Some Reasons Not to Use Drugs

© 2012 by Richard J. Eisner



Following are some points that I think people, young people especially, should consider about using drugs, especially before first starting to use them. Perhaps the message will be more credible coming from me, an antiestablishment freethinker.


1.       Preliminary Thoughts

Why would you use drugs non-medically, recreationally? You do it to have fun, to get high, to feel pleasure. Of course, that’s not sufficient reason to do it. Many actions that would make you feel good, you would never do. For example, battering someone who annoys you, or taking heroin or methamphetamine, would be very pleasurable at the moment, but you would probably forgo it, for the sake of your future. (I’m assuming that if you’re considering whether to use drugs, you’re considering softer ones.)

            Certain pleasurable activities, like reading poetry, are encouraged without reservation, as there are many benefits, and no risks. But consuming chemicals is not in this category: pleasure is the only benefit, and there are many risks. Apropos of this, notice that a person’s drug use is never referred to as a point in his favor, or as an advantage for him. You never hear someone say “Jack dropped out of school and he’s unemployed; but, on the bright side, at least he’s taking drugs.”

            Another feature of chemical use that adds to its risk, is that it can be an irrevocable decision. If you’ve never consumed substances, you can always begin using them. But if you take them and later decide that you’d be better off without them, you may not be able to undo damage it has caused you. And never again will your choice in the matter be as objective and free. The decision not to use drugs is far easier to put into effect before you start using than after, when you may have developed a liking for it, and perhaps a habit. Not starting is much easier than stopping. Now—before you begin using drugs—is the best time to reckon whether the potential pleasure of it is worth the risk. For which purpose I offer the following observations, gleaned from my own experience.


2.       Using drugs will probably make you less productive.

A powerful but subtle way in which chemical use militates against personal productivity is this. It has been said that true happiness cannot be attained by seeking it directly; it’s a byproduct of doing other things. Again, the reason we consume drugs is that, at least for a time, they bring us pleasure. But, in an important sense, therein lies the problem. By providing gratification directly, without having to accomplish anything else in order to achieve it, they take away the need to do the work to realize the goals that otherwise would be necessary in order to feel good. Substance use in this way robs one of the motivation to reach one’s dreams.

            Some shortcuts are good. But not all. For many people, the shortcut that substances provide to pleasure is a bargain made with the devil: it leads expeditiously to a certain end, but the cost in the long run is dearer than the gain. With drugs, what we sacrifice to effect a more easily, quickly, and in a way more reliably gotten pleasure, is attainment of our aspirations in life. We’ve chronically substituted an easier means of feeling good for a more difficult one, one that requires more work. But it’s that work which we later come to see was precious, as it was what produced that which we truly valued, and which achievement was a more lasting and substantial source of happiness.

            Conversely, dissatisfaction with one’s life is also a stimulus to improvement. By blunting feelings of displeasure, drug use destroys critically important negative motivation as well.

            A parallel question. Who are your heroes? Chances are that, if they accomplished great things, they did not abuse drugs. Any exceptions to this rule were productive, not because of, but in spite of, drug use, and would probably have been even more productive if not for the drugs.

            To some extent, the loss of productivity causes chemical use to become a vicious circle. As the years go by, we have less good in our lives that we’ve brought about through work, thanks to our drug use. As our achievement shortfall grows, we have less and less in our lives other than drugs to make us feel good, so we come to rely on them more and more for gratification. Correspondingly, as our loss in foregone accomplishment climbs, our pain over that loss, too, rises; and so not only does our dependence on drugs to feel pleasure increase, but so too does our need for drugs to dull our growing psychic pain.


3.       Using drugs hurts your ability to feel pleasure naturally.

In much the same way that stimulating pleasure directly with drugs reduces motivation to consummate ambitions, it likewise limits your development of other, natural, more wholesome, even productive sources of leisure-time delectation, socially, recreationally, and culturally, thus making your world smaller, limiting your possibilities.

            Drugs can become a sort of substitute for life. A decent life, let alone a good one, cannot be acquired instantly, as if ordering it from a catalog. Rather, you have to build it. And that takes time and effort. If you consume substances but in ten or twenty years decide to stop, you’ll then have to develop personal talents and alternate sources of satisfaction from scratch. You’ll have to make up for lost time; but not all of it can be made up for: and the longer you put it off, the greater the deficit.

