Pubdate: Wed, 15 Oct 2003
Source: Natal Witness, The (South Africa)
Copyright: 2003 The Natal Witness.
Author: Elizabeth Armstrong


Most of what teens know about drugs they don't pick up in a classroom.

They get their information from billboards on the sides of highways; from 
movies, magazines and the Internet; from parents who drink at the dinner 
table; or from friends who experiment when nobody's home.

They get information about drugs -legal and otherwise - from so many 
sources and, today, it seems, the messages they are picking up may be more 
muddled than ever before.

"There are so many mixed messages that kids think everybody is lying," says 
Mike Gray, author of Drug Crazy: How We Got Into This Mess and How We Can 
Get Out.

As adolescents experiment with drugs at ever younger ages, adults often 
counter with dramatic presentations on the dangers of illegal drug us. But 
coming from within a culture saturated with drugs yet also terrified of 
them, adults themselves may not understand how contradictory and confusing 
their guidelines can sound.

For instance, teenagers are often told: illicit drugs are bad and you 
should never do them; prescription drugs are fine and can be counted on to 
enhance fitness and happiness as long as a doctor prescribes them; alcohol 
is all right and will help you relax and enjoy life as long as you're older 
than 21.

"There are good drugs and bad drugs," says Larry Murry, a senior fellow at 
Columbia University in New York who runs the prevention programme 
Casastart. "We know cigarettes are bad but opiates, for example, are good - 
except when they're misused. To any thinking person, it's confusing."

Drug education, both formal and informal, usually kicks in at a sensitive 
age, just when children are first struggling with notions of what happiness 
is and how to attain it. They are just beginning to learn how to enhance 
and avoid certain emotions and how to look and feel good, and many feel 
their job is to strive to build a perfect mind, a perfect body, a perfect life.

There is today a cultural infatuation with perfection that convinces 
children at a young age that drugs - especially legal ones - may be a tool 
that leads to perfection, says Lawrence Diller, a behaviour-development 
paediatrician and the author of Running on Ritalin.

"It's part of a broader societal shift," says Diller.

"The whole psychiatry movement basically got hijacked by the pharmaceutical 
industry in the late eighties," he charges. "The discovery of certain drugs 
and the power of certain drug companies actually altered the way we think 
of ourselves."

With more children than ever being prescribed legal, mood-altering drugs 
like Ritalin, some experts worry that the message they may be picking up 
is: drugs are supposed to make you feel better, or look better, or perform 

Diller, who himself prescribes Ritalin to children, has reservations about 
the way the drug is being used.

"I worry that Ritalin becomes a substitute for other important factors, 
such as parents parenting better and teachers teaching better," he says. 
When that happens, he says, "the doctor winds up being complicit with 
values that are not good for children".

Society is normalising the use of self-improvement drugs and children are 
acutely aware of that, says Peter Kramer, author of Listening to Prozac.

"There's a phenomenon of giving medication to people who are fairly 
healthy," he says, "and having them overshoot to a point where they are 
more culturally rewarded."

That may be one reason why it's hard for today's adolescents to absorb the 
message when adults want them to understand that drugs can also be dangerous.

When the U.S. government founded the National Youth Anti-Drug Media 
Campaign in 1998, it tried to instill in children the notion of an 
"anti-drug" with 30-second, MTV-like ad spots.

But the government's own study, conducted by the University of 
Pennsylvania, later found that children more heavily exposed to the ads 
were actually more likely to experiment with illegal drugs.

No "anti-drug", it seems, has been able to override the pervasive message 
that drugs exist to make people feel better.

What makes some children more likely to experiment with drugs than others?

If you asked most drug-education experts, they would tell you Jordan Temple 
is a "high risk" potential user.

The streets of his neighbourhood in Queens, U.S., are teeming with dealers. 
Some family members and friends are users.

A glance at Jordan (15) on the street reveals a skateboard tucked under his 
arm, baggy jeans and dark skin.

But that quick look wouldn't reveal a report card decorated with As, a 
penchant for chess, an early fascination with biology and an ability to run 
a mile in less than five-and-a-half minutes.

It would also fail to include the fact that Jordan has been accepted to 
Darrow, one of the nation's most prestigious boarding schools, in upstate 
New York.

This "high-risk" teen is crossing the most daunting threshold of his young 
life. But Jordan has stayed out of trouble and never taken drugs. And that, 
he insists, has little to do with what any adults have told him about drugs.

Stories like Jordan's are among the the reasons that writer Meredith Maran 
decided to write a book about why certain teens stay away from drugs while 
others don't. After growing up in the sixties and seventies as part of a 
generation that experimented with drugs, and raising two children who had 
experiences with drugs, she went looking for answers.

"What does our children's drug use show us about them, about us, about the 
world we have made for them?," she asked.

While writing Dirty: A Search for Answers Inside America's Teenage Drug 
Epidemic, Maran identified two types of children who do take drugs: those 
who "use" to have fun and those who "abuse" because they see few reasons 
not to.

"It seems incredibly simplistic but most children say they do it because 
it's fun and they go on to lead normal, healthy lives," she says. "And then 
there are the kids who abuse drugs. And it's not just the traditional, 'Oh, 
teenagers think they're going to live forever.' It's actually the opposite."

Sometimes, the trouble, says Maran, lies with children who, for whatever 
reason, have been cut off from hope. They don't see a future that holds a 
place for them.

"Kids who are in trouble emotionally, culturally, vocationally, use drugs 
to harm themselves," she says. "They have a very astute social critique and 
see very little they want to be a part of."

Curious about what keeps some children away from drugs, Maran went looking 
for constants among those who'd never experimented, or who tried something 
once or twice but stopped. Passion, she found, and the belief in being able 
to make a difference in the world through that passion are possibly the 
"anti-drug" education experts have been looking for.

During the recent war in Iraq, Maran was thrilled to see children out 
protesting - not because of their political views but because they looked 
so committed to something.

"Talk about keeping kids off the streets," she says. "Put them in the 
streets behind a banner and you've got your problem solved. People need to 
feel that what they do is a contribution."

Today, Isabel Maremont doesn't hang out with the teenagers who smoke and 
drink. In fact, most adults would feel certain that Isabel, who lives in a 
stable, two-parent home in a comfortable suburb, should be a low risk for 
drug abuse.

A strong student, the ninth-grader has succeeded at almost everything she 
has tried in her young life and certainly has the kind of passion and sense 
of purpose Maran is talking about.

Just now, drug use has no appeal for Isabel. But if she ever tries drugs, 
she imagines it will have something to do with the type of teens she hangs 
out with. "I don't hang around with [kids who use drugs] now," she says, 
"but I don't really know what they're like."

What may be hard for a young person like Isabel, say some experts, will be 
the day when drug use comes closer to her experience. Her sixth-grade 
anti-drug education class taught her about overdoses, brain chemistry, 
quickened heart rates and irreversible dependency.

But what was never mentioned in the class was the possibility that, up 
close, drug use might not look dangerous at all.

"One of the greatest epiphanies . . . is the first hit, when you discover 
that you've been lied to," says Gray, who has long argued that failing to 
teach kids that drugs may feel good is more of a "gateway" than the drugs 

One of the most explosive debates in drug education is the question whether 
teens should be taught to fear even casual use.

Unlike sex education, where some students are taught abstinence with a 
footnote - if you do it, here's the safest way to do it - the message in 
drug education is to say no to everything.

Not allowing children to talk openly about any desires they may feel to try 
drugs widens the gulf between them and adults, and they turn to other 
sources of information, such as the Internet, Maran says.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman