Why shouldn’t kids try drugs?

I recently got the following comment from a reader, Arne. I think it opens up a fascinating and important discussion. And a challenge to think beyond the usual pros and cons. Here it is, lightly edited, with Arne’s permission:
Submitted on 2012/08/22 at 2:56 pm


I’ve been working on a drug education video series for a client who works mostly with classrooms of 5th-8th graders, and stumbled on your blog while doing research. It’s been extremely valuable to me in getting my head around addiction and the action of drugs in the brain. The challenge has been how to translate that into information that might help insulate a kid from going down that path when drugs are encountered.

Do we focus on kids never trying drugs, or on preparing them to stay away from “abuse” rather than “use”?

My question about addiction is perhaps most what I see as a non-drug-addict (as you rightly elucidate, there are plenty of my behaviors that mirror those of addicts, but I don’t have any addictions to drugs) who is working in the space between kids and drugs. One thing I haven’t read here in your blog or the resulting comments is a sort of social prism. Thinking of myself as a youngster, the feeling of getting out of my body or being in some ecstatic space was extremely important. I dabbled in various hallucingens mostly, but I think because I had enough other experiences of joy that I saw them as interesting but not essential. If anything, I feared drugs because the resultant come-down deprived me temporarily of access to the more natural experiences of authenticity I treasured.

I think of Ben in the video you link to up there. Sure, he had no overt trauma, but he grew up in what seemed one of those imprisoning and somewhat dulling strata of UK society…loving family, but perhaps not much room for connection to anything other than a row house and a job? Isn’t there a trauma in culture? In growing up in a civilization or particular society that requires a certain kind of adaptation — an adaptation that many of us are unable to make, whether biologically or, if you bend that way, spiritually? I think of the kid in Into the Wild…it wasn’t drugs for him, but he needed something out of his life that his sweet upbringing couldn’t provide.

Drugs for many might provide the only experience of ecstasy they’re likely to have…and who are we to ask them to prefer a long life of frustration and being an upstanding citizen to a few fleeting moments of feeling truly alive? What are we alive for, exactly? To execute our biological and social functions? I think these discussions of being and the brain are extremely fascinating, and I think a lot of work is being done lately to understand how brain networks affect behavior and health, but I feel like there’s a big gap here as we individualize and anatomize too much around addiction and think less of the more philosophical question of our purpose here.

For non-traumatized kids, what do we offer them as a culture that makes resisting drugs an appealing choice? Fear of ending up like Ben obviously isn’t enough. What’s the positive path we give them to choose? If we value euphoria, or even just wellbeing, as a culture, does our current system work?  How available is the state of wellbeing in ordinary life? Or are drugs the best way to get there; and that’s how they get so deeply into our brains?

I started reading your book and couldn’t help feeling that there was more to your drug use than the obvious trauma. Not only were people mean to you and you felt loss leaving home, but it seemed that drugs gave you a path to the sublime that was missing in your surroundings. Your lyrical writing in those passages certainly attests to a sense of doors being opened…maybe the lack of major psychic pain you allude to was also the lack of venues in your social situation to access joy or hope?

I often think about this when working with kids at risk. Are we really telling youth to work at McDonald’s (if they can even get a job there) and be upright citizens for the minimal sense of satisfaction and safety that comes with that choice — rather than choosing either the visceral thrill and sense of joyful community of being in a gang, or the (temporary) euphoria and wellbeing that come with drug use?

53 thoughts on “Why shouldn’t kids try drugs?

  1. Carolyn Kay August 26, 2012 at 7:36 am #

    A few weeks after I quit drinking, I had a manic episode that felt absolutely wonderful. After another few weeks, though, it turned into a horrible fearful feeling and then a depression that lasted two years and put me in the hospital twice.

    Would I advise people, kids or others, to find a way to experience that wonderful manic feeling? No. And I don’t recommend drugs, either.

    There are healthy ways to enjoy life, even with a restricted income.

    Carolyn Kay

    • Arne August 27, 2012 at 1:26 pm #

      So true…and yet isn’t there a kind of wild happiness we can feel that isn’t necessarily manic? I know how those moments can be scary, and I’ve had family members who live between those poles. And yet, as you say there must be a way to enjoy life an also at least leave the possibility open to feel overflowing…

      • Carolyn Kay August 28, 2012 at 5:20 am #

        How about cultivating the satisfaction of a job well done, or feeling good about helping someone else?

        • Marc August 28, 2012 at 1:35 pm #

          Yep, those are pretty much what I live for these days. They have a lot of traction, and no unpleasant side-effects!

          • Carolyn Kay August 29, 2012 at 5:47 am #

            I also should have mentioned the joy of learning something new.

            But mostly, I think, so much of our unhappiness is due to our “I, Me, Mine” culture. It’s long past time to get over that.

            • Marc September 1, 2012 at 5:29 am #

              I don’t think we’re going to “get over” it, Carolyn. Rather, it seems that self-interest is deeply built into the fabric of our animal natures. That’s not evil. It’s just what it took for animals to survive in a harsh world.

              But we should at least get ON TOP OF IT, see it for what it is, learn to modify it when we can or when we have to. Those things are possible, and they’ll make us all happier.

              • Carolyn Kay September 1, 2012 at 5:46 am #

                Yes, selfishness is built in. But so is altruism. Finding the balance between those two motivations is what maturity is all about.

                I’d write a book about it, if I could ever find a publisher.

                • Marc September 1, 2012 at 5:57 am #

                  Touche! Excellent point. Altruism is fundamental as well.

                  I just scanned a bit of your proposal, and I could not agree with you more about the “selfishness is good” movement in American culture and its terrible consequences. I particularly like your point:

                  “People who live in tribes do not have a “greed is good” mentality. In a tribal environment selfishness is discouraged, while generosity is admired and rewarded.”

