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What is Recreational Drug Use? 

recreational drug use definition and examples

Today, millions of Americans use drugs, whether that be in the form of alcohol, marijuana, prescription medications, or illicit substances. On average, most substance use begins during the teenage years—before graduating high school. For young people especially, drug use starts as recreational: they use drugs to have a good time, to experiment, and to experience a fleeting “high.” 

It is easy to assume that when drugs are used occasionally, in this manner, it is “normal” or “okay.” Many parents will brush off their teen’s drug use, thinking it is just a phase. Many teens and young adults will use drugs recreationally because “everyone is doing it,” so it must be safe.  

In reality, recreational drug use can be problematic and should be a cause for concern. In this article, we explain what recreational drug use means, examples of recreational drugs, and the dangers associated with any type of recreational drug use. 

What are Recreational Drugs? 

The phrase, “recreational drugs,” refers to chemical substances that are used without medical direction or supervision. These drugs are typically used for enjoyment, for relaxation, or for social reasons, rather than taken for health purposes.  

A recent definition from the Handbook of Analytical Techniques for Forensic Samples (2021) describes a recreational drug as follows: “A recreational drug can be defined as a drug taken for its psychoactive nature, with users thinking that their sporadic consumption cannot be addictive.” 

According to the BMJ, a recognized medical journal, there are four types of recreational drugs. These include analgesics, depressants, stimulants, and hallucinogens: 

  • Analgesics: Examples of recreational drugs in this category include heroin, fentanyl, morphine, and pain medications containing codeine and oxycodone.  
  • Depressants: Depressant drugs used recreationally often include alcohol, tranquilizers, and barbiturates, and benzodiazepines like Xanax. 
  • Stimulants: Stimulant drugs are often used to increase energy, focus, and alertness. Common examples of stimulant recreational drugs include cocaine, methamphetamine, ecstasy/MDMA, and prescriptions like Adderall and Ritalin. 
  • Hallucinogens: Hallucinogens are most often used recreationally, and consist of a range of illicit drugs such as LSD, mushrooms, ketamine, marijuana, and PCP. 

Recreational drugs may be legal or illegal, depending on your state and age. Legal substances may include alcohol, over-the-counter medicine, and even prescription drugs like Adderall or OxyContin. Illicit drugs used recreationally often include cocaine and marijuana, among many more. All types of drugs are and can be used recreationally, but this use – even when legal – can pose serious risks. 

While some drugs are regulated (such as alcohol, or marijuana from dispensaries), many substances are sold by dealers and do not have a known source. For example, cocaine is always sold on the street and therefore poses grave risks, like being laced with other drugs. Additionally, even prescription drugs can be manipulated, manufactured, and sold illegally on the streets – meaning many do not know what the ingredients truly are. These are just some of the innate risks of substance misuse. Recreational drug use can also lead to physical side effects, mental health issues, and risks like addiction and overdose. 

Yes, even occasional and recreational drug use can lead to addiction. More on that shortly. 

What is Recreational Drug Use? 

Recreational drug use is the act of consuming (and often misusing) substances for reasons outside of medical use. When drugs are taken recreationally, it is for their psychoactive effects. For example, many people who use drugs recreationally do so to: 

  • Feel good, experiencing a sense of euphoria or “high” 
  • Feel better, escaping pain, stress, or distressing emotions 
  • Fit in, due to peer pressure from others or the desire to fit in with friends 
  • Socialize, as drugs sometimes provide people with a fleeting sense of confidence 
  • Perform better, as some drugs can be used to increase alertness or enhance certain qualities 
  • Take risks, which is especially common during adolescence when the brain is not fully developed – teens will act impulsively and try drugs just for the “fun” and “thrill” of it 

Now you may be wondering, what is the problem with taking drugs for these reasons, if they are positive? Moreover, what is the issue with taking drugs recreationally, if a person does not use them all the time? 

The Dangers of Recreational Drug Use 

The problem with the phrase “recreational drug use” is that it implies drugs can be fun and safe, and that a person is always in control of their use. This is not the case. Drugs of any sort – legal substances like alcohol, medications prescribed by a doctor, or drugs purchased on the street – all have the potential for dangerous side effects. 

