The primary problem with drugs is not what they do, nor who uses them — but why people abuse them. Until we can answer the why, drug abuse among teenagers — and adults — is here to stay. Drugs are not the problem — but symptoms of other problems.
In many respects, the current drug scene is a replay of the forbidden-fruit scene in the Garden of Eden. You know the story. "Did God say, 'You shall not eat of any tree of the garden'?" said the serpent (Satan) for openers. Every tree is all right to eat, replied Eve dutifully, except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which would be fatal. Then the serpent gave the come-on: "You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowlege good and evil." It worked. "So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate" (Gen. 3:1-7). The rest is history. The Modern Forbidden Fruit. Today's forbidden fruit for teenagers are the psychoactive drugs: marijuana, LSD, mescaline, barbiturates and amphetamines, and the opiates. Millions of them find the temptation to try them at least once to be irresistible. And they are truly a mixed bag of good and evil: all of them can be used for legitimate medical purposes — but they also can be used in ways that can destroy health and happiness. Many who have tried the harder drugs have surely died. But, of course, our analogy with the tree is not complete. For this chemical tree of the knowlege of good and evil does not grow in a 20th-century Garden of Eden. It flourishes in a world that is turning into a man-made hell. For many people, psychoactive drugs have become a means of pursuing paradises in the mind (or at least escaping a ho-hum or hapless existence). So the circumstances have changed — but people have not. What motivated Adam and Eve to try the forbidden fruit also motivates teenagers to try drugs today. Fun — A Neurological Necessity. "It was a delight to the eyes" goes the official account. In other words, the tree was very pleasing to the senses. Likewise, psychoactive drugs can be a delight to the eyes — and the ears, and the nose, and the taste buds. They enhance, they alter, the stimuli coming to the brain from the five senses. These novel sensations and perceptions are considered to be fun, and they constitute one of the primary reasons people play with these chemicals. Now for some Basic Psychology 101. Everybody likes to experience fun, joy and pleasure. We like to be entertained and amused. We like to experience new and pleasant sights, sounds and tastes. But "like" is not really the word. Pleasure, good times, enjoyable stimuli are more than superfluities or luxuries in life — they are necessary to life itself. Considerable research indicates that stimulation through the five senses is one of the primary needs of higher organisms. Stimulus hunger is a basic motivation. Enjoyable stimuli are sought and preferred, but if only the unpleasant or uninteresting stimuli are available, the brain will settle for what it can get rather than shrivel up. The brain survives in such cases, but mental health suffers. That stimulus hunger is a compelling, life-sustaining need can be seen in the following experiments. Variety — The Very Stuff of Life. In one experiment, researchers analyzed the effect of boredom. College students were paid to don padding and blindfolds and lie on beds in isolated rooms so that sensory stimuli — sight, sound, touch — were reduced to a minimum. What remained was extremely monotonous. As time dragged on, students became irritable, restless, unable to concentrate. They talked to themselves, whistled, sang, recited poetry, counted numbers — anything to relieve the boredom. Eventually the boredom made it impossible for some to think, and they just let their minds drift. And to the surprise of researchers (they discounted the reports until they went through the test themselves), many of the students after long periods of isolation began to hallucinate. As Christopher Burney wrote in his account of his stay in solitary confinement: "Variety is not the spice of life; it is the very stuff of it." Of Rats and Men. If the mind has an aversion to boredom, it really tunes in and turns on to abundant pleasurable stimuli. This was demonstrated in an experiment where scientists implanted electrodes into the pleasure centers of rats' brains. They placed the rats in test boxes that had a treadle. By pressing it, the rats received a very mild electrical shock to their brains. To get another stimulus, the treadle had to be released and pressed again. The rats "turned on" to the electric stimulus test — literally. Rats with electrodes planted in the hypothalamus — which mediates digestive, sexual and excretory processes — went into electrical ecstasy. They stimulated themselves from 500 to 5000 times per hour. Some stimulated their brains more than 2000 times per hour for 24 consecutive hours! So rewarding was this stimulation that the rats forsook all external pleasures, food, water, sex, everything — to trip on the treadle. Human beings aren't rats. But at times they feel as if they are treated like rats, and they speak of dropping out of the "rat race." In the mid-sixties a lot of them — mostly teenagers — did just that. They turned on with the electric kool-aid acid test — punch laced with LSD. And they turned on with other drugs that provided a direct connection to their brains, intensifying sensory experiences. And they turned on with other "electrodes" such as STP and speed. These drug binges often lasted for days — so new and powerful was the experience. In one instance, a young woman in Haight-Ashbury was reported to have taken 100 injections of speed in 24 hours. Speed trips lasting a week or longer were not uncommon. "Desired to Make One Wise." Of course, human brains are