                  That is an important observation. My only ray of hope is that each new sprouting of the younger generation seems to rediscover this aspect of our nature to some degree, each in its own way.

                • Marc September 1, 2012 at 5:58 am #

                  P.S. You’re up rather early….

                  • Carolyn Kay September 1, 2012 at 6:28 am #


                    How about co-authoring a book with me on the need for balance?

                    I’ll do all the work, I promise!

                    • Marc September 1, 2012 at 6:44 am #

                      Nee. I live in the Netherlands now. It’s just after noon here!

                      As for “I’ll do all the work”….I’ve heard that one before. Seriously, I’d love to, but there is never enough time, even for the things we really MUST do.

                    • Carolyn Kay September 1, 2012 at 6:49 am #

                      Yeah, not enough time to save the world.

                      Too bad.

                      I’m retired, so I’m not kidding about doing the work.

  2. John Krier August 26, 2012 at 11:00 am #

    Hi Arne

    I just got thru with a long discussion/argument with my #2 daughter about the importance of culture. Culture defines everything (in my opinion) because with kids that age culture (0r more importanytly culture’s stepchild peer pressure) Is the MOST important influence on kids. Since they instinctively want to be accepted, many/most will do whatever it takes to belong. If that involves drug taking so be it.

    So you have to consider that parental guidance as the key not only of teaching but of being kind of a bulwark behind which the child can make decisions of right or wrong: obviously that bulwark has to be powerful enough to overcome peer pressure, which is intense, and go their own way. That is what makes School Choice (at least here in the States) so crucial for inner city black children, as at least 75% are born to single parent households. Big handicap because even the mothers with best intentions are very busy trying to keep the family unit together. If the mother takes drugs, the kid is probably unreachable.

    Lastly never, ever, make your video condescending. Some kids are born to be addicts, some aren’t. The ones who aren’t, are the first ones you are trying to reach.
    It is important to remember your kids want to be treated like human beings and not idiot robots. They want guidance but they also want respect. That is CRUCIAL or even 7 year olds will laugh at your videos.

    Your lack of addictive experience is not a huge handicap because you are trying to intervene BEFORE they get that far.

    But remember this: some kids are BORN to be addicts and slavishly follow the “leaders” of their peers so don’t get discouraged. Save the ones who CAN be saved and you will be doing a great service.

    • Arne August 27, 2012 at 1:43 pm #

      Jon, first of all, so great you’re arguing about culture with your child! I remember engaging in long discussion/arguments with my grandma about those kinds of topics and though I would go away disgruntled many times, it sharpened my mind and made clearer what I really felt and what were just poses. I hope to do the same for my kids when they’re older (2 years old and 8 months right now).

      I think, though, as coyotejoe asserts below, I’m concerned with something beyond just peer pressure. Of course, most of the larger culture is expressed through the very localized ways kids treat each other, so it’s not completely distinct. But I’m thinking about those rats in rat park:


      For them, it wasn’t the removal of others, but the accumulation of familiar community. Of a home that was at least a facsimile of what their instinctive behaviors required. My thought is that many kids feel isolated, incredibly isolated, even when surrounded by others. So they’re living in sort of cultural or psychological cage. We interviewed several youth for this video series, and they all had a very similar path into addiction. They felt inadequate, they were bullied, they wanted terribly to be with a group of friends, they wanted to numb loneliness. Of course, they also enjoyed the drug for a brief time, and eventually that took over. But there was some sort of discomfort with their place in the world, something I’m sure many adolescents feel anyway, that at least partially drove them in the first place.

      It’s probably true that there are people who are “born” to be addicts, but perhaps they are born to be addicted to something that doesn’t need to be drugs? Perhaps they’re born to become obsessed, fascinated, consumed, exhilirated, but their social context seems to allow only one route down that path? Marc has that fascinating post from a while back about neurodiversity, and the incidence of an ADHD associated gene mutation in populations of native americans from north to south. It gets greater the further you get from the original migration point, and the theory is wanderers are less likely to be patient and so strike out and start a village somewhere else with more of the wanderer genetic material. As Marc says, perhaps addicts are just mal-adapted, that in a more flexible culture, their tendencies might even be strengths?

      Finally, thanks for the tip on being condescending. We’re working really hard to avoid that. At times, I’ve had people give me the note that the concepts may be too complex for 5th graders, so I’m probably overcompensating!

    • Marc August 29, 2012 at 6:44 am #

      John, I agree with much of what you say. I DON’T agree that some kids are born to be addicts, either for genetic or environmental reasons. A few posts ago, I told of meeting a New York poet/writer at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. His name is Lemon Andersen, his parents met in a methadone clinic, they both died of AIDS (due to needles), Lemon grew up in a Hispanic housing project, and both his brothers have taken serious drugs. Lemon was awarded a Tony for his work while still in his twenties, and he has never tried drugs. Yet you’d probably class him as “unreachable” for both genetic and environmental reasons.

      I’m just saying: the complex interlacing of cause and effect that ends up in addiction is just too difficult to predict on an INDIVIDUAL basis.

      • John Krier August 30, 2012 at 11:23 am #

        Hi Marc

        Serving as reply to both you and Donnie
        First Marc: There are almost always exceptions in (large families) to the rule. Some inherit tendency some don’t. In my years (as we discussed) in AA watching and observing addicts and seeing why it follows a very similar pattern: in I would say 70-80% of the cases they had alcoholic parents. In larger families it is usually the girls who don’t follow the pattern. As my sponsor says “I hated my Dad for his alcoholism and then one day without thinking about it I realized I WAS my Dad”. *f the tendency is not inherited how do you explain American Indians and the Irish? Those are not “cliches” but are true. I have seen it myself and not through surrogates like rats.

