Originally published in The Ottawa Citizen March 26, 2003
Original Title: What teens want to know: Drugs
In this continuing series based on teens’ questions asked at Canterbury High School, today’s column looks at the drug issue, which is all too often intertwined with the issue of sex among teenagers.
The 2001 Ontario Student Drug Use Survey, a study conducted by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) every two years since 1977, looked at legal and illicit drug use by more than 4,200 students from Grade 7 to OAC.
“The 1980s were a period of decline of drug use, the ’90s had a resurgence and in 2001 the good news is that illicit drug use among youth isn’t growing — the bad news is it’s still higher than it was in the early ’90s,” according to Dr. Edward Adlaf, the senior scientist at CAMH and associate professor at the University of Toronto who conducted the study.
For the first time since 1991, the survey did not show any year-over-year increase in drug use. However, most measures continue to be significantly greater than the 1993 rates. Alcohol remains the top dog in this department. In 2001, 63 per cent of students drank, versus 57 per cent in 1993.
Further, binge drinking — defined as downing five or more drinks at one time — was reported by 25 per cent of youth in 2001, compared with 18 per cent in 1993. Inebriation rates increased from 17 per cent in 1993 to 27 per cent in 2001.
Between 1999 and 2001, cigarette use declined from 29 to 24 per cent, solvents from seven to six per cent and LSD from seven to five per cent.
The student drug-use survey highlights include:
Students today are not using alcohol, tobacco or cannabis at an early age.
The percentage of new users has not increased over time.
Although rates of drinking and driving among licensed students remained stable at 15 per cent, about 32 per cent of all students report being a passenger in a vehicle driven by someone who had been drinking, and 19 per cent of drivers reported driving after using cannabis.
Perceptions about the risks of using cannabis, cocaine and LSD seem to be weakening over time.
Toronto students use alcohol at a lower-than-average rate, while western Ontario students report above-average use of cannabis, heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, crack, hallucinogens and ecstasy. Northern Ontario students have a higher rate of alcohol and binge drinking.
Females reported higher rates of non-medical stimulant use, while males reported higher rates of heavy drinking, cannabis, glue, methamphetamine, LSD and hallucinogens.
Drug use was lowest among 7th-graders and highest among 11th- or 12th-graders — with the exception of inhalants, that showed greater use among younger students.
These statistics correlate with the questions students pose in the classroom. Teens want to know what drugs will do to them. Their questions are to the point and reflect an interesting dichotomy between immediate versus long-term harm.
They seek a frame of reference to compare the risk by invoking another drug or activity for risk assessment comparisons.
These Grade 9 questions reflect a desire to understand the issues:
“What are the side-effects of the drug mescaline? What is it?”
“My best friend used to be anorexic and bulimic and now uses a whole bunch of drugs. Her parents know, but they refuse to take action. All of her friends are the same way. What do I do?”
“How fast will smoking kill you, ’cause I don’t want to die?”
“Is it true you lose brain cells if you do drugs? If so, what exactly do drugs do to you?”
“How do I tell my parents about my drinking problem?”
“My friend throws up every time she gets drunk. This is normal, but the same things happens when she smokes marijuana. Is she allergic? If so, how can she find out the consequences of trying acid or other drugs?”
“Does alcohol stunt the growth of your boobs or anything else? Also, if you drink a lot as a teen but stop after a few years, will you have liver problems?”
“I’ve been doing drugs for a while and probably done just about every drug you can think of. I also get depressed a lot and I find drugs help me to escape for a while. I don’t want to quit drugs, but I want the depression to go away. What should I do?”
“I heard that smoking pot does not harm you at all because it is a natural drug, but all that is harmful is the smoke. Is this true?”
“Is there such a thing as a weekend alcoholic?”
“If one of my parents is an alcoholic, what are my chances of being an alcoholic?”
“Some of my friends that smoke weed, their grade-point average is going down. I smoke about two to three times a week, but it hasn’t really affected my school work. Why is that?”
“If you do drugs and have a high tolerance level, does it have the same effect on the body and mind?”
“What effect does cocaine have on a person if they done it just once? Or more?”
“What would be the difference smoking weed or smoking weed laced with cocaine?”
“How long do drugs stay in your bloodstream? If the doctor takes a urine sample, can they detect drugs?”
“When my friends are talking about drinking or getting drunk, it makes me feel very uneasy. What should I say to them? I don’t want them to get drunk. I feel very scared about alcohol and what it can do to you.”
Our teens want our help. Their questions call out for guidance through the maze of half-truths and peer pressure. Most parents have the unique opportunity to guide their children through the morass.