             I think this explains many former drug abusers’ chronic attendance of Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Their years of drug use prevented them from developing satisfying non-drug diversions. The little activities they used to do were largely just a vehicle for drug consumption. Without the drugs, those activities feel empty. So they attend the meetings, not because a meeting provides unique content that these people somehow specially need; but simply because they have no other activities. This is their life now.

            That process (loss of other amusements) can also be part of the dynamic that produces drug dependence. The longer you use chemicals, the longer you neglect cultivating alternative means of having fun; and as other methods become less and less available, through lack of development, you come more and more to rely on intoxication as a source of entertainment. The process is insidious because it’s gradual; you may be unaware of it until considerable—irreplaceable—time has gone by.

            But the adverse effect on your life in this regard is not merely a mechanical or situational matter of having fewer available recreational options. A drug user cannot return his life to the way it was or would have been merely by removing the drugs, even if he could also manage to resume all the other activities. Substance use changes you inwardly. It’s not just another divertissement— It’s a whole different system or method of enjoyment: direct rather than indirect. And, somehow, in virtue of our physiological/psychological makeup, once you get used to attaining gratification directly, you become dependent on that direct means, and you lose some ability to obtain it in the other, natural, indirect way, with which latter method you develop a certain impatience . . . which, also, is why drug users tend to neglect other pastimes. It’s a little like a romantic relationship: when it ends; just because you were in a relationship with the other person, you find it difficult to feel desire for anyone else. But the phenomenon is even more pervasive and intractable with chemicals, in that, whereas a prior lover is just another person, drug use is an entirely different class of experience. Hence the user of substances, even long after he stops using them, has difficulty feeling pleasure without them, and retains a reflexive longing to consume them.

            People have argued whether these effects are “physical” or “psychological”; but, in a sense, it doesn’t matter: the net result is the same. Don’t underestimate mental harm. No less so than physical injury, purely psychological damage can be enduring and profound. Moreover, while the mind is in some ways tough and resilient, it can also be fragile. No matter how strong you feel, with chemicals you toy with your mind, and risk inadvertently causing some alteration there, any such accidental change almost surely being for the worse.


4.       Drug abuse can impair your ability to alleviate bad feelings naturally.

Just as habitual dependence on drugs for recreation limits your development of natural recreational activities; so, too, the regular use of chemicals to deal with unpleasant situations restricts your development of natural techniques for that. In addition, substances can hinder solving personal problems and functioning effectively generally, by insulating you from your true feelings. Emotions are a guide; they tell you when something’s wrong. But it’s hard to act on your feelings if you don’t feel them.

            In this connection, note this difference between physical pain and emotional pain. Physical pain (the ongoing pain itself, as distinct from the ability to feel it) is usually undesirable; it serves no useful purpose, and is best suppressed—if necessary, by medication. But, with rare exception, such as long-term clinical depression, sometimes properly treated with antidepressants (which don’t produce euphoria, but just counteract the depression); emotional pain, though you wouldn’t want to bring it upon yourself unnecessarily, serves a useful purpose, and it’s better not to suppress it chemically. Only by experiencing it, when it occurs, and riding it out until it subsides, on its own or by changing your situation, can you learn about the world, about yourself, about how to live effectively, and grow as a person.


5.       The pleasure of drugs is overrated, even illusional.

As mentioned, the reason one abuses drugs is, in a word, pleasure. But note these points. Even in the short term, while you’re using substances, the practice brings considerable discomfort. The great majority of time, the time between drug-taking sessions (in the best case it’s the majority), comes to be reduced to empty, dead space, waiting-time spent in frustrated anticipation of the next chemical high, which, when it finally arrives, is very brief, and seems disappointing, not to have been worth the expectation. Further, even with milder drugs like marijuana, there are dismal hangovers, feeling drained and de-energized, a very unpleasant feeling. In fact, another problem with substance use as a recreational activity is that, unlike other forms of recreation or relaxation, drug-taking does not refresh you, but just the opposite: it depletes you. An important purpose of a vacation is not only to provide enjoyment or fun, but also to allow you to gather your energies—“recharge your batteries”—to return to work invigorated and refreshed. But a drug-taking vacation tends to have the reverse effect: even if you enjoy it, afterwards you’re so hung-over, exhausted, from the drugs, that you feel as if, before returning to work, you need a separate (drug-free) vacation to recover from the chemicals; which phenomenon happens on a smaller scale on any particular occasion that you use drugs. (And this of course is yet another, more direct way in which substance use hurts your productivity.)

