What’s Really Going On With Teenagers and Drugs
With the Central Board of Film Certification proposing to slash 89 scenes that depict Punjab’s drug problem in the upcoming Udta Punjab, to reports of opium busts in Manipur and ephedrine busts in Thane, drugs have been in the news a lot lately.
But for parents — especially parents of teens — the issue of drug use is never far from the mind.
“It’s an ever-present fear because one is aware of the fact that drugs are easily available and easily accessible,” says Geeta Seshu, 51, who lives with her son, 21, and daughter, 18, in Mumbai. “And they’re also portrayed [by media] as something that one should try as a teen, and experimentation is seen as cool.”
It’s a common parental perception of teenagers and drugs – the immature teenager craving acceptance from peers will be led astray. But is it true?
What’s really happening with teenagers and drugs?
“I’d heard mixed reviews before I tried pot,” said K., 20, who wished to be identified only by his first initial for fear of reprisal. (All drug users interviewed for this report are identified by their first initial only.) “Friends of mine who knew regular stoners thought that those who smoked were degenerates and they don’t do anything with their lives, but I knew that wasn’t the case.”
K first smoked marijuana when he was 17, at a friend’s birthday party where, he said, everyone was getting high. For the next two years, he smoked only at parties, large and small. By 19, he was smoking more frequently, though he has never considered himself a regular user.
“I sometimes smoke four or five times in a week,” he said. “But there are times I don’t smoke for months together. So I don’t know what you’d call that.”
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Conversations with people in their early 20s made clear that drug use is common among today’s youth, generally starting in the late teens. But the frequency and type of drug used varies widely. For people like K, who sticks to marijuana and has never been tempted to try anything more, it’s a recreational activity, an opportunity to be social. K said he rarely smokes alone.
For others, like M., 24, it’s more about experimentation.
“My motto is to try everything once,” M said.
M’s first brush with drugs was at 18, when his friends began smoking pot “to kill time,” he said.
“I just wanted to try it,” M said. But, “you begin with cigarettes, then you move to smoking pot. Eventually that grows, and you want to try something that has more of an effect on you.”
He said his drug use grew through his late teens and early 20s, a time when he used so many different chemicals that he can’t name a particular drug of choice. For those few years, he said, he was using some substance or other more days in a week than not.
M’s ethos of trying everything once seemed to have an unspoken caveat: until he enjoys it.
“Like, if you shoot meth a couple of times, you’ll just pass out. Or you might feel like you’re being choked,” he said. “Initially, you find it difficult to adapt to that. Your heart rate shoots up and you start to sweat. But after a point, you start to enjoy the very same feeling. And you want to experience it again.”
That’s not true for all young experimenters out there, however. S., 20, has a similar try-once attitude toward drugs. She first experimented with MDMA and ecstasy at age 19, thanks to the influence of a “crazy ex-boyfriend,” she said. The experience wasn’t a bad one, she said, but it helped her draw a line.
“I know what kind of drug user I want to be. Ecstasy or MDMA are not drugs I want to be using regularly,” S said.
But S has smoked marijuana since she was 17, when a roommate at her hostel passed her a joint. She, along with all young people interviewed, drew a distinction between marijuana, which they consider a casual substance on par with alcohol, and chemical concoctions.
“With weed and hash, you still have control of what you’re doing,” she said, “but chemicals completely take control of you. It’s not something I think one should do often. I tried it once for the experience. Now I know what it’s like, and that’s it.”
Regardless of where they fall on the spectrum of casual to heavy usage, young people agreed it’s easy to get drugs. (This undercover report from DNA backs up what otherwise might sound like youthful bragging.) They say that marijuana – pot and hash – is most commonly used and very easy to score. Among the chemical pantheon, MDMA, meth and acid are currently the most popular and can be sourced within a few phone calls.
And they say there’s nothing parents can do to prevent teenagers and drugs from mixing.
“A boy or girl is going to do what they want to,” M said. “When you’re a teen, you don’t like being told what to do. I myself was very reckless. That’s how we are. Even giving advice is of no use… I don’t think there’s anything parents can do to control this.”
And that’s the common teenage perception in return – parents can’t do anything about it. But is that true?
What can parents do about teenagers and drugs?
The first thing parents might need to do to be effective is calm down. While the stories of these former teenagers and drugs all start with friends using marijuana, K said friend circles aren’t based on the choice of intoxicants.
“It’s not like everyone in our group is a stoner,” he said. “There are some people who don’t indulge in any intoxicants whether it’s alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs. And no one forces them to.”
So the peer pressure specter parents have long feared in the abstract might be less influential in reality, when it comes to teenagers and drugs.
Also, all three young people are evidence that addiction is not the inevitable result of drug use. Even M, who admits his drug use spiraled out of control for a few years, said he has recently cut back drastically of his own accord.
“No one starts using with the desire to get addicted,” said Dr. Bharat Shah, a psychiatrist in Mumbai.
That said, there is a varying degree of risk of addiction with any drug use, Dr. Shah said. (It should be noted research is mixed on whether marijuana is actually addictive.) In his 30 years of practice working with drug users – many of which are young people – he said most families wait too late to get help. Most parents try escalating punishments like mobile phone bans or discontinuing pocket money, which he said are ineffective, only serving to make teens resentful.
A better method – which parents can start long before a teen first tries drugs, and which professional therapy can assist once drug use is already a habit – is open communication. While not foolproof, he said, when parents are aware of what’s happening in their children’s lives, they will be able to spot a red flag if drug use ever becomes too much.
And when teens have a supportive environment at home, it gives them emotional stability, he added, making them less likely to become addicts, even if they do experiment. In fact, S said her parents’ openness about the drugs they tried in their youth made her more comfortable communicating with them about her experiences.
But even with young people like S and K setting limits, parents will likely always have cause to worry. Because, ultimately, the issue goes beyond casual usage versus addiction, to the single, life-changing moment when kids are balancing on their finely drawn line in the sand.
“The very act of substance use makes you stop seeing things realistically,” M said. “There are people who stand at the edge of a terrace believing they’re not going to fall off.”