        Donnie: you have completely mistaken my intent. In Arne’s method you are talking to 6 year old kids not grad students or rats. You are also forced into a “one size fits all” situation so you need a message that is broad and simple. Rat experiments have nothing to do with it. And remember sometimes “cliches” are only cliches because they are repeated ad nauseum. That does NOT mean they are untrue.Over thinking is the downfall of any professional including medical (as is under thinking.)

        Physicists like to use the term “Elegant” to describe the greatest discoveries such as Newton’s gravity, Relativity both Special (E = MC2) and General and even Heisenberg’s microscope mind experiment in quantum. They are called that because they are simple (for them) explanations of very big things.

        So never denigrate simple unless it is too simple, therefore untrue either in it’s entirety or by half. If it is true then it is good because it reaches the broadest range of people and not the “select” few who, when immersed in a discipline can’t seem to “see the forest for the trees”. There is another hated cliche (but true) for you.

        • Marc September 1, 2012 at 5:43 am #

          John, I’m sorry to be blunt, but I don’t think you know the first thing about genetic inheritance. It’s true that Lemon was an exception, and exceptions don’t always matter when it comes to understanding patterns. It’s also true that the Irish and Native Americans are known to drink a lot. As you say, it’s probably not just a cliche.

          But there are two fundamental reasons why alcoholism should appear at elevated levels in a particular culture, and they have nothing to do with genetics.

          1. Modelling. Children model their parents’ behaviour, and teens model each others’ behaviour, as you yourself observed, and friends model friends, etc, etc. “I want to do what you’re doing” is a fundamental tenet of primate logic. So this is a powerful means for a type of behaviour to spread within families and within groups.

          2. Domination by some other culture. It’s not much fun to have your traditions, your values, your rituals, your MEANING, usurped or expunged by a dominant culture. But that’s what happened to American Natives (obviously) and to the Irish (by the British). The resultant misery will easily raise the level of addiction in the culture, and alcohol just happens to be most available in both regions. I should note that excellent research by Michael Chandler and his associates shows that kids in Native communities, which have preserved their tradition more than other communities, have far lower rates of addiction and suicide.

          Genetics is a whole different ball game.

          • John Krier September 7, 2012 at 11:21 am #

            Hi Marc

            I realize that you have studied this for a living . But so have many (very smart) people who have the opposite conclusion so denigrating an outsider, amateur etc is fine but you must admit that there are many holes in your as well the other’s arguments.

            I happen to prefer the other side always have, always will. People who can think should be listened to, and not just tossed aside. You and others might learn something. I love to observe for macro Econ reasons, and I also know a bit about the the brain. I just cannot agree no matter how many studies you throw at me.

            If you read my (published) econ prediction from 5-6 years ago on my site you will see I put my money where my mouth is and kicked the “professional economists collective asses up and down the block. Why? Because I use a multi disciplinary approach and therefotre catch things that those who only look from one discipline don’t.


        • Donnie Mac September 3, 2012 at 2:27 pm #

          John :
          I don’t really understand much of what you just posted , maybe I’m too simple . I would like to offer you a challenge if your up to it . I am fascinated , frustrated and down right explosive over your reasoning . I guess I would like to know more about you and your life history . So here is the challenge , can you tell us about yourself with out using any program language , slogans or references to 12 step anything ?
          It would really help me out with what you post .

          • John Krier September 7, 2012 at 11:05 am #

            Hi Donnie

            Sorry about the lateness…have been in hospital with my latest bout of cardiovascular insanity. (metaphorically speaking)

            That is a question that is very “loaded” and hard to briefly answer esp for a loud mouth like me. Here goes

            Born to upper Middle Class lost father at early age, father lawyer everyone else MD’s of various stripes, bout of MRSA staph which screwed everything up including brain, hence the fascination with brain function.

            Bult a (successful?) career with no help as a broker and entrepeneur. Fortunate to inherit a higher IQ and EQ from a successful family therefore able to overcome the many “handicaps” and hurdles left over from my good friend Mr MRSA.

            Highly educated in Lib Arts (History, Econ, Poly Sci,German Lit etc. But made my way in business. After “retiring”, started 4 companies (compulsive entrepeneur) to do something with our assets, which I currently run. After 1st retire I studied everything I did not have time for including Particle Physics, Mass Psych. most of all Macro Econ.

            Hows that?

            • Donnie Mac September 8, 2012 at 12:45 am #

              Good Good , did you marry or have a family ? How did you get into A.A ? The challenge still stands , and for some bizarre reason I want to know if you are left or right handed . Have you traveled ?

  3. Cincinnatus_C August 26, 2012 at 11:17 am #

    I may be stating the obvious, but the way for kids to experience ecstasy, etc. is through sports….the outdoors….music lessons….kids have to get engaged early….very early if they live in areas where drug use is the norm. Having said that, I was active in sports and a little bit in music and I still became a drug addict..but I didn’t excel in sports. If I had, I wouldn’t have had time (or the desire) for drugs. maybe…

    • Arne August 27, 2012 at 1:48 pm #

      See, this is an interesting problem…several of the kid-users we interviewed were deeply involved in sports, one even with pro potential, and yet they still went down that path. Obviously, it’s not just about the forms of activity and community, but the actual feeling of community. The kid who was a star baseball player described how he felt “boring” and how he was much more popular once he drank and started smoking pot. He obviously really loved the feeling, especially of being stoned. Young people know the difference between pretending to be friends and embracing the exhiliration of true community in ways older folks sometimes forget. So it isn’t just about saying “Hey, get involved in soccer, you’ll be fine!” But how do we re-create the culture of our schools and communities and larger society so that young people feel connected to each other and to something bigger that makes drugs a trapdoor rather than an escape hatch?

