Guest Column: Why I used drugs, why I stopped

I was a good student at La Cañada High. I got good grades, read the assigned books at home, and spent time talking to my teachers after class. I’d been a varsity athlete. I studied abroad and written a column in this newspaper. I was also a drug user.

Many of my decisions during senior year of high school essentially amounted to wanton self-destruction. This was a five-month period of my life where I took hard drugs two or three times a month in fairly large doses, especially ecstasy.

I spent my free time on sleepless nights high at raves, underground parties in the warehouses south of Downtown L.A. or the deserts of San Bernardino County.

In 2007 I was an extreme case; few of my peers really understood what I did with my weekends. But what once was a small and underground group of youngsters has become a fairly mainstream cultural phenomenon, and more of today’s seniors and juniors might share my experience.

I’ve decided to share them so that all might learn from them, and to clear my conscience of crimes committed against myself.

I took drugs because I loved the adventure of it. There was of course the magical feeling of losing youthful insecurity. But the ability to step into a new world, and the riskiness of the whole affair, were really intoxicating.

Finding and buying the drugs felt like a secret mission, and one never knew what was in the tiny plastic bag that was pressed into one’s hand.

The come-up was like blasting off on a rocket. The world it took you to could be filled with pure friendship and joy — or paranoia and fear. While we certainly preferred the former, it almost didn’t matter. What mattered was that it was different, and that finding and taking the drugs gave us an exciting goal to achieve.

We never really thought about the consequences. The 18-year-old mind has an event horizon than drops off after a half hour, or however long the drug took to kick in. Consequences were never thought about until they happened.

The parties we went to only heightened these sensations. These were worlds with flashing lights and beautiful, transcending music, real fantasy lands. They were also places of acceptance, where almost everyone smiled (or hugged) and no one asked questions. They were places that harbored complete freedom of expression, as long as thoughts weren’t too conservative. They had a wretched dark side, of course, but its inevitable discovery could take a while.

My intention is not to scare everyone off from letting their children attend concerts. I still go out dancing all night, and it’s a cherished part of my life — I simply leave drugs out of the equation.

What’s important to understand is that we took these drugs because we wanted to create a new world, and because the immediate adventure was too great a temptation to resist. It was just so easy when we believed that the best night of our lives was a few sugar pills away.

But it was always the easy way out.

I stopped because it got old, and because I found direction, better ways to explore new worlds. In my case, it was a mania for long-distance running, trips to national parks, and a passion for building organizations. But it could be anything for someone else.

The reaction that makes the problem worse, the reaction that I saw time and time again in our valley community, failed to understand this.

Parents often put their drug-using children on the equivalent of house arrest, forcing only rebellion or pure submission.

The drug problem will never go away until the person can penetrate that half-hour barrier, can see past their desire to feel good right away. It will go away with motivation to achieve, when they find a far-away place they want to get to.

If a child wants to use drugs, they’re everywhere. Nothing will stop them but some great joy that isn’t artificial.

MORGAN HARTLEY graduated from LCHS in 2008 and The University of Chicago in 2011. He is a winner of The Jefferson Award for public service for his co-founding of Moneythink, a financial literacy organization. He's now working on the Postulate One Project ( with fellow LCHS grad Chris Walker, and maintains a blog at

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