Dec. 30, 2003
A time and place for drugs
SHOULD YOU DO DRUGS? Not all use is intrinsically bad
Two things were certain for anyone who grew up in the Eighties:
1) If you experimented with sex, you'd end up with AIDS, and 2) if you experimented with drugs, you'd end up covered in scabs in an east end-crack house, soliciting $5 tricks for junk cut with rat poison.
As part of my elementary school anti-drug conditioning, I also learned that the current strains of marijuana were "X times more potent" than what our parents may have smoked.
We were even visited by police, who told us about the perils of drugs, describing (in gory detail) the downward spiral that inevitably followed the sampling of an illicit product.
The first time would be fun, they said, and would feel like an escape from the challenges and drudgery of everyday life.
The second time would induce feelings of isolation and paranoia.
By the third time, the drug user would be losing control. He'd be robbing his parents, shoplifting syringes, flailing in a sea of chaos and dementia that would come to a dramatic conclusion at the airport, where officials would hold his sickly frame at gunpoint while they waited for him to discharge baggies of coke.
But despite the propaganda, the "just say no" generation found itself saying "yes" once in a while. And many of us, to our great shock, survived without experiencing the aforementioned calamities.
At 26 — having experimented with both sex and drugs (the kinds that don't require syringes) — I pinch myself in the morning to make sure that this is my life, that I really am healthy, that I'm not begging a pawn broker to hock my parent's sofa so that I can buy speed.
Amazingly, I don't suffer from flashbacks. There are no track-marks on my arms, nor do I have any embarrassing twitches or drooling problems.
Am I the lucky one? Or am I the norm?
According to an expert at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, my experimentation with drugs was just a part of a healthy development — a sharp contrast from anything I'd ever learned in school.
"The policy of the Centre for Addiction and Mental health is that drug use isn't a no-no right across the board," says Dr. David Wolfe, RBC chair in children's mental health at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. "A certain amount of drug experimentation is developmentally normal."
Not only is it normal, it can actually be a good thing. "There's some research that suggests that kids who don't experiment at all have some other social adjustment problems," says Wolfe. "It's one of those cases where too much is a bad thing and too little doesn't mean that you're necessarily healthy either."
Nick Barry, a drug and alcohol counsellor in New Brunswick, agrees.
"People who act out when they're growing up, and maybe smoke the odd joint or whatever, learn about how to manage these things later on better than people who've never done them."
I've seen some friends struggle with drugs, and others who've dabbled in a responsible, nonchalant manner.
Obviously, the drug experience is different for everyone, which is why it's impossible to make an overriding statement about the role of drugs in society — and whether one should try them, or avoid them.
In answering the latter, I've always followed the "there's a time and a place for everything" approach.
For me, most of high school was neither.
It sounds dorky, but during those years, I was too busy learning about myself, and trying to figure out what kind of life I wanted to live to be tempted by that which alters the mind. I was terrified about the prospect of losing what limited footing I had.
Not to mention the fact that I was dubious of how trustworthy my friends were in those days.
No offence, but my pals seemed volatile at the best of times, let alone when they were messed on drugs. If I were to experiment with drugs, I surely didn't want to do it at the back of the mall parking lot with a scruffy clan of anorexic girls and pimply, self-destructive thugs.
If something went wrong, I'd be on my own.
Needless to say, it's different when you're a little older, and you've got friends you can trust and a place of your own.
To ask yourself the "to do drugs or not to do drugs" question, as is the theme of this week's I.D. section, is also a time to think about the nature of your own personality, and whether drugs are something you'll be able to manage.
Wolfe says one factor in how a person will cope with drugs has to do with his or her upbringing.
He prompts us to ask ourselves: "Were either of your parents addicted to substances? If you grew up in a home where there was a lot of drinking, smoking or drug usage, you're at risk."
According to Wolfe, that applies to harder drugs, too. But for people who've reached a certain level of emotional stability in their lives and friendships, even cocaine could be managed by a casual user.
"I believe very few people become addicted to a drug like cocaine, not only because it's expensive, but because most people who come from a solid background, have solid friendships and a life plan aren't going to start using it every day," says Wolfe. "It's totally recreational in that sense."
"The ones who tend to get in trouble with it tend to have other risk factors, and if they don't get in trouble with that, they'll probably get in trouble with something else."
No matter who you are or what issues you have, every drug presents a worst-case scenario (what you heard about in school and on Miami Vice), and a best-case scenario (the eye-opening, culturally bonding experience you heard on the euphoric drug albums of the 1960s).
Anyone who dabbles will experience something within that spectrum.
As Barry says, some will have troubles with substances, but others — the vast majority of us — will be just fine.
"Certain people are going to become addicted to drugs no matter what," says Barry.
"It's in their personality. Those are the ones who always want more. But most people can take something and then leave it alone."
We live in a country that has mixed feelings about drugs. You can see that in the lingering federal debate about the lawfulness of marijuana possession.
The very fact that the question is on the table tells me that drugs might not be as evil as they once told us. And it's okay to "Just Say Maybe."
Reach Christopher Hutsul at
The expert view
"Sometimes when people commit criminal offences, it's not because they're criminals, it's because they're addicts and there's help out there if they need it."
Shellie Addley, duty counsel lawyer, the Toronto Drug Treatment Court
"Drugs create dependency. They can ruin relationships and they can cause kids to drop out of school."
Counsellor at Kids Help Phone Line
Early to mid-adolescence is a time when new demands and pressures are greatest for youth to try on new lifestyles and interests, and involvement in risk behaviours such as smoking, substance use and sexual behaviour may begin."
Dr. David Wolfe, child psychologist
"People use drugs to fit into crowds that they hang out with. Alcohol is a drug, and people know they're supposed to use it responsibly. If you're going to use ecstasy or pot, take lots of water, a half-litre every hour, and take breaks from dancing so your body temperature can come down. Do it in a safe space, with people and in places that you are comfortable with."
Ishwar Persad, research co-ordinator, AIDS Committee' of Toronto
"Cocaine is an extremely addictive drug, and it's psychologically addictive. There's potential for aggressive and anti-social behaviour, You can develop malnutrition because people feel they don't need to eat. With ecstasy and other drugs, if women who are pregnant use them, there is a possibility the child might have birth defects."
Counsellor at Parents Help Line
"As a patriotic Canadian living in a land ripe with natural resources and respect for the diversity of cultures we have, I think we need rational drug and natural health products policies, embracing both modern science as well as the ancient wisdom toward our naturally evolved plant allies."
Dominic Cramer, Toronto Hemp Company
In this environment of changing laws and interpretation orf existing laws, particularly concerning marijuana, it's up to parents to really understand the issues and communicate with their children about concerns and expectations. Parents have to negotiate the limits of independence and the rights and responsibilities of their children, especially during the teenage years."
Diane Buhler, exe cutive Director, Parent Action on Drugs
"For the first time since 1991, the research is showing a decrease in the use of ecstasy. Two other interesting changes in this year's study are that youth are perceiving greater risk in trying ecstasy, and more youth are disapproving of its use compared to the 2001 results."
Dr. Edward Adlaf, senior scientist, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health
"Contrary to past popular beliefs, addictions tend to be more of a behavioural issue, We learn how to drink, we learn how to smoke pot, as opposed to a disease. We need to make healthy choices and we all have these choices. Thinking of addiction as a disease renders us helpless."
Peter Markwell, addictions counsellor, St. Stephen's House Drop-ln
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