My friend Raleigh is a self-proclaimed hedonist.
“I’m so young,” he said, setting his joint on a small coffee table littered with the beer cans that a gallant bachant had crushed a few hours earlier. “I want to soak everything out of my experience as a young person.”
“Everything” has assumed sundry forms in the three years that I’ve known Raleigh. But that night, at a party, it meant that he drunkenly snorted Ketamine before taking a smoke break and a preslumber Tylenol to mitigate the hangover that he would counter, the next morning, with an Adderall.
This doesn’t scare me as much as it should.
In middle and high school, in “Life Skills,” I was tyrannized by a rigid set of programs that supposedly would prevent me from ever experimenting with substances. My education was a speaker series of ex-drug addicts and parents of drug addicts and hallways plastered with statistics — that kind of thing. I learned that just one slip, one inhalation or snort or quick movement of hand to mouth could turn me from whatever I was (sober) to the other thing (addicted).
These programs were simply the latest iteration of formalized anti-drug programming for my generation: Millennials are guinea pigs for the Drug-Free Media Campaign Act of 1998, which codified governmental attempts to prevent and reduce drug use. In retrospect, the fear-mongering tactics that defined my drug education seem crude. The substance use that pervades my social circle is neither habitual nor suggestive of an addicted practice of one type of drug. It manifests in wanton experimentation. Yet the reality of casual experimentation is precisely not the central point of standard anti-drug campaigning when, in fact, it ought to be directly addressed.
Neuroscience findings indicate that the cerebral networks specifically important for judgment and self-regulation are considered underdeveloped until a person is about 23 years old, which makes adolescent brains markedly less equipped to appropriately control overriding wants and emotions. It follows, then, that universities quickly devolved into informal breeding grounds for drug experimentation: Nearly half of all full-time college students have used an illicit substance at some point in their life.
Freshman year, two of my friends consumed exactly the same portion of a THC-laced brownie. One was fine — high, but fine. The other vomited for five consecutive hours. Their disparate experiences are not profound according to scientific standards. Just as no two brains are exactly the same, each will exhibit different psychological and neurochemical reactions to a drug. Indeed, modern research indicates that some motley of genetics, disposition and environment contribute to why people yield different responses to the same influences.
This, of course, makes the question of how to best incorporate education on safe addictive drug practice something of a fallacy. Addictive drugs will always result in sharp increases in the release of dopamine in the brain, which is to say that “safety” and “education” are unstable terms to associate with experimentation. Consequently, edification on the effects of usage is often extremist and solely preventative. Though dependent drug abusers are categorically a minority of all users, they’re still the spine of drug education. For my generation, it is much more important to funnel resources toward adequate health education geared toward young and inexperienced users.
Drug use, certainly, is no more unique to millennials than it has been to any that came before: A noncreative act of rebellion and an assertion of independence and an escape into the lubricated sphere of social ease and vivid fantasy. What is unique for my generation, however, is the widespread availability of drugs — on Amazon, through easy prescription and dope delivery services — at cheaper costs and with scanty regulation. Absent constraints, in light of accessibility and relative affordability, more youth are likely to use them.
The notion that drug experimentation is somehow essential to wanderlust students’ college experience itself — part of a holistic and ultimately cultural process of reaching adulthood — is, perhaps, one reason that people seem reticent to talk about the effects of voluntary usage. Researchers know a lot about drugs’ consequences from neuroscience, but they still can’t predict who is going to be at risk for addiction until after one has developed. Generating more instructive content on the ramifications of experimental drug use will necessitate an informed public who recognizes the more salient aspects of addiction as they relate to changes in the brain. At the very least, I wish my drug education would have removed the blinders from my unsubstantiated justification that Raleigh would, invariably, be O.K.
Any failure to promote discourse about the biochemical effects of substance abuse is a perverse mistake on behalf of educational campaigns, and even the grave risks associated with one-time or infrequent usage should not deter a more comprehensive approach toward drug education. That, or collegiate youth ought to simply revel in their inexperience of the world — and wait to use drugs until their 50s when they can more safely appreciate a walk on the wild side. Hedonism is, after all, only fun and games until somebody gets hurt.