much larger, human cognitive processes much more complex, than rat brains. People have higher and more varied needs and motivations. Man does not live by bread and circuses alone. He is also motivated by concerns for security, love, self-esteem, identity, self-fulfillment and a sense of meaning and purpose to his life. Drugs were a means of protesting a "system" that deprived people of these other basic needs. The youth movement in its early days was a volatile mixture of chemicals and ideology. Governments were oppressive, factories polluted, work was meaningless, urban life was artificial and boring, and anybody over 30 was hypocritical and couldn't be trusted. But drugs were more than a negative protest. They were also viewed by many as a positive means of constructing new values and lifestyles to supplant the old. For drugs did more than titillate and entertain. They could alter consciousness and change the way people thought and looked at the world and themselves. They could open up new vistas of understanding and knowledge. Like the tree in the midst of Eden, drugs were "to be desired to make one wise." Altered Consciousness. Consciousness is one of those phenomena that occurs but is not easy to define. Very simply stated, it is the total mental configuration of a person, his perception of reality. It is the sum total of his thoughts, moods, perceptions — all the mental processes and modes of which he can be aware. Whatever consciousness is, many parents are sure they don't want it altered. Since the words "altered consciousness" are commonly used in connection with drugs, they suffer from guilt by association. Actually, the words are quite innocent, because altered consciousness is something all of us — whether we use drugs or not — experience every day! Sleep, drowsiness, daydreaming and meditation are all different states of consciousness. We shift back and forth through these states in the course of our daily activity. We can even chart some of these states with an electroencephalograph — an instrument that measures brain waves. Alpha waves are associated with states of rest; beta waves with alertness and attention; theta waves with dreaming. So altered consciousness is a common everyday occurrence. In addition, society condones — even encourages via commercials and advertisements — the deliberate alteration of consciousness by drugs! People take barbiturates to sleep, alcohol to relax, and amphetamines or caffeine (coffee) to stay awake. Parents who dread their children using mind-altering drugs such as pot may be using two or three mind-altering drugs themselves — all the while wondering what their kids see in drugs. What their children see are images and colors unlike anything experienced in the usual states of consciousness or in the mild states of altered consciousness parents induce by means of over-the-counter drugs and alcohol. In these "higher" states of consciousness, spatial relationships and the sense of time are dramatically changed. Thinking becomes nonlinear and free flowing. Sensations ebb and flow in intensity. The experience can't really be described in words, drug users say, anymore than you can verbally prescribe sunlight to a person born blind. A person must see and feel it for himself to comprehend what it is all about. Dreams Become Nightmares. Because drugs put things into a whole new perspective, it was deemed in the early days of the Youthquake to be an excellent catalyst for revolution, creativity, personal growth, mystical experiences — whatever the drug user's intellectual bag was. Unfortunately, drugs carry no guarantees of good trips or new revelations. Many people who were inexperienced and apprehensive about drugs had anything but ideal experiences. Cases of toxic psychosis, permanent psychosis and panic reactions were widely reported in the late 60's. And worse yet, drugs alter body chemistry as well as consciousness. No psychoactive drug is perfectly safe. None is free of potential health hazards. All have undesirable side effects. No matter how high the experience, sooner or later the drug user must come back to earth and experience the side effects and consequences of a particular drug. Some side effects and post-trip symptoms are mild, and long-term damage is slight or unknown. But the harder drugs — the opiates, the barbiturates and amphetamines — can enslave the user by the tolerance and dependence syndrome. Certain doses and combinations can kill. But the full dangers of drugs — particularly the harder drugs — weren't widely known then. Or they weren't believed since the information came from people over 30 who were just using nonfactual scare tactics. (That was true — to a point.) Even when the mounting death toll made believers out of skeptics, some continued to use them undeterred by the dangers. It seemed as if they had some kind of script that called for them to be chemical kamikazes. The summer of love in '67 soon turned into a winter of discontent and disillusionment. A lot of chemical dreams turned into nightmares. Speed killed; heroin enslaved. Barbiturates enslaved and killed. By the hundreds they killed. The Drug Illusion. Those who took drugs for spiritual and philosophical reasons largely avoided the harder drugs and their hazards, preferring instead softer drugs such as LSD and marijuana. They were looking for new ways to live — not die. But a funny thing has happened over the years: Many of these seekers of truth and meaning have dropped drugs altogether! Why? Because they finally pierced the great illusion of drugs and came face to face with the reality: they didn't need drugs to enjoy life. They didn't even need them to explore their consciousness. That drugs are the best or the only way to explore consciousness is the greatest