Each young person’s choice to continue using substances can only be fully understood if considered in light of the gains they seek as well as the harmful consequences they have to endure. This opens up fertile ground for exploration into the motivations and preferences of each young person and the meaning that substance use takes on for them as they navigate their way through life.