Parents would be better off accepting that their kids will experiment with drugs and instead focus their efforts on educating them about the real consequences of substance abuse, a local pediatrician told parents at a forum held in City Hall Thursday night.
For the past 30 years, parents, educators and law enforcement officials have been telling kids to “just say no” to drugs, but according to Dr. Leonard “Skip” Baker, that approach is destined to fail.
Baker, a founding member of the Community Prevention Council and the founder of the Descanso Medical Center for Development and Learning, said during the “Hidden in Plain Sight” forum that the last decade has seen breakthroughs in scientific understanding of how substance abuse and addiction function. Baker said drugs of abuse, excluding hallucinogens, cause addiction by augmenting or replicating the naturally occurring chemical dopamine, which regulates the body’s reward mechanisms. These mechanisms cause the sense of satisfaction given by food, sex and drugs, and the accordant cravings for those things.
Baker said that he believes the next 10 years will bring medicines capable of actually curing addiction by working on these chemical pathways.
For now, however, Baker said that programs that focus on preventing teens from trying drugs, especially marijuana, are misplacing their efforts because teens are naturally inclined toward trying new things and to disregarding long-term concerns.
“We thought the SANE [Substance Abuse Narcotics Education] program and the DARE [Drug Abuse Resistance Education] programs were going to work; the statistics show they didn’t,” said Baker. “The important question is, why do some people get hooked and why do some people not get hooked?”
Baker said that parents and educators should look at the success of antismoking campaigns, which have focused on tobacco’s long-term consequences to cause a significant drop in use both in teens and the general population.
“I don’t think we’re going to get rid of pot until we figure out how to make that counter-campaign,” said Baker. “Most [teens] don’t recognize the long-term effects.”
Baker cited lack of motivation, depression and emotional instability as problems marijuana causes in the brain, as well as the lung damage that comes from smoking any substance.
“Kids really evaluate risk very well,” said Baker. “They don’t do long-term goals well, which is why that parental involvement is really important.”
One of the forum’s two student representatives, 17-year-old Claire Shuman, a senior at La Cañada High School, said that pressure to achieve academically can drive kids to use alcohol or drugs as a release.
“La Cañada is an amazing town, and because we have such an amazing reputation, we feel so much pressure as students,” said Shuman. “All this stress and pressure comes down hard on us, and we look for somewhere to relieve that stress.”
Flintridge Preparatory senior Paul Dragna, also 17, said that open and honest communication is the best way for parents to help their children make the right decisions.
“If anything is going to happen, it creates an environment where you can be smarter about it, you don’t do stupid things like drink and drive,” said Dragna.
Dragna said that as difficult as it might be for a parent to accept that their child might be using drugs or alcohol, it is the only way to get kids to listen.
“A kid doesn’t really want to hear about you drinking or doing drugs, and a parent doesn’t really want to have that conversation with their kids, but in the long run, that open dialogue is so much beneficial from being in the dark,” said Dragna.
For Will Moffitt, chair of the Community Prevention Council and the forum’s moderator, this was the message for parents to take home.
“The strong family is the most important thing we can do. If we can get families to sit down and talk to each other, we’re going to solve a lot of problems,” he said. “You can blame it on me. It’s a good time to start, and you can start tonight.”