misconception held by many drug users. In truth, there are many ways of altering consciousness without drugs. Various esoteric disciplines have been demonstrating how for centuries. Biofeedback has shown promise as a modern technique. Many people who have tried both drug and nondrug methods of consciousness alteration prefer the latter — no hassle with unpleasant distracting side effects during the experience and no post-letdowns or depressions afterwards. They discovered they were flying high in coach with drugs — when all along they could have gone first-class without them. Something Better. Because of the health hazards, and because a lot of idealistic users have gone on to other things, drugs are no longer sugarcoated with high expectations and na´ve ideology. But millions of teenagers are still taking them. A lot of teenage drug use is — always has been — experimental. Curiosity, and peer pressure, entices them to try a drug once or twice. It's part of growing up — a modern rite of passage, it seems. But a significant minority continue to use drugs over and over for reasons other than because "it's the thing to do." For them, drugs are a chemical substitute that stands in for whatever is missing in their lives, a buffer from whatever bothers them. Drugs provide stimulation when there is nothing else stimulating to do. They bring relief from the unpleasant stimuli of life — the problems and anxieties. They are a dramatic way to kill time — and maybe kill oneself if nothing else worthwhile shows up. The philosophy, the approach to life of many a drug abuser, is summed up in this conversation: Interviewer: "Why do you use drugs?" User: "Why not?" Interviewer: "How could someone convince you to stop?" User: "Show me something better." The Carrot or the Stick? "Basically, individuals do not stop using drugs until they discover 'something better,'" believes Dr. Allan Cohen, widely recognized expert on drug use. "The key to meeting problems of drug abuse is to focus on the 'something better' and maximize opportunities for experiencing satisfying nonchemical alternatives." Basic Psychology 101 again: The carrot will bring about more effective and longer-lasting change than the stick. People respond more constructively to positive inducements and rewards than-to negative deterrents and punishments. "Considering its logical importance, the literature on alternatives to drug use is very sparse, although the situation seems to be improving," observes Dr. Cohen. "Ironically, there is a huge store of literature and wisdom about possible alternatives, but this material has not been specifically applied to drug use education and research." Positive Alternatives. Dr. Cohen has drawn up an alternatives model as a paradigm of how to deal with drug abuse. Dr. Cohen emphasizes that to offer an alternative to drug use is not synonymous with a 9ubstitute for drugs — it must be something more effective, more worthwhile than drugs for giving people real satisfaction and fulfillment. For example, if a person is motivated to use drugs for physical satisfaction or relaxation, he may be profitably directed toward physical activities — sports, dancing, hiking, carpentry. If he is seeking sensory stimulation, he may find more satisfying experiences with sensory awareness training, music, or developing an appreciation for the beauty of nature. The alternatives model is practical because it is based on the premise that there is no one cause and hence no one sure solution for everyone. It tailors programs to fit people, not people to conform to programs. It allows the person the freedom and opportunity to discover and develop his full potential. This approach works because it treats the drug problem for what it really is — a people problem. It shifts the focus from what drugs do to why people use them. As such, it is not only effective in getting people off drugs, but also in preventing them from getting started. And prevention is the ultimate solution to drug abuse. But that will require a radical overhaul of our way of life. For the drug problem is more than a threat to our way of life — it is the tragic result. A society that offers "something better" than drugs is a society that will not be afflicted by drug abuse to the extent we find today. The continuing high level of drug abuse means that a lot of young people need — but don't have — something better to do. Tree of Life. Back in Eden there was a positive alternative to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That was the tree of life — symbolizing God's revelation, guidance and instruction. It was readily and freely available. But the original parents believed the original con artist rather than the Creator. Their children have fallen for the same line; they have eaten the same bitter fruit ever since. Mankind got off on the wrong foot, and each generation has perpetuated the same errors in thinking and choosing. The result has been a steady narrowing of options for optimal living and a proliferation and compounding of mistakes and problems. It may seem ridiculous to say that today's drug problem — let alone all our problems — can be traced back progressively to that fatal choice in Eden — but that is the etiology of today's sad state of affairs. Someday, soon, Christ will return to set things right. Then Satan, the Great Deceiver, will be put out of commission (Rev. 20:2-3), and Christ, ruling over and working with man, will build a world where people matter, where God's way will prevail. Even now the tree of life is available to all who want a real choice in life, a real chance to realize their God-ordained potential. What that potential is, and what you can do about it now, are explained in our free booklets Why Were You Born? and What Is a Real Christian?.