      • Marc August 29, 2012 at 10:31 am #

        Very interesting about sports. In North America, the focus is strongly on competition — which is why parents get into fights in the stands. Here in the Netherlands, the sports are much more communal. I think they offer both the energetic output which they DO find ecstatic and also a sense of connection. Maybe I’m idealizing my new home, but the Dutch are very involved in community and in nurturing their young to be part of the community. And, overall, they’re a pretty healthy lot. Contrary to some popular misconceptions, they don’t do a lot of drugs.

        They do drink a fair bit, though….but again mostly socially.

  4. AnonymousRon August 26, 2012 at 2:24 pm #

    I agree that there are healthier options than kids trying drugs. I just recently had to leave my pursuit of a psychology/music therapy degree because of lack of tuition support. My next semester I was to study ecopsychology. I completed the text even though I had not began the class. There is a lot to be said for one’s connection to the earth and social connections. The mindfulness and meditative qualities of being in nature remove some of the anxiety of our fast paced societies.
    I am hoping to take some of the principles of art/music therapy in recovery and apply them to a photography program. My thoughts in doing so are that some people are inhibited in fully participating in art/music due to a lack of talent or fear of being rejected due to their talent.
    In photography therapy one is able to find meaning/connection almost immediately in their images. There is community in photography workshops that allow the participants to connect with one another. There is also an aesthetic quality that allows one to see beauty in their lives.
    I believe a program like this could not only be beneficial in treatment, but also in social dysfunction and addiction prevention.
    Thank you, Marc for this forum!

    • Arne August 27, 2012 at 1:52 pm #

      In the curriculum, not in the videos, but in the work in the classroom or client is doing around the videos, there’s a session on mindfulness and ways of connecting in the way you describe. I think it’s really important for young people to experience that kind of peace, as it’s so rare. And yet, young people feel things so powerfully, I remember the first time I did yoga in a theater class I felt like I could literally trace electrical energy going through my body.

    • Marc August 30, 2012 at 3:42 pm #

      Don’t thank me, Anonymous Ron, thank Arne! But I really like your idea. A lot of kids are entranced with the idea of photography. I think it allows them to capture and own something — an angle or an insight on a tiny part of the world, maybe — and it allows them to feel “expert” without much training. The connection with the world and the sense of community would also go so well hand in hand. Great idea, and something that could potentially do a lot of good. (and keep you off the street!)


  5. coyotejoe August 26, 2012 at 2:51 pm #


    As a kid who was not only genetically predisposed and suffered trauma/co-occurring disorders, but existential frustrations as well, I am very grateful that you are putting so much thought into your work. Zooming out and putting the issues into a greater context was what really tipped the scale for me in my own battles, and continues to support my sobriety today. I believe addiction is a hugely synergistic issue encompassing class, race, health, etc, and yes, spiritual/existential/evolutionary questions, and will only truly change as the interdependent parts get addressed. Looking at addictive behavior through a neurobiological lens is bringing us the insight that we are not our behavior nor our pathology, and in my opinion is pointing us towards bigger questions about what kind of world we want to live in and who we want to be. I was not expecting to find such a can of worms when I finally got sober, but here it is.

    I believe you are asking important questions (that sadly don’t have simple answers), and I encourage you keep asking them. After seeing more than my fair share of youth addiction services for better or worse, it gives me hope that someone is raising these questions for the next generation.

    Thank you Arne and Marc for all the work you do!


    • Arne August 27, 2012 at 2:00 pm #


      It’s those bigger questions that have really dropped me down the rabbit hole on this one. I started out by writing some fairly straightforward scripts about drugs and the brain, and now I’m mulling over questions of the origin of spirit and culture! I am amazed that asking those bigger context questions helped you tip the scales. It makes me think about how a lot of liberation pedagogy revolves around teaching kids to be critical thinkers, that you’re not trying to train idea-bots, but kids who question the world around them. And the theory is that asking those bigger questions will help free kids from all of the pressures that surround them…we did a documentary about a rock ‘n’ roll camp for girls that specifically used music as a way to critique sexism, body image and all that good stuff, and we watched girls change right in front of our very eyes once they saw clearly that it wasn’t all their fault. That there was an external entity who profited mightily from their fears and self-hatred. Also, I know there’s been some work done in tobacco control to demonize the tobacco companies, and some positive effects have been seen once young people understand how they’re marketed to. Perhaps what you allude to here could become an integral part of addiction relief, getting people out of the vicious cycle of “it’s my fault, no, it’s my brain’s fault, but wait, my brain is me!”

      • Marc August 30, 2012 at 3:52 pm #

        It really does seem radical, what you guys are suggesting. Getting kids to think, to see the big picture, to feel at home in abstractions, to tackle real-life cause-and-effect…. Are you nuts? And then I think of the kind of perspective, mediated through electronic communication, that has helped kindle the Arab Spring — perhaps the most important and most unlikely political events of our time. And then I think: maybe you’re not nuts after all.

        As for looking at addiction through a neurobiological lens, well of course I’m all for it, but I’m not completely sure why. I suppose the big upgrade in context this brings to me is the realization that our bodies and minds are precisely and continually joined at every imaginable level. Yes, we are flesh, and yet we are conscious. Our flesh makes us vulnerable. Our consciousness allows us to be free. How can these things coexist, right in the privacy of our own selves…? And yet they do.

