Can I Be My Best Self If I’m Actively Using Drugs?

Zach Rhoads By: Zach Rhoads
Reviewed By: Dr Stanton Peele

Posted on September 18th, 2020 - Last updated: September 18th, 2023
This content was written in accordance with our Editorial Guidelines.

Last week, a podcast listener emailed us with such an interesting question that we wanted to share the question and our answer with you. Listen to our answer in this video, or read our exchange below.


I feel much more empowered after ridding myself of AA dogma.  My dilemma — and something I would like to explore is this:

I feel a though my goal should be’ total abstinence’ and I should not want to get high or check out; that it’s dangerous territory and the safest route is not to get high.  

But, I love catching a buzz and my current drug use is not causing any harm to me or others that I’m aware of.  I used to use opiates in a very problematic and destructive way but that is not what it’s like at all for me anymore.  I’m not lying, stealing and/or strung out, my life is totally different and very good.  So I guess the quandary is how to reconcile the thought that if I was my best self I wouldn’t want to get high, yet I really enjoy getting high. 

I want to want to be abstinent it that makes sense.   How do I get there. . . wanting to be abstinent?

— Kevin


Our Answer: 

Dear Kevin,

One thing that harm reduction, sequestration during the Covid crisis, and the opioid crisis continuing to grow even as pharmaceutical prescriptions for painkillers have declined radically, all point to is this: substance use — for pleasure and for relief — is an essential part of human existence. It’s tempting to say that this is a modern invention. But — certainly with alcohol, but also cannabinoids, coca, and opioids — this has been true for as long as humans have existed (and maybe before).

Having said that, I’d add two qualifications:

  1. Modern technology has the “advantage” of streaming substance use (and other addictive experiences) so that we lose the richness of ritual associated with, say, rolling reefers, drinking at bars with friends, and (heaven forbid) preparing injections. The worst modern example of this was the creation of the machine-made cigarette, which turned the long-time human staple of tobacco (think communal peace pipe of hookah) into a widespread, cancer-causing mass addiction that public health had to stamp out. (By the way, the same danger holds for sex, for shopping, and for music, movie, and other media experiences.)
  2. Modernity also holds the danger (return to Covid isolation) of eliminating the family, friend and community and cultural controls that not only contribute to ritual, but that curb unhealthy substance use. A partner or friend, obligations to spouses, children and parents, and an awareness of neighbors’ disapproval are constraints as old as the Bible and older for preventing and remediating excess and addiction.

Kevin, I suspect that you are already considering these things. Let me encourage your thinking with these ideas:

  1. Be as engaged with life, the world and people as you can be. This will (a) put substance use in its proper place in your life (e.g., secondary to exercising, reading, experiencing a movie or music event, sex), while providing the human and life structures to avoid excess and addiction.
  2. Savor substance use, even intoxication, rather than making it an afterthought or desperate measure — i.e., “I’ll only ‘do it’ as my last resort.” ————–if there really is no enjoyment to it, then at least you’ll have noticed it—–
  3. Develop relationships with people you trust to use/check out your use with. If this is not possible for you under current conditions, then continue your mindful contemplation of when and how to use substances (which my notes here hopefully contribute to).

Remember — human substance use is as old as the hills, it is your human right, and it follows the rules for all human behavior in terms of healthiness and excessiveness. The primary criterion is whether it contributes to, or detracts from, your functioning and contentment — living your life on earth.



Carl Hart’s forthcoming Drug Use for Grown-Ups.

Stanton Peele, “Beyond Harm Reduction: Encouraging Positive Substance Use,” Filter.

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