            The problematic and illusory nature of drug jubilance is even greater in the long term, for the following reasons. For one thing, the pleasure is greatest at the beginning, not only at the beginning of any chemical-taking session, but, more important, at the beginning when you first start using drugs in your life. Not long after, diminishing returns sets in. It gets old. You take substances more and more, but enjoy it less and less. And what the long-term user typically ends up striving for in the drug high is to recreate, recapture, the feeling he had the very first time he took drugs, or at least the feeling he used to get at a much earlier period in his life, a feeling, though, which always somehow seems to elude him. Moreover, regular chemical use commonly produces a downward spiral in which the user ends up taking drugs, not to bring about joy, as may have been the case at the beginning, but merely to feel all right, to relieve depression, which becomes the prevailing mood. This happens partly because, as the lost productivity and lost opportunities, in his work and his personal life, accumulate; his regret, his disappointment with himself, and his guilt correspondingly swell. As a result, with substance use; over time, the positive progressively falls, and the negative progressively rises, until the good is outrun, and then more and more outweighed, by the bad.

            Most long-term chemical abusers come to realize that the times in their lives when they took drugs were, all in all, pretty miserable. Ironically, in seeking pleasure, they got pain.

            Despite this awareness, recovering substance abusers often relapse. This may be explained at least in part by, in addition to the processes discussed earlier—by a profound observation that my friend James A. Bouchard made recently, to the effect that people tend to remember pleasure but to forget pain. To elaborate on this latter thought, one could say that when the recovering substance abuser, despite all the misery he’s gone through in taking drugs, is tempted to relapse, he’s focusing on the trees to the exclusion of the (rest of the) forest, the trees being the high points, the times when he was (or at least has the impression he was) satisfyingly high on chemicals. But you can’t live just the trees. You must live the entire forest—both the trees and the spaces between them, the great gaps between those short, occasional moments of bliss, which gaps are very unhappy times, during which, and with which, we pay (this is only part of the payment) for the few and far-between moments of contentment. When you put the whole thing on the scales, and weigh them both, life without drugs has the advantage over life with drugs, even just in terms of what we use them to achieve—pleasure (let alone other values like productivity). To think otherwise is to view selectively.



A drug habit typically progresses insidiously from what feels good, perhaps with few bad side-effects, to what, on balance, feels bad, with considerable other negative effects. When you first start taking drugs, it may seem a harmless source of relaxation and sensuous pleasure, like a massage. But after a time, what began as receiving a massage often turns into the scratching of an itch, that you do, not so much voluntarily for delight, though it can, in a certain perverse way, feel good, but more out of compulsion. And after the situation’s negative consequences begin to mount—once you start to bleed, to smart, perhaps even suffer permanent harm, like scarring, from continued scratching, and it has crowded out other things in your life, such as social activities with family or friends, or dating, and you’re not able to go to work, or even get much work done at home, since you’re spending so much of your time scratching and getting medical treatment for your damaged skin—at that point, you’ll probably wish you could be rid of that itch. But you can’t get rid of it. By now, the itch is permanent. And even if you stop scratching (which can be very difficult because of the itch—in fact, you may not be able to do it), it will be hard to feel comfortable, because of the ever-present itch. And if it occurs to you that it was that pleasant little massage you had long ago which led to your current chronic skin disorder, you’ll probably regret ever getting that massage.

            Using drugs can be described as an attempt to cheat at life, to find a shortcut, to get to life’s benefits without having to do all the usual work, to get something for nothing. Such purpose makes sense in theory; if there were an effective way to accomplish it, it would be a reasonable thing to do. In my now long experience with drugs, however, the great majority of users eventually come to the conclusion that what pleasure they got from chemicals they grossly overpaid for with all the misery and misfortune the habit caused, that by consuming substances they cheated themselves out of a fuller, more productive, happier life. I am one of them, and my case is a mild one. Severe instances are outright horror stories, in which a person, if he doesn’t lose his life, loses nearly everything in it, and may also suffer permanent physical harm.

            If you’re taking mind-altering drugs, let me leave you with two proverbs, one Russian; the other, American. The Russian: No matter how far you have gone down the wrong road . . . turn back.   The American: To get out of a hole, first stop digging.

            If you have not used drugs, consider that you have a marvelous and unique opportunity—the opportunity not to start.


© 2012 by Richard J. Eisner
Other essays by Richard Eisner can be seen at