Drugs: researchers shouldn’t just focus on the harms

Most drug research focuses on the harms they cause, but studying the pleasure they provide will improve our understanding of why people use them. Among other things, this knowledge could be used to help people who develop drug problems, such as dependency. These people have often experienced significant trauma in their lives and use drugs to self-medicate. If we knew more about how this self-medication worked, we could radically transform our approach to treatment.

We have a lot to gain by conducting research that takes a more balanced view of drug use. For example, research could provide information about the range of pleasures people experience, how many people use drugs for each type of pleasure, and how they manage their drug use to ensure it remains problem free. This basic information would help us understand how and when people move from drug-induced pleasure to drug-induced harms.

This seems simple and it would be relatively easy for researchers to explore, but as the recent Home Office announcement of a review into drug use demonstrates, politicians continue to be in denial about the pleasure people experience when using drugs.

Most research is also preoccupied with problematic drug use, ignoring the fact that most people who use drugs don’t develop problems as a result of using them. The largest funder of drug research is the US National Institute of Drug Abuse, whose goal is to improve people’s health or social circumstances. This emphasis is shared by UK research funders, such as the National Institute for Health Research. By concentrating research funding on problems people develop rather than investigating motives and benefits of drug use, research has contributed to a distorted view of drugs and the people that use them.

The bias in drug research.

The political environment also shapes research funding, it’s unlikely that while politicians continue to support the “war on drugs” they will sanction research that investigates the benefits of drug use. So it is not just researchers who are to blame for the lack of attention given to drug pleasure, they have been hampered by the politics of drugs.

Political dogma that denies drug pleasure is economically costly too, the recent trial of Mexican drug lord El Chapo demonstrates the billions of dollars handed over to criminals as they profit from the drug trade. If politicians accepted that people use drugs for pleasure, and legalised them, they could raise significant revenue from taxing the supply and distribution of drugs.

There are other challenges to investigating drug pleasure. As we know so little about how and why people use drugs we have still to explore some basic aspects. What we do know is that, like happiness, pleasure is highly subjective. So although there might be some shared ideas of what makes for a pleasurable experience while using drugs, some people are likely to seek a more unique form of pleasure.

Some drugs, such as cocaine, provide a fairly predictable experience. Cocaine stimulates the user, giving them energy and confidence. Hallucinogenic drugs, such as LSD and magic mushrooms, however, provide a less predictable experience. While some people will want predictable pleasure from their drugs, others will be attracted to the risk of not knowing where their drug will take them.

Understanding more about the basic motivations and benefits of drug use would reveal aspects that we haven’t thought about or anticipated. Part of the problem with an area that hasn’t been researched is we simply don’t know what we don’t know.

Societal benefit

Being better informed about pleasure could yield significant benefits for society as a whole, not just those that use drugs. We invest significant time and money in trying to prevent drug-related harm. Many things we do carry a risk like driving a car, but our approach to reducing traffic fatalities is not to ban driving. Instead we educate drivers and try and minimise the risks of driving.

But when it comes to drugs, policymakers still believe that prohibition and scare tactics will work. If we understood more about what attracts people to using drugs, this information could build evidence-based ways of ensuring they are kept safe while enjoying the experience.

We won’t be able to investigate drug pleasure while politicians and others with influence over policy continue to deny that drug-induced pleasure is possible. Adults use drugs so they deserve an approach to drug policy that’s more mature than the current offering of denial and ignorance.