Dr. John Hoffmann, BYU professor of sociology, gave the 27th annual Martin B. Hickman Outstanding Scholarship Lecture, “Myths of [Adolescent] Drug Use,” on Thursday, March 12, 2020.
Hoffmann defined myths as “simplifications and beliefs which help people and cultures make sense of the world.” He described the negative effects of these myths/symbolic stories about drug use saying, “If we don’t think about them carefully or understand where they come from they can lead to bad policy and bad programs.” After 30 years of research on substance use and abuse Hoffmann discussed some common myths we believe about adolescent drug use.
“Substance users and problem users are different from us”
The first myth Hoffmann addressed was the idea that substance users and problem users are “different from us.” He described the practice of “othering” which places people into different groups based on perceived physical differences. “We tend to still think drug users or drug addicts are certain kinds of people” said Hoffmann. He cited a study that followed young people for 13 years into adulthood. The study found that African American males were twice as likely as Caucasian males to be arrested for drug possession regardless of their actual drug use. Hoffmann emphasized the fact that “We cannot judge people based on appearance” and that “drug users are not different from us.”
“Substance use disorder (SUD) is a voluntary disease”
Many people believe that drug addiction is a voluntary disease, a choice and reflects a lack of willpower. Although this can be true in some cases Hoffmann pointed out the effects of social environments on drug use. He provided a few examples of influential circumstances that encourage drug use which include family and friend behaviors, stressful experiences, heredity and genetics. “There is a strong correlation between setting or environment and the likelihood of drug use” said Hoffmann. He explained how stressful life experiences can increase the chances of people developing problems with substance abuse. Hoffmann cited an experiment where rats were given access to drug-laced water. Researchers found that when rats were isolated they relied heavily on the drugs, but when the cages offered additional contraptions like tunnels and wheels the rats avoided the drugs altogether. This experiment provided evidence that positive environments and activities actually discouraged drug use. In relation to humans Hoffmann said, “Individuals in poor, stressful and disadvantaged environments will often look for something to dull the pain in their lives.”
“Legal drugs are safer”
Another common myth today is that legal drugs are safer than illegal drugs. Hoffmann compared the effects of alcohol and heroin. He described how while the withdrawal effects of alcohol can be lethal, heroin withdrawals can be “agonizing but people rarely die.” He pointed out how heroin is one of the “most prohibited drug substances” while you can go into most grocery stores and buy alcohol off the shelf.
“Drug use leads to instant addictions”
Many people believe that drug users will become addicted after using one time. Research indicates that developing a substance use disorder usually takes much longer and can depend on a person’s genetic susceptibility. Some people try drugs for the first time and have a bad reaction and never want to try it again while others have a pleasurable reaction. Hoffmann explained that “Reactions vary person to person.”
“There is little we can do to reduce substance use”
Hoffmann combated the idea that there’s little we can do as parents, concerned citizens and as a society to reduce substance use or the harms associated with it. He explained that even though there’s no “magic bullet” that’s going to stop every kid from using drugs, there are things we can do to decrease the likelihood of our kids using. He provided several ways including developing a good relationship with teens, talking to them, spending quality time with them, getting to know their friends, and helping them engage in positive activities. Hoffmann also explained that the greatest risk to adolescents is “unstructured social time.” Teens who spend more than three hours without structure in their social activities raise their risk of using alcohol and marijuana by 60%.
Hoffmann concluded his lecture by encouraging us as a society to understand the influence of environments on drug use. He also encouraged us to not demonize people who use drugs but find ways to help, which starts with being informed. He also believes there is a lot of positive influence we can have on our children when we set positive examples and create strong relationships.
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