There will never be a simple answer to this question. Very likely there are many factors and some play a bigger role than others.
However, I strongly believe that scare tactics don't work to reduce drug use. I talked about that a bit in my post reviewing the documentary American Meth.
Today I saw a piece of research that found that scare campaigns may actually increase drug usage. Of course, since the research supported my point of view, I was quick to give it credence.
However, based on my own experiences, I think I have some idea of why scare campaigns could actually backfire.
If a young person is looking for excitement, they certainly don't find it by following advice from authority figures about how to be safe.
At 18 I had heard all sorts of lurid tales of what drug use could do to a person. The first time someone offered me a chance to try marijuana, I had a strong sense that it might be dangerous.
Danger did not deter me. I think it drew me in. I wanted to do something scary.
Smoking marijuana was scary in 1968 for several reasons. I had been warned that using it could lead to more dangerous drugs. Also, marijuana was illegal in Pennsylvania. I knew that some kids actually wound up in jail for simple possession. Consider, this was an era when a young man sporting long hair was considered to be a dangerous rebel by the mainstream. A number of folks were convinced that sex, drugs, and rock and roll heralded the end of civilization. I hadn't had sex yet, but I sure wanted to. I loved rock and roll. I was already two thirds of the way toward being a major social menace. I was almost compelled to explore that last third.
The high I got those first few times was mildly amusing. When I did not immediate become unhinged and start looking for heroin, I decided that all the warnings I had heard were nonsense. I was actually a bit disappointed that the drug seemed so tame.
I did wind up progressing to more addictive drugs in the decade following that early experimentation. I don't think it was the power of marijuana that led me on to new experiments. On the contrary, I wanted to up the ante. To see what it would be like to do something truly dangerous. I tried LSD and found that it was anything but tame. I snorted cocaine and felt like superman. Ditto for methamphetamine. I tried various opiates. Needles scared me too much (mostly because they hurt when you stick them in). So I decided needles really were for losers. That was pretty much the only boundary line I knew: if it hurts too much, don't do it.
I knew there were other, more socially approved ways of achieving a thrill. However, it would be a long time before I had a chance for international travel, rock climbing, or diving off high cliffs. The drugs were immediately available. It was actually easier for me to buy marijuana rather than beer.
By the time I was a sophomore, I had befriended any number of drug users and even drug dealers. The boundary between the two is vague. One quick way to get money for more drugs is to sell part of what you have for more than you paid. I liked the idea that I was part of an underground. A dealer fearing possible arrest asked me to store some hashish and hundreds of hits of acid for him. I did so. I thought it very clever that no one would ever suspect Kent, the clean cut engineering student, would have a small fortune in drugs in his desk drawer.
It is quite possible that by now you wondered, "WHAT WAS HE THINKING!". The answer is simple. I wasn't thinking. I wanted thrills and this was a quick and easy way to get some.
Remember those scare tactics? They are essentially an incentive for many young folks to try drugs.
Eventually I learned that drug use really did have serious negative effects. It took more than a decade for me to arrive at that conclusion. Meanwhile, I wasted a lot of time. I probably injured myself, and I was passing lots of money on to some very unsavory people.
I wish I had known that there really are a lot of positive ways to get thrills. I'm not talking about rock climbing or motorcycles. I came to love the thrill of accomplishment. I loved the thrill of marrying and starting a family.
Eventually I realized that the biggest thrill of all is knowing God and inviting Him to make me more like Jesus. The irony is that at 18 I would have thought that would be one of the most boring and completely foolish things I could do.
Well, I got part of that right. I am a fool for Christ.