At 19, I've already seen drugs damage my peers

Smoking dope is lonely and pathetic. What's wrong with scaring the bejesus out of kids?

Published June 15, 2006 12:45PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I've noticed you have published a few advice columns for teenagers, and was wondering if I could hop on the bandwagon (although, at 19, I'm kind of pushing it) and ask you a few question about drugs.

Neither I nor any of my close friends do drugs, mostly because it complicates things unnecessarily and has negative consequences for the user and all the people they interact with.

I live in a wealthy suburb of San Francisco. My boyfriend and I know kids who were highly intelligent, together and promising, who started smoking pot when they were 12 or 13, drifted from high school to high school, stole money and painkillers from their parents, graduated or didn't graduate, and now are in their early 20s, living off their parents' money, and are either heroin addicts or trying hard to be heroin addicts. One girl we know started using meth intravenously when she was 14 (according to her brother, she got it from their uncle). One kid with a long history of drug abuse overdosed on Valium the day before finals, had a psychotic episode at our high school, and was forcibly confined to a mental institution by police. There are worse cases, but you get the idea. I know this sounds melodramatic and scary, but it's not out of place in extremely affluent communities.

Drug education in this country is very polarized. On the one hand, there is DARE, with police officers scaring middle-school kids, "Go Ask Alice," etc. On the other hand, there is a weird reaction emerging where parents think that, because they did drugs, they can't tell their kids not to.

An example of the latter. The Drug Policy Alliance is an organization that advocates reform in the war on drugs (which I agree with) and wants parents to introduce drugs in a gradient of badness, with the emphasis on safety. "I have news for you. Your kids are going to do drugs," Ayelet Waldman (another columnist at Salon) stated in January 2005. Is that really the case?

Unlike sex, recreational drug use does not stem from an instinctive behavior designed to further the good of the species. Although some species and cultures use psycho-affective plants for their non-nutritive benefits, I disagree that treating drug use as an eventuality will do more good than, say, scaring the living bejesus out of youngsters. Treating drug use as a phase might make sense for people who grew out of it and faced no harrowing consequences, but as evinced by your column, prison statistics, the booming market for drug-confessional memoirs, and the thriving alcohol advertising market, for many it is not a phase, and it is significantly harder to grow out of than many in the Bay Area would have you think.

So the question is: What is the most effective stance to take? To the best of my knowledge, recreational drug use has never made anyone happy, but it is rarely as objectively terrible as the moral arbiters would have one believe. Drug use is not sensational, outré or shocking -- it's lonely and pathetic. I wish there was a way to explain to young people the degenerative effects of this and other self-destructive behaviors and still be listened to. Is there?

Or am I just trying to prevent the unpreventable?

Clean but Concerned

Dear Clean,

Like you, I think there would be more happiness and less misery in our little part of the world if fewer teens took drugs. But I suggest that you simply tell your own truth: how you feel about the drug use you have observed, and why you yourself do not do it.

As far as policy goes, I agree with the goals of the Drug Policy Alliance, with one caveat: When I was a teenage drug abuser, if I remember correctly, well-meaning people did offer me useful information about the drugs I might or might not be taking. I nodded and looked concerned. I made them tea and said, "Would you like to sit on the couch?" But if I was going to not take drugs, there needed to be either A) no drugs around or B) big dogs and men with sticks between me and the drugs.

If I had known you at the time, a hip, intelligent young person who did not use drugs, I would have admired you and would have wondered how you could be so cool and yet not do drugs. Maybe I would have thought it was a little sad that you didn't get off like the rest of us. Or maybe I would have thought it was great. It's hard to tell. But I doubt that it would have stopped me. I was too desperately unhappy and too cunning and insincere, too guarded, too aloof, too afraid and too afraid to show that I was afraid.

I was meeting my needs the only way I knew how.

How was a guy like me going to use practical pharmacological data to make balanced decisions about which drugs to take? My main goal was to get so high I couldn't see my shoes.

And therein lies my concern about the realistic, common-sense approach: It seems to assume that the adolescent drug user is a rational actor who can weigh risks and benefits.

I frankly don't know what anyone could have done to help a kid like me. My problem was not a lack of pharmacological data. It was the problem of how to be a human being, how to live in society, how to experience God, how to grow up and be a man. If somebody had offered me answers to those questions, I might have listened. In other circumstances there might have been a wise elder, healer, philosopher, warrior, priest or some such to help me express and channel those needs. No such luck. Not in that world.

My drug use may have been misguided, but it had at its heart the most noble of desires: the desire to know the universe, to be at peace in the world, to liberate the better self, the true self, to allow what is good in the self to shine, and to know mysteries firsthand, to experience the inexpressible beauty, harmony and complexity of consciousness.

I understand your dilemma: When you say you're against drug use, you seem to say you are against certain noble strains of the questing American spirit -- Beats and hippies and transcendentalists and Expressionists and all that.

So I suggest two things: 1) Tell your own truth about drugs. But more important, 2) work to build a culture that meets the needs that people take drugs to meet.

People take drugs to meet legitimate needs: initiation, profound experience, encounter with death, exploration of consciousness, exploration of personal limits physically and emotionally, a certain derangement of the senses, to feel more deeply, to taste the edge of insanity.

Our problem is that we do not know how to collectively actualize the mystery of the universe so that our children can be ushered into adulthood confident that they belong. We need rituals that create vivid experiences of reality, vivid enough to make the drug experience pale by comparison. We need to live in a way that makes drugs irrelevant.

We don't know how to live that way. We don't know how to live vividly enough.

That is what I would pray for: that we learn how to live.

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