Drugs, lies, and half-truths

'Drugs are bad, except when they're good.' With such mixed messages, is it any wonder kids get confused?

Most of what kids 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, a screenwriter and the author of "Drug Crazy: How We Got Into This Mess and How We Can Get Out." "Drug education is not about science. It's not about justice. It's about theater."

As adolescents in America experiment with drugs at ever younger ages, the adults around 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, kids 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 program CASASTART. "We know cigarettes are bad, but opiates, for example, are good - except when they're misused. To any thinking person, it's confusing."

Adults may be accustomed to reconciling such apparent contradictions - but for children it can be harder.

Drug education, both formal and informal, usually kicks in at a sensitive age, around early middle school, just when kids 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, 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 kids at a young age that drugs - especially legal ones - may be used a tool that leads to perfection, says Lawrence Diller, a behavior-development pediatrician and the author of "Running on Ritalin,"

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

"The whole psychiatry movement basically got hijacked by the pharmaceutical industry in the late '80s," he charges. "The discovery of certain drugs and the power of certain drug companies actually altered the way we think of ourselves."

Certainly illicit drugs have been part of the landscape of American youths for some decades now. When the US government released "Monitoring the Future" - its most comprehensive study of drug use among US high school students - for the first time in 1975, 55 percent of high school students said they had tried an illegal drug at least once.

A few decades of small spikes and dips later, that number now hovers at about 53 percent today, which means that despite decades of antidrug education programs in schools, drug use among American teens has held steady.

With more kids 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 better.

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 normalizing the use of self-improvement drugs, and kids are acutely aware of that, says Peter Kramer, a professor at Brown University in Providence, R.I., and 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 federal 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, while parents responded well to the campaign, kids did not. In fact, the study concluded, kids 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.

The risk factor

What makes some kids 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 Long Island City neighborhood in Queens 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 A's, a penchant for chess, an early fascination with biology, and an ability to run a mile in less than 5-1/2 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" kid is crossing the most daunting threshold of his young life - from middle school into high school. 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 Bay Area-based 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 '60s and '70s 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.

Two types of drug users

While writing "Dirty: A Search for Answers Inside America's Teenage Drug Epidemic," Ms. 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 kids 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."

Passion as an 'antidrug'

Curious about what keeps some kids 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 "antidrug" education experts have been looking for.

During the recent war in Iraq, Maran was thrilled to see kids 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 kids 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. She'd rather curl up with a good book, she says, or hang out with her friends.

But if she ever tries drugs, she imagines it will have something to do with the type of kids 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 antidrug 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 Mr. Gray, who has long argued that failing to teach kids that drugs may feel good is more of a "gateway" than the drugs themselves.

"Kids reach high school and find out everybody's getting stoned behind the stadium after practice, and half are straight-A students," he says. "So the cops and the principal are totally wrong, and they become iconoclasts. And when somebody tells the kid to stay away from heroin, he assumes you're lying."

One of the most explosive debates in drug education is the question whether kids 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.

Letting kids talk

Not allowing kids to talk openly about any desires they may feel to try drugs - including any interest in casual experimentation - widens the gulf between kids and adults, and kids turn to other sources of information, such as the Internet, Maran says.

Jordan Temple, for one, wishes adults would listen more and talk less, that they would stop trying to scare him and start letting him ask tough questions.

"Our teachers and parents make us think that drugs are scary," he says, "so then the drugs become part of our domain, something we don't talk about to them."

Parents actually have tremendous say in how their children behave, says Paul Brounstein, director of the division of knowledge applications and systems improvement at the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention in Silver Spring, Md.

But they need to talk to kids openly and honestly about both the powers and dangers of drugs, he says. Without such conversation, children may feel they are drifting further and further away from the adults around them.

"When kids feel they're doing something furtively, especially if it is illegal, like smoking marijuana, and they don't talk to their parents, it becomes a self-labeling thing," Dr. Brounstein says. "If they feel they need to hide what they're doing from people who hopefully have nurtured them, then they're going to continue that."

When adults and children fail to communicate honestly about a topic as pervasive in today's society as drugs, he says, an opportunity has been missed "to bond and understand each other, and to support each other."

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