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Why do young people think some drugs are ‘safe’ or ‘harmless’?

The most commonly used definition of a drug is “any substance (with the exception of food and water) which, when taken into the body, alters the body’s function either physically and/or psychologically.” Drugs can be legal, illegal or pharmaceutical and can be taken in a variety of ways, including “via inhalation, injection, smoking, ingestion, absorption via a patch on the skin, or dissolution under the tongue.” 

Over the past 18 months I’ve been talking (and writing) about a number of substances that appear to be becoming increasingly popular with school-based young people – nitrous oxide (‘nanging’), ‘jungle juice’ (or amyl nitrite), cannabis, and ecstasy/MDMA. With all of these, growing numbers of students are telling me that they (or at least, their friends) believe these drugs to be ‘safe’ or ‘harmless’ – two words that you don’t ever want to hear young people use in relation to drugs. My concern is that when anyone, but particularly the very young, start to believe that a drug is ‘safe’, that’s when things begin to go horribly wrong. All drug use entails a certain degree of risk – whether it be heroin you purchase from a street dealer, alcohol you buy from your local bottle shop or a medication you’ve been prescribed by your GP. Of course, there are some substances that are far riskier than others (e.g., some drugs have a far higher potential for overdose, some may be more problematic for particular people due to their genetics). When it comes to teens, however, there are increased risks for a number of reasons.

Firstly, their brains are developing and although far more research has to be conducted in this area, studies suggest that drug use during this time is likely to have greater impacts. We know a great deal about the importance of delaying alcohol use for as long as possible and how drinking at an early age can affect healthy brain development. Although the research is not so strong for other substances, preventing, or at best delaying, any drug use is advisable. Secondly, when adolescents are surrounded by their peers (in a ‘hot’ context) we know they’re more likely to engage in risky activity (i.e., take more of what they’re using, take less precautions to keep themselves safer, etc). Finally, and in many cases, most importantly, they just simply don’t have the life experience to know what to do if something goes wrong.

So why are we seeing growing numbers of teens believing that some of these drugs are ‘harmless’? I believe there are a couple of reasons. Firstly, much of it has to do with the fact that we rarely, if ever, talk about drug use with them in an honest way. Sometimes we are so obsessed with ‘scaring the pants off them’ in an effort to prevent them from taking whatever that we greatly exaggerate the harms or tell them outright lies. We’re then surprised when they completely ignore us! Drugs can be scary enough – things can and do go wrong for many people who use them and there’s absolutely no need to make things up. If you don’t believe me, here are some statements about different substances that are commonly used to frighten teens (and their parents) that simply aren’t true (or at the very least greatly exaggerated):

  • Drug dealers hand out LSD-laced tattoos to school-children
  • Ecstasy is ‘cut’ with broken glass to tear the stomach lining to make the drug ‘come-on’ faster
  • You can get addicted to heroin (or ice) the first time you use it
  • Cannabis is 30 times stronger than it used to be
  • LSD is stored in spinal fluid for the rest of your life
  • MDMA (ecstasy) drains spinal fluid
  • Smoking ice leads to the drug ‘recrystallizing’ in the lungs, causing respiratory damage
  • Ecstasy makes holes in your brain
  • A drug called Progesterox used for sterilizing animals is used as a ‘date rape drug’. It’s used to ensure the victim doesn’t conceive from the rape and leads to permanent sterilization
  • ‘Strawberry Quik’, a form of ice that has been coloured by dealers is being given to school-children to get them hooked on methamphetamine
  • Ice gives users ‘superhuman strength’
  • Most drugs used in drink spiking are odorless, tasteless and undetectable

Some of these may have some basis in truth (e.g., cannabis has increased in potency over the years – experts believe it has doubled (30 times stronger would be almost impossible); ice users can be far stronger but that’s more likely to do with an adrenaline rush from the drug and they’re far from ‘superhuman’), some just don’t make any sense at all (e.g., is there any substance at all, apart from possibly water, that you can’t smell, taste or detect in some way?), while others are completely made-up (Progesterox isn’t even a real drug!). We have very little credibility with young people to begin with (“What would you know, you’re old!”), once they’ve figured out that we’ve lied to them about something drug-related, it’s likely they’ll disregard all the information we’ve ever given them.

The second reason we’re seeing teens’ attitudes change is that we’re doing a poor job of ensuring our young people have ‘respect’ for drugs. This respect starts in the home from a very early age and, as I’ve said many times before, I believe that parents should start talking to their child about drugs the minute they start giving them to them. We live in a pharmaceutical world where we’ve become convinced that for every problem we have, there’s a drug that can fix it. We now start medicating our children from a very early age (far earlier than our parents ever did) and, as a result, train them to be very effective drug users not long after they’re born. Unfortunately, many parents don’t take the time to talk with their children about medicines, seemingly forgetting that they’re drugs too. In the age of the 5-, 7- or 10-minute consultation with a GP, we no longer have the time to ask what the drug is that they’ve prescribed and even though pharmacists will often give us some basic instructions to accompany the drugs we’re given, because it’s been given to us by a doctor most of us don’t even question how safe or how dangerous it might be. We simply take it – no questions asked. Where’s the respect? Over-the-counter medications are used in the same way. We’re likely to always go for the ‘quick fix’ – the option that pharmaceutical companies have been extremely successful at selling us. It has got to the point that using a drug to solve a problem has become second nature.

We’re also living in a very unique time when it comes to the medicinal use of a range of illicits. Cannabis, MDMA (ecstasy) and a range of hallucinogens are all now being used in various parts of the world to treat a range of medical conditions. This is not going to go away and challenges the simplistic ‘drugs are bad’ message that some try to push onto young people. It’s vital, therefore, that parents discuss drugs from a very young age and, at the same time, try to avoid simplistic messages and warnings and rather discuss concepts as ‘use’ and ‘misuse’. If we can successfully communicate the risks associated with legally available products, such as prescription medication or headache tablets we get from the supermarket, we have a much better chance of getting quality messages about illegal drugs (even those that may now be used for medicinal purposes) through to them effectively when they’re a little older.

Am I advocating that you sit down and have the big ‘drug talk’ with your three-year-old? Of course not! The most important thing to remember when it comes to talking about any difficult subject, and that includes drugs, is that it’s not a five-minute ‘talk’ — it’s about building an ongoing dialogue. As your children grow up, they will need more and more information, so start early and build on the conversation as your teenager matures. Make sure you speak to them about the range of drugs available, with an emphasis on those that they are most likely to come into contact with at their particular stage of development. For the very young, including primary school aged children, most of the conversations you will have will be around prescription or over-the-counter medications. It may also be useful at this time to talk to them about how you use drugs, whether they be medicines from a doctor or alcohol and/or tobacco. Most importantly, be a positive role model when it comes to your drug intake, whether that be caffeine, alcohol or prescription medicine. Talk about your use and the importance of acknowledging risk (e.g., have too many coffees in a row and you’ll get the shakes).

We’re never going to stop some young people from experimenting and using alcohol and other drugs, no matter what we do. We can, however, make sure they’re well-informed and teach them the importance of ‘respecting’ anything they put into their body. When I’m speaking to a group of particularly ‘at-risk’ teens who are obviously engaging in drug use, often believing that what they’re doing is completely safe, I say the following:

“If you’re ever going to take anything, whether you swallow, snort or smoke it, before you do it, you must look at it carefully and think “This could hurt me” … If you’re not doing that each and every time, then you really shouldn’t be doing it.”

Just that brief hesitation and that quick acknowledgement that there is a risk involved could make a difference should something go wrong.

Published: June 2019

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