How Does Drug Abuse Start?

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Updated 08/10/2023

A table displaying drug paraphernalia including a spoon with pills and a syringe

Drug abuse begins somewhere for everyone. Whether a person has been battling a substance abuse disorder for weeks, months or years, they all have a story as to how their use became abuse or addiction. Though this differs somewhat for everyone, there are some common threads.

How Does Drug Abuse Become An Addiction?

When a person takes drugs, it interferes with the communication system in the brain. This system is made up of neurons which communicate through chemicals called neurotransmitters.

Upon first taking a drug, a person usually feels good, often referred to as “high.” This is because the reward center of the brain has been activated and levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that affects emotions and pleasure, increase. Naturally, people seek to repeat that which brings them such immense pleasure. This could mean eating or being with people they love, but it may also mean using drugs. Over time, as drug use continues, the brain adjusts accordingly. It gets used to the drug, and therefore requires more of the drug in order to achieve the same amount of pleasure from the substance. This cycle leads to a person using more and more of a drug in order to reach the same level of pleasure as they achieved when they started using a drug.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “All drugs of abuse excite the parts of the brain that make you feel good. But, after you take a drug for a while, the feel-good parts of your brain get used to it. Then you need to take more of the drug to get the same good feeling. Soon, your brain and body must have the drug to just feel normal. You feel sick and awful without the drug. You no longer have the good feelings that you had when you first used the drug.”

Are Some Drugs More Addictive Than Others?

In short, the answer to this question is yes. But how addictive a drug is may depend on numerous factors, such as a person’s environment, the type of drug, and the frequency with which it is used. Certain drugs carry a higher rate of addiction than others, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they are more addictive. For example, this higher addiction rate for certain drugs could be due to how easily a drug can be obtained and how affordable it is.

The following are five of the drugs with the highest addiction rate in the world, according to The Independent.


According to The Independent, heroin is so addictive because it causes dopamine levels in the brain to increase by 200 percent, has a cheap street value, and the withdrawals are especially difficult to go through. Heroin is also one of the deadliest drugs in existence because the amount that can be fatal is only five times more than the amount necessary to get high.


Cocaine also affects the dopamine levels in the brain to a large extent, sometimes increasing them by three times what is normal. This is because it prevents neurons from shutting off the dopamine signal.


Though legal, nicotine—the main ingredient in tobacco—is still considered a drug. When someone smokes a cigarette, the nicotine is absorbed by the lungs before making its way to the brain.


This type of drug is typically used to help a person sleep or to treat anxiety. Barbiturates interfere with chemicals in the brain and even shut down certain regions of the brain. High doses can be fatal because the drug can affect a person’s ability to breathe.


Yes, another legal drug makes the list of the most addictive substances. Alcohol is easy to obtain and is legal, so for many, it is the drug of choice. Like other addictive drugs, it also affects dopamine levels and has been shown to increase dopamine levels in animals by up to 360 percent.

What Determines Who Gets Addicted To Drugs?

There is no exact formula that determines why one person may become addicted to a substance while another person may not. But through years of research, it has been determined that there are certain risk factors that may put a person more at risk of becoming addicted to a substance.

Such factors include:

Using Drugs Early In Life

When a person begins experimenting with drugs early in life, they are more likely to continue that use. However, those who begin using drugs later in life are also able to become addicted.


It is believed that genetics play a large role in how susceptible a person is to becoming addicted to a substance. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, “Research shows that genes are responsible for about half the risk for alcoholism and addiction, and while genetics are not the sole determinant, their presence or absence may increase the likelihood that a person will become alcohol or drug dependent.”

Mental Illness

Those who have a mental illness, such as depression or anxiety, are more likely to become addicted to a substance than those who do not.


This is perhaps one of the biggest risk factors of all. If a person is brought up in an environment where excessive drug and alcohol use is normalized, they are more likely to turn to the same lifestyle as they grow up because they do not know any different.

Of course, there is much more to learn about drug abuse. This is just a brief overview of how a person may become addicted to a substance and what may play into that addiction.

Written by: Beth Leipholtz

Beth is a newspaper reporter and graphic designer from Minnesota who writes about the realities of getting sober young. Follow her on Twitter.

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