The two central notions of this view are that drug use is learned and is functional. This model focuses on the interaction between the environment, the individual and the drug as a way to understand the complexity of the drug experience.  No single factor is viewed sufficient for understanding drug use or the problems encountered by an individual or within a society.

In the 1960s proponents of ‘social learning’ rejected the notion that people with drug problems are ‘bad’, ‘mad’, ‘sick’ or susceptible to the power of the substance.  This model holds that drug using behaviour is able be learned and reinforced by peers, parents, partners and/or the media. Drug use is seen as neither good nor bad. The choice to use drugs is understood as a balance of the costs and benefits that must be considered in terms of the drug, the individual and the environment.

Social learning interventions focus on altering the client’s relationship with their environment. A key concept is self-efficacy, which refers to a person’s beliefs about their ability to perform tasks and achieve goals. A person’s beliefs about their ability to stop problem drug use can influence the outcome of the attempt to cease. Coping skills and cognitive restructuring methods are used to assist people to change and control their drug use. Prevention strategies address individual environmental conditions that foster problematic behaviour

The ‘Public Health Model’ and the ‘Bio-Psycho-Social’ model which hold currency in the health, welfare and treatment sectors to day, both stem from the ideas behind social learning theory.