Hillary Clinton’s got it right: “Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade.” We Americans are about 4 percent of the world’s population but we consume two thirds of the world’s illegal drugs.
The solution to the nation’s drug epidemic lies not in courtrooms and legislative hearing rooms and across our borders, but in living rooms and dining rooms and across kitchen tables.
In seventeen years of research at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA), our most important finding is this: a child who gets through age 21 without smoking, using illegal drugs or abusing alcohol is virtually certain never to do so. There will of course be exceptions—parents who lose a child, a latent genetic vulnerability, some prescription drug abuse by elderly widows and widowers who have lost their financial security and emotional stability—but they are comparatively few.
A corollary finding of our work is that parents have the greatest influence on their children, for better or for worse. There are no silver bullets in a society where it is as easy for a teen to buy a marijuana joint as it is to buy a candy bar, but healthy parental engagement is the most powerful antidote to a child’s temptation to smoke, drink or use illegal drugs.
Parents who are involved in their children’s lives, who eat dinner regularly with them, get involved in their school and extracurricular activities, talk and listen to their teens, and take them to religious services are far less likely to have kids who use illegal drugs.
This is also true of parents who supervise their kids and set limits. Moms and Dads who monitor their kids’ activities—the movies and television they see, the music they download, their use of the internet–reduce the risk that their kids will smoke, drink or use illegal drugs.
It’s also important for parents to take the time to explain to their kids the dangers of smoking and drinking alcohol since so much of the advertising of these products is designed to make them attractive to teens. And parents should make sure their kids understand the dangers of experimenting with products they have around the house—from aerosol cans and glue bottles to controlled prescription drugs like Vicodin, Valium and OxyContin. In recent years, we’ve learned how related these substances are. It’s hard to find a heroin or cocaine addict that hasn’t been smoking, abusing alcohol and using marijuana. Just last week, the US government reported that from 2002 to 2007, 17 percent of teens who use illicit drugs indicated that inhalants were the first drug they tried.
The statistical relationship has been known for years. Recent advances in brain imaging and neurology have revealed the reason for this relationship: all these substances affect dopamine (which gives pleasure) levels in the brain in similar ways and imaging display the similar impact of these substances on their brain.
We do not have to look across our southern border or to the poppy fields of Afghanistan to find a solution to the drug epidemic that plagues our nation. We just have to look in the mirror and at the world in which we are placing our teens. Parents need to set a good example and use their power to make that world a better place.
Some material in this piece is derived from my book, How to Raise a Drug-Free Kid: The Straight Dope for Parents, to be published in August.