Drug abuse is often expressed in terms of risk and antisocial or criminal behavior. But drug use is often a highly social activity. A new study from the La Trobe University aiming to understand the social benefits of drug use may help us to improve responses to rehabilitation.

Numerous studies showing people use alcohol or other drugs in social settings to enhance their interactions with others through increased confidence, greater sociability, and less anxiety. For some individuals, this leads to longer-term benefits such as stronger bonds with friends.

The social benefits of drug use

The researchers at La Trobe University recently conducted a study which they explored party drug use – including the use of crystal methamphetamine – among Australian gay and bisexual men who are living with HIV. They found that most of the men in their study used party drugs socially – at nightclubs and dance parties or to facilitate sexual pleasure.

More surprisingly, we also found men who were occasional or regular users of party drugs reported significantly better social outcomes than non-users on a range of measures including a higher level of resilience, less experience of HIV-related stigma, and a greater sense of support from other people living with HIV.

This is important because all of these outcomes are strongly associated with greater emotional well-being among people living with HIV. It is also possible people who are resilient and socially connected are more likely than others to be part of social circles in which drug use is common.

How this can help responses to drug use

Research that explores people's social experiences of drug use can usefully inform harm minimization or drug cessation programs. While the physical effects of a drug may pose risks, the social settings in which drugs are consumed are not necessarily damaging or dangerous. In fact, they may be quite the opposite, providing a source of friendship, support, and happiness for users.

It might be tempting to denounce this with the assertion that the potential health risks undermine any claims to benefit – or that friendships generated through drug use are not genuine. But the sense of community and friendship has been successfully harnessed in drug and alcohol harm minimization campaigns such as the "Take Care of Your Mates" campaigns directed toward young people.

Focusing on the social settings in which drug use occurs may also be useful for strategies to reduce other risks. For example, campaigns to promote safer sex among gay men who use crystal meth have focused on venues and parties where "sex on drugs" is common.

Understanding the potential social benefits of drug use may also enhance drug rehabilitation programs. Strategies to help people rebuild social ties, friendships and support networks could be important in supporting the long-term cessation of drug use.