  6. Donnie Mac August 26, 2012 at 3:53 pm #

    Crazy Discussion :
    I think there is a cause and effect portion that might just be left out of this conversation . Gabor Mate writes about his trauma as being “Perceived ” obviously being separated from Mom and Dad is a better fate than being killed by Nazis . Anthony Bourdain writes his addiction was not from family but from watching “Old Yeller” and the “Red Balloon ” those two movies scared the shit out of him . The evening news brings horrible story’s day after day . The tales that don’t make the news are even more terrifying . A large percentage of children live with sexual abuse , poverty , mental illness , addiction , and right out gun violence . If we take into account the “Overt Trauma ” and add in “Perceived Trauma” ( Gabor’s parents didn’t send him away to screw him up , nor did Disney make movies to scare children so badly their brain chemistry changed ) the number add up to an astronomical amount . Lets just say that trauma causes such change in brain states that it become intolerable for children and adults . The effect is we reach outside our selves for comfort and the corporate world is happy to oblige and sell us whatever they think we need . Fast Food and Ritalin come to mind , ever wonder why Chrystal Methamphetamine has become a popular drug ? Because it’s the street form of Ritalin .
    If there is anything I would try and teach Children it would be the ability to intrinsically sooth trauma by whatever means , to give them outlets , kind eyes ,warm hearts and open ears to whatever troubles might be at hand . To build on a existing internal mechanism that can absorb trauma and process it internally no differently than the body process oxygen , water and nutrition . A line from my favorite poem says it best :

    ” You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars;you have a right to be here.And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
    Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be,and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
    With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy. ”


    • Arne August 27, 2012 at 2:03 pm #

      Yes, how do we express that the world is still beautiful while obviously painful and difficult? No teenager is going to respond to just “Hey, don’t do drugs, get a natural high from smelling flowers!” I think it’s important for them to know that we acknowledge the difficulty, but that overcoming that difficulty is where much of the beauty is. There’s no shortcut, as you say, you have to internalize that kind of life so it becomes second nature.

    • Marc August 29, 2012 at 6:59 am #

      Donnie, you want to help kids “To build on a existing internal mechanism that can absorb trauma and process it…” YES! And you want to do it through kindness and through sensitivity to the many layers and gradations of trauma that most kids live with. I fully agree. But I don’t think it’s necessary to decide: do we see this as a “society is diseased” problem (like the fate of lab animals, as per Bruce Alexander) or as something that varies hugely from one life to another? Both are certainly true. There are overall societal problems that beset most of our kids. Then there are some lives that are just so much more painful than others.

      Back to your statement: “To build on a existing internal mechanism that can absorb trauma and process it” We academics call that “emotion regulation” and it’s a key field of study for developmental psychologists (like me). Moreover, we all have such a mechanism — or else our species would never have survived. Much of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) takes on that role. In fact some people think of the PFC as one massive regulator of the impulses, needs, desires, and fears that rise up from the hypothalamus and limbic system (lower brain regions).

      So? So, the PFC needs a lot of training. It has to be both smart and resilient (flexible). Which is why humans remain immature for roughly 15 years. It takes that long to get the needed training. In other words, we “naturally” want to help kids become the best regulators they can be, because we know that life is hard, and emotion regulation is taxing.

      It’s almost as if we’ve forgotten this very basic function of parenting / teaching / socializing our young.

  7. Ronnie de Sousa August 27, 2012 at 8:28 am #

    I would like to underline the importance not only of avoiding condescension, as John Krier stresses, but of not telling lies to children.
    In most countries influenced by the US, official government policies and pronouncements (apart from the obvious fact that incarceration does a lot more harm than any drug) are based almost entirely on lies; and that does not inspire confidence in the young. Jacob Sullum, in his _Saying Yes to Drugs_, points out that even for “hard” drugs, the proportion of users who are addicts is unlikely to exceed 10%. For cannabis, of course, it is a tiny fraction of that even on the loosest “psychological”definition of “addiction”. Marc’s book makes it very clear that addiction doesn’t simply follow inexorably from trying a drug. Sullum also cites statistics that seem to show that moderate users of cannabis in high school are better adjusted and get better grades than heavy users; but they also do better in social and intellectual terms than abstainers. Recently, my local newspaper had a discussion about what parents should tell children about their own drug use in school or college. My 15-year-old daughter, who knows I am a happy pothead, was astonished to hear the truth about me: namely, that my first use of cannabis was in graduate school. I venture to believe that she is the more likely to heed me when I urge moderation.

    • Arne August 27, 2012 at 2:10 pm #

      I totally agree…and that’s the difficult line I tread with our client. She’s responsible for bringing this curriculum into schools, and it’s hard to imagine our institutions being ok with a Saying Yes to Drugs pedagogy. So how do we not lie to the kids, but also keep in place the firewall between young people and drugs required by the schools? Besides which, I’m not sure that getting involved in drugs at the age of 13 is the greatest idea for anyone. As parents, that’s the difficult juggling act, giving kids choice, but also knowing if I just leave a pile of candy on the floor they’ll just eat it all with no sense of long term consequences. We have to be their frontal lobes for just a little while, don’t we? In the end, what I’ve tried to skew things towards is preventing abuse rather than just saying no. I think we can all agree that kids binging on alcohol and driving their cars into a tree is a bad idea. But parenting and teaching in the schools is a different thing. You can have a nuanced discussion with your daughter about moderation, but schools aren’t set up for that. In fact, as I was saying before, this is probably part of the problem. Everyone knows it’s bad to lie to kids and yet the system is built on successfully lying in various ways–“you can follow your dreams! go to college and the world is your oyster! take drugs and your life is over!” I’ve often felt like true education reform would mean burning most of what we have to the ground and starting over, so schools can speak to kids in the way you do to yours.

      • Marc August 27, 2012 at 3:25 pm #

        Beautiful! Really good dialogue. I think I can retire in peace… : -)

  8. John Krier August 28, 2012 at 12:07 pm #

    Hi Arne

    Thanks for the nice reply. But I believe you are confusing what I mean by culture, hence peer pressure to conform to established “cool” culture is enormous for kids esp as they grow into adolescence.

