Who Is Most At Risk Of Abusing Drugs

Published by John Gillen | Last updated: 30th January 2023 | All Sources

Who Is Most At Risk Of Abusing Drugs

In the Home Secretary’s commissioning letter for the 2017–2019 Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) work programme, the ACMD were asked to look at “factors that make vulnerable people misuse drugs and what could be done to prevent misuse and protect these groups from associated harms”.

This was a strategy designed to help the government identify those most at risk for addictions, in order to provide additional support and potentially cut down on the number of people dying or being admitted into rehab as the result of serious addictions.

During the research, a number of high-risk groups were identified. These were:

  • Vulnerable young people (those not in education, employment or training [NEETs], young people in care and those who have been through the prison system)
  • Offenders
  • Sex workers
  • Homeless people
  • Families with parents with substance issues
  • Veterans
  • Older people


Many people hold the belief that teenagers and young people who experiment with drugs at this stage in their lives will be at a higher risk of addictions which then carry on into adulthood, this study, however, has found that it is more likely that they will outgrow this dangerous behaviour and go on to live productive, happy, and drug-free lives. There are, of course, people for whom this early initiation is a predictor for future addiction problems.


Risk and Protective Factors

This research was able to identify a set of risk factors which determine how drug abuse begins and progresses, as well as a matching set of protective factors, which can be put into place to reduce the risk of addiction.

Protective factors can be used before a person at risk has ever tried drugs, helping to lower the risk and potentially ensuring that those at risk never actually start using drugs at all.


What Are The Risk Factors?

There is a huge range of risk factors identified through scientific research into those who become addicted to drugs. People at risk may be in one group or may present with more than one of these risk factors. Obviously, the more risk factors that are present, the higher the risk to the individual, but as mentioned previously this still does not guarantee that the individual will abuse drugs at any point in their lifetime.

  • Scientists estimate that genes contribute between 40% – 60% of the risk of a person becoming addicted to drugs.
  • Developmental stage. Those who dabble with drugs at a very young age are at a greater risk of addiction later in life than those who try them later.
  • Drug sensitivity. Being more or less sensitive to the effects of a drug can have a great effect on whether or not the individual feels inclined to continue to take them.
  • Mental illness. People with mental disorders including depression, anxiety, ADHD and bipolar disorder are at a greater risk of addiction.
  • Different types of drugs appear to be more addictive to different genders. So, whilst men are more likely to become addicted to alcohol or marijuana, women are more likely to become addicted to benzodiazepines.
  • Homelife. Children and teens who have an unstable home life are more likely to turn to drugs during their younger years and later life than those who have a comfortable living environment. Those who grow up with a parent addicted to a substance may also have more chance of becoming an addict themselves in later life.
  • Peer group. A person’s social circle has a huge influence over their chances of trying and then becoming addicted to substances. This is particularly prevalent in adolescence.
  • The culture that a person is surrounded with can also predict whether or not a person is at risk for substance abuse issues. A culture which is more permissive towards drug use, and one in which drugs and alcohol are readily available, results in a much higher likelihood of a person developing substance abuse issues.


How Do Protective Factors Work?

The idea with protective factors is that for every risk there is an action that can be put in place to counteract that risk.

Thinking about childhood and adolescence, for example, early signifiers of risky behaviour can be dealt with by parents and teachers. If a child displays aggressive behaviour, the adults in their lives can intervene and teach the child how to deal with their emotions in a more positive and appropriate way.

This helps the child to learn how to cope with stress, and also stops them from continuing down a path of disruptive social behaviour and academic struggles which could add to the risk of addiction later on.

Another example is family situations which can make a child more likely to abuse drugs in later life including:

  • A parent or guardian who abuses drugs
  • A lack of emotional attachment or nurturing from caregivers
  • Ineffective parenting

Protective measures which can be put into place to minimise these risks would be:

  • A strong and comfortable bond between child and caregiver
  • Parental interest and involvement in the child’s life
  • Clear and consistent discipline


Addiction Trajectories

Another point which has been uncovered during research is the idea of addiction trajectories. This means that once a person has tried drugs, or is even using them on a casual basis, what factors can then lead to this becoming an addiction. The trajectory for any addiction tends to go:


2.Infrequent/experimental use

3.Regular use

4.Disordered use

5.Addiction requiring treatment


Throughout this trajectory, the insertion of a number of changes or influences can force the drug user into the next phase, and closer to addiction. Examples of these include:

  • Unemployment
  • Leaving home or losing a parent (new independence)
  • Becoming a parent
  • Mental health crisis
  • Breakdown of a relationship
  • Becoming homeless.


When any of these changes occur during a person’s life, their risk factors for addiction go up, and it is more likely that their casual use of drugs or alcohol will turn into something more serious.



Reducing the risk of ‘vulnerable’ people becoming addicted to drugs means taking into account the wide variety of risk factors present throughout a person’s life. Action needs to be taken across all levels of society to help deal with those at risk and put in place protective measures to avoid them descending further down the path to addiction. It is also worth noting that many of these risk factors and influences are outside of the control of the individual.

If you are worried about your risk of addiction or fear that you may already be suffering from one, Cassiobury Court can help. If you want to know more, we can be contacted on 01923 369161 or you can text HELP to 83222.


John Gillen

John Gillen - Author Last updated: 30th January 2023

John Gillen is a leading addiction treatment expert with over 15 years of experience providing evidence-based treatment methods for individuals throughout the UK. John also co-authors the book, The Secret Disease of Addiction, which delves into how the addictive mind works and what treatment techniques work best.