AWW?Column on Addictions

Meth labs in basements. Bony boys scratching scabs on their skin. Headlines claiming ?One hit and hooked for life.? Megalomania. Hallucinations. Psychosis.

With the hurricane-like fury of methamphetamine fear flying around in the media, you have to wonder who?s actually having the ?psychotic episode?–the drug users or the rest of us. The parents who fill up on distorted news bites about a drug ?epidemic? while sipping their morning coffee. The public figures who focus on meth and its supposed link to crime. The people on the street who focus on the grubby kid behind powder and pipe, instead of on the things that lead him down the drug path in the first place.

Clearly, logic and reason–not to mention facts–have flown out the window when it comes to meth, making it hard for people to see the big picture. And the same holds true for other psychoactive substances, from alcohol to heroin to crack cocaine. What can we do to regain our composure long enough to identify the root issues and come up with real solutions to the real problems? For starters, let?s try taking a deep breath, focusing on facts, and looking at things with a clear head.

Ironic as it seems, a street kid?s decision to take meth is based on a kind of logic, or ?meth math.? You have a need or desire to get high + a shortage of cash + a lack of wheels to seek out substances = choose Meth, because it?s cheap, easy to get, and lasts around 12 hours. The claim that 70% of Vancouver?s street youth use Meth makes sense too. The drug not only has escapist qualities that help kids cope with cold, hard street life, but also keeps them awake for long periods of time. When you live on the street, the less you sleep, the less likely your stuff will get stolen.

(And by the way, the down-and-out are not the only ones who get hooked on meth?s promise of alertness. For people who do shift work or have to stay up for long periods of time–truck drivers, students, stay-at-home mothers, among them–the benefits of meth outweigh the risks of harm. Or at least they seem to at the beginning.)

Meth use patterns–like most other substance use patterns–are also more mathematical than many people make out. Drug or alcohol use is not the same as alcohol or drug dependence (often called ?addiction?). There are different types and levels of use. For some it?s simple experimentation. For others, alcohol or drug use leads to trouble at school, work, or with the law. And for a small number of people, substance use becomes a compulsive behaviour required for daily living. Yet people still cling to the belief that use = addiction, despite the fact that the equation makes sense in only a handful of cases. The majority of people who try meth, like those who try alcohol, do not go on to chronic or compulsive use.

With these facts in mind, it?s clear that the question isn?t ?How do we stop the meth epidemic?? The real questions are: What factors contribute to substance experimentation? Which ones make a teenager want to escape his reality? What can we do to help ensure experimentation and risk taking do not lead to harm and dependence?

For young people, drug and alcohol experimentation is linked to a natural desire to rebel and take risks as well as a desire to fit in to a peer group. The need to escape, however, may be rooted in isolation and loneliness, which result from marginalization and a lack of meaningful relationships with parents and peers. That feeling of not being significant, or not belonging, is what often fuels the fire of excessive substance use.

The risk factors that contribute to a kid?s decision to drink or take drugs include things like parental modeling of substance use, weak academic performance, low-self esteem, or a sensation-seeking personality.

Does this mean all kids with absent fathers or alcohol-dependent mothers are destined for addiction? Or that people from perfectly healthy homes never get hooked on substances? Of course not. But it does means that we have to take the focus off the substances and work on helping young people build and maintain meaningful bonds in their communities. It means ensuring teens grow up with enough protective factors–confidence and close relationships–to not find the oblivion of psychoactive substances particularly attractive. Or experiment without their ?having fun? turning into their ?having a problem.?

Logic dictates that we look long and hard at how we?re doing as parents and adult role models, rather than rant on ad nauseum about the evils of one substance or another. What is more harmful than the substances themselves are over-the-top messages that poison parents into thinking there is no hope for their sons and daughters if they so much as look at meth.

The fact is there?s always hope if we support each other.