    I also believe you are trying to over analyze (this from a layman remember, for whom common sense rules) esp with rats in the park types of experiments. To me it is very simple: the prevailing “kid culture” is an outgrowth of the ambient culture that grows within. Therefore a one-size-fits-all message is not as effective as a tailored message. So sticking with the basic premise of peer pressure/culture makes that tailoring so much easier.

    Trying to go deeper than culture I believe is an exercize in futility if the message is meant to be for a larger audience. It is the one thing they all share in more or less the same manner.

    Bullies are just insecure outgrowths of that culture. They are the flip side of the kid who feels shy and alienated from his surroundings. A desperate need to belong is what they share in common, but outwardly manifests itself in the opposite manner. Since they share the same need, culture and the resulting peer pressure becomes the paramount issue.

    I also believe that addiction (in the preponderance of cases) is a trajectory based on inherited tedencies. Therefore it is VERY hard to intervene with this minority. You also have the problem of parental example since more than likely one or more will be alcoholic drug takers etc. Intervention must be more of a one-on-one and not a broader message. This is based on 9 years of observation and individual interaction in AA meetings as a recovered alcoholic.

    So don’t strive for 100% perfection but content yourself with the kids you can save/change. Remember it all starts with the family unit so by the time you get there a lot of mindset is already carved in granite both from heredity and parental example.


  9. Arne August 28, 2012 at 3:13 pm #

    Another interesting study that shows that voles, who tend to pair for life, are insulated from addictive properties of amphetamines when already in those pairs…as opposed to single voles. It seems there may be some neurobiological defense that goes along with being in love!


  10. Jeff Skinner August 28, 2012 at 3:15 pm #

    Teaching kids about drug use in school is pretty much imposible for a number of reasons.

    1) The teachers who have to present the material may have their own experience but will be unwilling to talk about it HONESTLY unless they are terribly naive. And kids typically have good bullshit detectors. They know when they are being snowed.

    2) The kids who have some experience with drugs will will be very skeptical of what they are told and will always believe they know far more than they do.

    3) The people who approve the curriculum are limited to doing a Nancy Reagan. Their jobs are at risk if they decide to get real.

    Viable ways to approach mood altering substances is a matter of wisdom something it takes decades to develop and which cannot be taught in the classroom.

    Does this sound pessimistic? It is, and I think inevitably so.

    • Marc September 1, 2012 at 6:13 am #

      It sure does sound pessimistic, and yes, inevitably so. I guess the problem is that the system does NOT want to teach kids about drugs, it wants to get them not to take them. This is not really education: it’s social control. Imagine teaching judicial procedure to High School kids and then having a mock trial in which the verdict is decided before the trial begins!

  11. Julia August 28, 2012 at 4:45 pm #

    Marc, What an amazingly intelligent, deep-thinking and collaborative community you have created! I agree wholeheartedly that it is essential to examine such questions through the context of culture, as well as an historical perspective and individual biology/psychology.

    I want to echo the point that life necessarily entails pain, risk, adversity and loss and that learning to negotiate those experiences is a central challenge for each and every one of us as we grow up. Learning to do so in ways that enrich ones experience and strengthen bonds to the community rather than alienating or causing more damage is the trick. Cultures offer tools but they are not always sufficient or available. Culture also needs to offer validation that such experiences have meaning. My observation is that modern, Western, industrialized culture is deficient in both the tools and the validation, leaving many young people adrift and very vulnerable to the many, many escapes that culture has created whether via substances, activities or pop culture role models.

    I have several friends who have watched helplessly as their adolescent children have traveled down dangerous and destructive paths. Some of those children have found their way back out, some have not… so far. And even where I am tempted to stand in judgment of what the parents did ‘wrong,’ I hesitate to do so because I also see examples where there is nothing I can point to as having caused or even encouraged the children to stray. Similarly, there are families which, in my opinion, should have produced troubled children but the kids turned out fine. So I have to admit that the cause and effect between a child’s family/community environment and later troubles is inconclusive at best. I can certainly point to factors in my own childhood which I think pushed me in the direction of seeking relief in addiction (to food in my case). But I know now that they did not ’cause’ me to make those ‘choices.’

    One example of the interplay of these two elements is the rampant alcoholism among Native Americans. There seems to be widespread agreement that the intentional destruction of their culture and theft of the lands, which were so essential to their way of life, left many of them deeply vulnerable to addiction to alcohol. Equally important in the mix is the availability of that substance. How these factors are intertwined and interact is always somewhat mysterious and unpredictable.

    On the other side of the coin, as mentioned above is the human need for ecstatic & transcendent experiences, not just ways to manage pain. One might even say that those are more important because they are what makes going through the struggles worthwhile in the first place. I am a big fan of Andrew Weil’s Natural Mind as well as the companion From Chocolate to Morphine. Both may need some serious updating, having been published in the 1970s but the central premise I think still holds, that humans have a inborn appetite for ecstatic and transcendent experiences and that most traditional cultures acknowledge that need and provide structures and guidelines within which they can happen safely and in culturally condoned ways. Weil posits that our modern, Western culture offers few sanctioned structures and even denigrates that inborn appetite altogether thus pushing them to the margins and underground.

    There is a lot to be said as well about the increasingly powerful and seductive drugs and activities the marvels of science and technology have created. But I think Marc has done a great job of elucidating the chemistry and biology of their effects and the dangers thereof.

    I applaud the wonderful work some of the above commenters are doing with kids. I think that’s the most needed resource, caring, wise, informed and thoughtful adults who offer their attention to young people struggling to grow up in this crazy world of ours.

    So thank you once again, Marc, for making a space where individual stories can be heard and validated!