  1. Laced Drugs 

As detailed above, the constituents of drugs are too often unknown. Drugs that are sold illegally – such as those sold by a dealer – have no regulated ingredients, usage instructions, or assurance that they are safe. Dealers and illicit drug manufacturers will often mirror drugs like OxyContin or cocaine, but mix in similar-looking substances that are cheaper and easier to obtain. Drugs can be laced with chemicals, like household cleaning products, or other substances like fentanyl. 

  1. Risky Behaviors 

Most drugs are used recreationally for their mind-altering effects – people are looking to achieve a “high” or a feeling of euphoria. However, with this comes reduced functioning in other areas of the brain. For example, people on drugs might experience memory lapses, impaired coordination, slow response times, inability to concentrate, drowsiness, hallucinations, and/or unconsciousness. Despite this, many people choose to get behind the wheel and drive under the influence – a risky behavior that can lead to fatal consequences. 

Some people also experience heightened emotions under the influence, which can also lead to risky behaviors. For example, some people, when intoxicated, are aggressive and more likely to get in a fight. Many people experience a false sense of invincibility, and end up getting into trouble with the law. Other risky behaviors common under the influence include unprotected sex, making poor decisions that endanger one’s safety (such as playing with weapons), and even suicide attempts. 

  1. Abuse and Addiction 

When people start using drugs recreationally, they typically feel in control of their drug use. They choose to use the drugs. The more the person uses, however, the less control they have. Drugs can quickly take over a person’s life and way of thought. Drugs are chemicals that alter brain development and process – causing a person’s brain to rely on drugs to function over time, leading to addiction. 

Most drugs have the potential for abuse and addiction. Alcohol, for example, is the most widely abused substance in the United States, with the highest case numbers for addiction. The Drug Enforcement Administration also provides insight into addictive drug categories. For example, drugs with high potential for dependence include cocaine, methamphetamine, oxycodone (OxyContin), fentanyl, Dexedrine, Adderall, and Ritalin, to name a few. Heroin, LSD, marijuana, and ecstasy also have high potential for abuse and no current, accepted medical use. Even the occasional use of these drugs can lead a person to crave more, develop a dependence, and struggle with addiction. 

Not everyone who uses drugs will become addicted, and certain factors make a person more at risk. However, addiction can affect anyone, at any age, and of any background or upbringing, if they choose to use drugs or alcohol. 

  1. Overdose 

Some drugs pose a risk for overdose, which happens when a person consumes a toxic amount of a drug. Certain drugs carry a greater risk, and some can lead to death. Overdoses, for example, are frequent among those who use opioid drugs like heroin, OxyContin, Vicodin, and fentanyl. For illegally manufactured and sold drugs, sometimes fentanyl is laced into the substances to increase their strength. This has lead to an overwhelming spike in fatal drug overdoses across the United States. Users are unknowingly taking laced drugs and overdosing from even miniscule amounts of fentanyl. 

Learn more about the potential effects of recreational drug use here. 

Do Not Dismiss Recreational Drug Use 

If you are using drugs and learning about recreational drug use, it is important to recognize that doing so comes with risks. Using drugs in moderation can lead to dependence over time, or other effects as described above. Even legal and approved drugs have potential for certain risks. Learn more here

If you are a parent and your teen is using drugs for fun, do not dismiss it as “normal” or “okay.” Be sure to talk to your teen about the dangers of substance use, and do not be afraid to intervene or ask for help. What seems like fun or innocent drug use has the potential to spiral into a more concerning issue, especially for youth. Before age 25, the brain is still developing. Introducing drugs at an early age can lead to longer-term effects on a person’s mental health and well-being. 

If you are seeking advice on how to handle or address recreational drug abuse, do not hesitate to reach out to Turnbridge. Turnbridge is a recognized mental health and addiction treatment provider for adolescents and young adults. Call us at 877-581-1793 to learn more.