Pubdate: Fri, 19 Mar 2010
Source: Times, The (UK)
Copyright: 2010 Times Newspapers Ltd
Author:  Antonia Senior


Attempting to Scare Teenagers About the Dangers of Drugs Is 
Pointless: Their Brains Are Wired Up to Take Risks

It's all depressingly familiar. Two teenage lives cruelly taken by 
drugs. A public keening and a kneejerk political reaction. A new ban. 
And then? A new drug will emerge, like a snarling Hydra's head, and 
new teenagers will be ensnared and some will die.

It is desperately sad that Louis Wainwright, 18, and Nicholas Smith, 
19, fell victim to the current craze for mephedrone, or miaow-miaow. 
It is a legal drug and the internet is awash with sites offering 
quick and easy ways to buy it. The dealers accept all major credit 
cards, and Royal Mail delivers the stash. There's no hanging around 
street corners with miaow-miaow. As the drug is illegal for human 
consumption, the websites market it as plant food, and use tortuous 
floral metaphors to advertise its efficacy: "A big boost to any 
tired-looking flowers!"

In the current regime of prohibition, silence and lies, the obvious 
response to these tragic deaths is to ban miaow-miaow. It is an 
absurdity to have one legal, dangerous drug, when all others are 
prohibited. Except alcohol. Oh, and tobacco. And methadone, of 
course, but that's different, apparently, because the State's the dealer.

So ban mephedrone, and then the kids who want to get high will be 
forced back to their usual haunts, of street corners and alleyways. 
Their dealers will be delighted to welcome them back into the fold 
and be given a chance to practice what a legitimate business would 
call "cross-selling". How about some crack with your miaow-miaow, little girl?

Drugs policy must start from the premise that teenagers like taking 
drugs, because drugs make them feel good. No child thinks, I'd love 
to be a crack-addled hooker when I grow up. Something happens between 
childhood and adulthood that makes taking drugs recreationally an 
attractive option, despite all the weighty downsides, dangers of 
addiction and hideous side-effects. Since the invention of functional 
MRI scanning in the early Nineties, it has become evident that our 
brains undergo extraordinary functional and structural changes during 
adolescence and into our early twenties.

Different parts of the brain develop at different speeds. The limbic 
area that controls our desire for rewards develops earlier than the 
prefrontal cortex, which is involved in decision-making. But the 
dissonance between the two means that one part of the brain is 
shouting, "Yeah, that drug will give me a buzz," while the other is 
going, "Um, um . . . " In an adult the prefrontal cortex would kick 
in to shout: "No! You'll get arrested/ die/look like a prat. How 
about a nice walk in the park and a scone instead?"

The late development of the prefrontal cortex explains much about 
adolescents' inability to make good decisions. Professor Laurence 
Steinberg, of Temple University in the US, is one of the leaders in 
this area of research. He describes teenagers as having " a 
well-developed accelerator but only a partly developed brake".

n a study of attitudes to risk about to be published by Stephanie 
Burnett, of University College London, children, adolescents and 
adults were set a task in which they played a video game based on 
making safe or risky choices. The teenagers took more risks than the 
others. The three groups' emotional responses were measured; 
adolescents were particularly thrilled and excited when they had 
lucky escapes. Dr Burnett says: "The reason that teenagers take risks 
is not a problem with weighing up the consequences. It was more 
because they enjoyed taking those risks."

An earlier study by Professor Steinberg found that teenagers playing 
a driving game took greater chances when their friends were watching. 
Peer pressure has an inflammatory effect on risk-taking. The ability 
to think about the long-term future is another late-developing 
function, says Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, of UCL's Institute of Cognitive 
Neuroscience. Teenagers also have a different tolerance for boredom.

Studies on rats have also shown that teenage rodents get more of the 
pleasure out of alcohol, and less of the pain. Neuroscientist believe 
this may apply to us -- non-scientific proof may be found by quizzing 
an 18-year-old and a 50-year-old after a heavy night on the razz.

That teenager festering in a filthy bedroom is a bored, short-termist 
risk-taker, with poor decision-making skills and a propensity to be 
heavily influenced by other similarly afflicted peers. Add in a 
cocktail of hormones that encourages novelty seeking and social 
competitiveness, and the wonder is that any of them don't take drugs, 
not that many do.

The flipside is that the effect of drugs on teenage, developing 
brains may be damaging. The complex process of restructuring the 
brain during these crucial years does not need an influx of chemicals 
designed to disrupt its normal functioning in pursuit of a buzz. 
There is a horrible irony here; the impulses that lead teenagers 
towards drugs are those that mean they should leave them alone until adulthood.

A teenage brain may be a work in progress, but it is not stupid. 
Lecturing does not work, and neither does the current insistence that 
all drugs offer is the evil side-effects. A public drugs policy that 
fails to address the irrepressible urge to get high is always doomed 
to failure.

We have obviously, and visibly, failed to win the war on drugs. We 
must admit that demand is not eradicable and that supply is 
uninterruptible. We must wrest the drugs trade out of the hands of 
criminals, legalise it and tax it. All drugs should be legally 
available to anyone over the age of 21.

You cannot legalise without an age limit, but this will create a 
black market under that limit. The best we can hope for is an 
under-age black market that replicates the alcohol one -- where the 
dealers are big siblings and overindulgent parents. At least if the 
broad market was legal, we could be sure that whatever drugs our 
teenagers seek out are pure. It would be easier to provide honest 
guidance on what drugs mix badly -- and what to do when experiments go wrong.

It may sound like a dangerous strategy, but it cannot possibly be any 
worse than the current system, in which the only winners are the 
criminal barons. Who are about to get even fatter on the take from 
illegal miaow-miaow. 
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