Psychoactive drug use is associated with negative consequences, such as a disruption of social relationships, damage to health, and negative financial outcomes (Abadinsky, 2013, p. 7). Although using a single psychoactive drug is dangerous, some people do not stop taking a single drug and experiment with various drugs for an enhanced effect or to experience different types of intoxication.
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Term polydrug use is used to describe such scenarios when people use different drugs simultaneously or at different times rather than having just one drug of choice (Leri, Bruneau, & Steward, 2002). Studies suggest that compulsive users are inclined to switch between different drugs (Abadinsky, 2013, p. 30). The combination of choices of drugs is almost limitless since not only different drugs can be used, but also different drugs can be combined for a particular effect.
Since polydrug use is an umbrella term that describes both the simultaneous and sequential use of different drugs, the causes of this phenomenon depend on the exact usage scenario. People can use different drugs at different times because they do not have a specific preference; rather, they want to experience intoxication and do not care about the nature of its origin. Another usage scenario is using one drug to alleviate withdrawal symptoms from another drug. A typical combination is using cocaine to alleviate opioid withdrawal symptoms.
The reasons behind the simultaneous use of different drugs are more complex. People use two drugs in a variety of different patterns. Some people mix two drugs into a “drug cocktail” to experience a novel set of subjective effects (Leri, Bruneau, & Steward, 2002). When combined, certain drugs can produce an amplifying effect, and thus, let the drug users experience more vivid intoxication.
“The toxicity of the drug is affected by tolerance” (Abadinsky, 2013, p. 33). Since taking a single drug typically allows the drug user to build tolerance for its effects, combining drugs for an enhanced effect is practiced by those individuals, who built a tolerance for a particular drug. Due to the wide availability of alcohol, it is often used in combination with other drugs for an enhanced effect.
Most often such practice is typical of heroin addicts, who mix alcohol with a variety of other drugs. One study found that all of the heroin addicts used alcohol in combination with heroin (Abadinsky, 2013, p. 30). Other combinations may include the mixture of alcohol with ecstasy, cannabis or sedatives. In addition to combining drugs with alcohol, sometimes various illicit drugs are combined for the same effect. One such combination is the simultaneous use of cocaine and heroin which is called speedball (Leri, Bruneau, & Steward, 2002).
The simultaneous use of both cocaine and heroin is also practiced to ameliorate the undesired effects of one of the drugs. Alcohol, being a sedative-hypnotic substance, is also used for the same purpose.
Polydrug use is a complicated phenomenon with a variety of underlying causes and explanations. While some users might experiment with various drugs to try different subjective effects of intoxications, others mix drugs into a drug cocktail for different reasons. Sometimes, polydrug use is practiced to experience novelty or for an enhanced effect. Another reason for polydrug use is to alleviate the negative effects of a particular drug with another drug.
Abadinsky, H. (2013). Drug Use and Abuse: A Comprehensive Introduction. Boston: Cengage Learning.
Leri, F., Bruneau, J., & Stewart, J. (2002). Understanding polydrug use: review of heroin and cocaine co-use. Addiction, 98(1), 7-22. DOI: 10.1046/j.1360-0443.2003.00236.x