    • Arne August 29, 2012 at 1:14 pm #

      Lots of interesting points here, Julia! Your point about our culture not giving tools to kids to navigate difficulty and suffering really resonates with me on a couple levels. Firstly, as a fairly new parent, I’m constantly navigating the space between protecting my boys from everything and getting them what they need before they cry and letting them work their way through things, even on a basic level. I have to smack my own hand down as I try to help my two year old with a task he finds difficult. Parental love as a support of independence is a really difficult trick, because of course you don’t want to see them suffer and you also love them and don’t want them to get TOO independent! As a culture, I think we have an overflow of that same kind of instinct. Hey, this new phone totally makes everything easier! Before I even get frustrated about finding a good restaurant, I can Yelp it and skip that step. Google Maps means I never get lost! It all seems so great and so pleasing, and yet when real difficulty comes, grief for which there is no app, we are ill prepared. The client I work with actually works a lot in private schools in a very wealthy area, and that’s where much of the worst binge drinking and oxy use etc is around here. It can’t be a complete coincidence that those who materially should be the most prepared–they have every resource for development of the self and creativity you can imagine–are also so prone to abuse and addiction.

      It’s interesting, because I’ve recently been writing the script about opiates, and getting my head wrapped around endorphins and dopamine and all that good stuff. And everytime I delve into brain chemistry, it seems there are two opposite answers to everything. Dopamine, for instance, is well known as a pleasure/reward chemical. Yet research shows that it’s also instrumental in fear and dread responses. Endorphins are seen culturally as a natural rush, think runner’s high, and yet much of their job is dealing with pain and stress. What we understand on a cultural level, that true pleasure is twinned to struggle, seems to be reflected on a neurological level. At least that’s my amateur’s understanding, I’m sure Marc can say whether I’m speaking out of my ass!

      • marc September 1, 2012 at 6:32 am #

        Well, perhaps out of your belly button.

        Dopamine is no longer considered a pleasure chemical. The notion of a dopamine pleasure circuit was very entrenched for a very long time, but research in the last ten years, particularly by Kent Berridge (please see my link to his site on my homepage). Dopamine is now understood to underlie attraction, goal pursuit, desire, focused attenton, and of course CRAVING when it comes to addiction. That explains why animals will self-stimulate their dopaminergic regions. I want — I want — I want…etc. Very much as in addiction. They are just stimulating desire, not pleasure.

        And yes, opioids underlie two seemingly disparate things: warmth, pleasure, and contentment on the one hand, and relief from pain or psychological suffering, on the other. Now when you think about it, that makes sense. Can you really distinguish between relief and contentment, I mean subjectively…? Nature’s economy is magnificent. Take the chemical that evolved for relief and use it for all kinds of cool things, like fun, pleasure, even pair-bonding. Opioids are…..NICE.

        The best cure for this small failing in your knowledge base is to read my book, especially the neuro parts, carefully. It’s all covered.

      • Marc September 1, 2012 at 6:38 am #

        Sorry, got a bit solipsistic there. To get back to your point… Yes dopamine underlies behavioural thrust or focused attention. Although this is often in the service of attraction — ie., toward something — it can also be in the service of escape — ie., away from something. And yes, some duality is clearly present with opioids too, as I noted. Pain relief and pleasure…. though, again, I don’t see these as poles as much as branchings of a singular function.

    • Marc September 1, 2012 at 6:41 am #

      Hi Julia. I really have nothing to add. Your comment is so erudite and thorough, and Arne’s response is so much on track, that there’s nothing left for me to say.

      Except one thing: I’ve never read Andrew Weil’s The Natural Mind but now feel compelled to do so. Thanks for that, and for your kind words about the blog.

  12. Donnie Mac August 28, 2012 at 5:26 pm #

    John :
    I have read your responses and tried to see your points , but there are some glaring logical fallacy’s . Your posts are replete with stereotyping and your “Common Sense ” is far from common . You represent a small faction of extremists stuck in the dying shibboleth that is A.A …
    I think if Mr Alexanders “Rat Park ” teaches us anything it’s here :

    “The resistance, he says, is based on a pervasive “temperance mentality” that has made drugs — first alcohol, then opium, morphine, cocaine, heroin, and marijuana — the scapegoat for society’s ills for centuries. “We’re bathed in this propaganda from childhood, and it’s totally persuasive,” he says. “It’s so much easier to believe that the drug takes people away than that the very civilization we live in is making life miserable for everybody.”

    Last time I looked , kids were part of everybody .
    As for “peer pressure” your children peers are now Apple , Microsoft ,Versac, Absolute Vodka and a advertising/media culture that makes them feel “Less than” if they don’t have products they are exposed to hundreds of times a day .

    On a personal note , I worked in a Hospital for 10 years washing floors and tossing out garbage . At “NO POINT” did a Doctor come up to me and say ” Hey Donnie you been here a while , why don’t you scrub up and help us out with this heart transplant ? ”
    It was never going to happen . But some how if you attend enough A.A meeting and listen to enough of the rhetoric , this makes you an expert in Addiction . This is not meant to be an “Argument ad Hominum” I’m sure you are a lovely man who’s life is much better since you cleaned up . It’s just to point out the 12 step view is not the “Base line , Standard or Epicenter” of how the world works .

    The Great American writer Mark Twain wrote :
    ” It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled”

    I think I’m just trying to figure out HOW much I have been fooled .


    • Marc August 29, 2012 at 7:19 am #

      Donnie and John, Let’s try to see what you’re really arguing about, before you get any more heated. Donnie, I don’t think John’s main message is about the glories of AA. So why turn this into the perennial argument as to whether AA is valuable or useless? It’s probably some of both. And John, I don’t think you really want to bash scientific research and the messages it brings to the understanding of addiction. The Rat Park study, and Alexander’s writing since, have been really useful to many of us.

      The fact is, you two seem to agree as much as you disagree. You both advocate building in resilience, through empathy, kindness and connection with children who desperately need it. John recommends it on an individual, one-on-one basis, Donnie sees it as a needed antidote for all children, to combat the societal poison we live with. This can’t possibly be an either/or debate, unless I’m missing something pivotal. Am I?

  13. Richard Henry August 29, 2012 at 8:36 pm #

    To all the teens, the first timers, who dare to experiment with Drugs or Alcohol…

    I believe for many who become trapped in addictions, have succumbed to pear pressure. Its at the teen years we fall to the experimental stage, the beginning of all addictions. For most its a matter of just wanting to fit in, for others, like myself just want to try anything, everything once.

    But what happens is if we have any issues in our life at the time of our first time experimenting with drugs or alcohol, is that, these issues somehow become of little concern, while we are under the influence. This falling to the trap of escape, in turn we start to fallow a routine and enter the next stage toward addiction.

    The occasional us of drugs or alcohol, in realising, hey! this is fun, and their is no negative consequences of that temporary escape from reality. helping and satisfying those underline issue that life puts in front of us. In turn this puts us into the next stage which spirals us into avoidance, and into the regular use, and social use, where it becomes a part of all your recreational activities.

    Its still fun, but is slowly starting to catch up to you where you can’t have fun without it. Then you enter the next stage, which is the heavy use, Now you look forward to it, and it has become a part of your life and is expected as a reward for all your hard work, like every week end or for like me, I would go on binges, drunk for 2 or 3 days.

    This stage of addiction quickly turns to the next stage which is the abusive stage, where anytime their is an issue, or any time outside your regular activities, like work. your going to use.

    Now you have become an Addict because, now you have entered the dependency stage where you need it in your everyday life to sustain a regular balance, because your not only escaping to your choice drug or alcohol but you are curing the symptoms of your addiction, as they say a little of the hair of the dog that bit ya.

    This meaning your sick if you don’t keep a constant in-take of what ever your choice of addiction is.

    Like for most, having that regular coffee in the morning its not so much the up lift you get when you become addicted to coffee it basically brings you back to a normal state, it no longer enhances your life like at the experimental stage. Soon after you can’t live without it, this becomes the final stage which is the chaos stage and without help, can have some very negative consequences in your life.

    So just remember to all who dare to experiment with any potentially addictive behavior or substance in your life, their are stages to be aware of and can become l life time struggle for most to recover from. I pray for all those still addicted…


    • Marc September 11, 2012 at 7:10 am #

      You are right to divide the path into an experimental stage followed by an addiction stage. I think that’s how it works for most of us. The trouble is, of course, that there are no road signs showing where one ends and the other begins. But your warning often falls on deaf ears. Though most who end up addicted started off experimenting, many who experiment stop before they get addicted. And everyone believes that they belong to the second category — until they don’t.

  14. Peter Sheath August 31, 2012 at 4:26 pm #

    Hi Marc
    I have jusy been listening to a really interesting lecture by Professor Ian Robertson about power. He talks about power increasing levels of dopamine and testosterone to a point whereby it actually becomes detremental to the individual by reducing the capacity for empathy making them prone to becoming bullies and such like. Initially power and the pursuit of power does have a soothing effect on the stresses created by the positions of office, but, like any drug, it does have the nasty habit of turning on you.
    He desribes power as being just as addictive as any drug with it almost always ending up in corruption. Democratic systems involving regular elections and parlimentary systems have been designed to guard against this, but within autocratic/dictatorial systems the leaders become increasingly driven by this heady cocktail of testosterone and dopamine, losing any lasting vestages of empathy, or the ability to listen to advice, in the process.
    He also talks about President Obama and the changes in his character he has noticed as his term in office procedes. He described him being really upset when a drone strike inadvertantly killed some children in Afghanistan but several years later he was heard making an almost tasteless joke about it. He said that, in his opinion, the banking debacle that we are all now having to pay for was as a direct result of the pursuit of power.
    Reflecting on my own experiences, when I have found myself in positions of management, I found myself, disturbingly, in very similar positions. I found myself pursuing power and glory and lost much of my compassion, empathy and humility in the process. I guess I was seeking that internal fix and, in many ways, it became all consuming.
    Why have I put this blog here? Well I guess if we are going to continue to provide factual information to our kids about drugs and sex perhaps we need also throw in some realistic discussions about power, dopamine and testosterone. Perhaps then it could help both us and them to understand things like bullying and do something positive about it?

    • Marc September 11, 2012 at 7:34 am #

      Sorry for the late reply, Peter, but this is really fascinating. I don’t know much about the dopamine-testosterone cocktail you describe, but it sounds right. I know that testosterone makes people (including females) highly sensitive to status cues, which is good motivation for climbing the social ladder. Dopamine is metabolized whenever we pursue ANY goal — the more desirable the goal, the more dopamine. So both dopamine and testosterone may be more motivating than rewarding. So?

      Animals will work to get a little zap to components of the dopamine system. That’s why everyone assumed that dopamine = reward. They were wrong. Dopamine = motivation. So here’s the big mystery: does goal-pursuit actually feel good? How could it? Why would it? Or is it just that it’s the step before goal attainment — IF you’ve got the power!

      My own take is that goal pursuit feels good when the goal is in sight, and it feels bad (it feels like craving) when it’s not. Maybe power is a goal that makes many other goals accessible. Maybe people cling to power because it’s just too scary to lose access to goals that one has had access to for a long time. This certainly seems true of Assad and people like him, and maybe even for Obama?!

      Well, I’m just thinking out loud. Thanks for a provocative topic.

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