The relationship between youth and drug abuse has been long and various and, despite often disregarded in public discourse, is today as lively as it ever was. How is drug abuse today different from the past? Why should we care? What can our institutions do to address it?
Although some may perceive it as a relatively recent phenomenon, the history of drug abuse stretches far back in time. There is evidence of alcoholic beverages being produced and consumed in copious quantities as early as 8000 BC, way before ancient civilizations such as Sumer and Egypt established the foundation for the world as we know it today. Historians have even found remains of hallucinogens in caves in Peru and other areas of Latin America dating back to sometime between 8600 and 5600 BC. Obviously, as society evolved, so did the means by which the phenomenon diffused itself but what seems to bring together all of mankind at every point in history is the tendency to search for that sense of alteration, that distortion of reality that drugs allow one to experience. The desire to feel it may be triggered by different urges depending on the individual and it manifests differently depending on the substance but based on historical sources it seems to have always been present.
Today, with hundreds of new drugs recently appearing on the market and the constant and continuous flow of information regarding them, the issue is as relevant as it ever was. Yet, despite reaching a point in which everyone is connected at an arguably global scale and there seemingly being a perpetual audience for everything that happens anywhere in the world, drug abuse remains a deeply polarizing issue. It is usually ignored at an institutional and educational level and is even flaunted in certain environments – take all the popular TV shows, movies, and songs in which drugs are painted positively . Everybody knows that drugs are all around us (even though we may not fully realize the extent to which they influence the balance our society is constructed upon both on a social and economic level) but there seems to be a silent agreement to let things be. The topic is continuously disregarded, set aside, put off. Even today, following the lockdowns that most of the world was subjected to due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have deeply increased the use of addictive substances across Europe and the US – especially anxiolytics and anti-depressants – there seems to be little interest in raising awareness on the issue. It is a matter that is deeply related to the psychological consequences that the pandemic is likely to leave, especially among the youth, and there seems to be no institutional plan that could concretely combat its potentially fatal long-term effects on individuals.
In most countries, most drugs are prohibited by law or, as it happens for certain types of pharmaceuticals, they are at least regulated so as to avoid consuming more than a certain quantity at once. Yet thousands of tons of cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and other narcotics are imported and consumed in Europe every year, directly nourishing local and international criminal organizations. The obvious question is at which point does the mechanism that is supposed to prevent that from happening fail, and why is that?
It is a question we cannot answer with certainty but that is worth asking because it regards each of us individually, even those of us who seemingly do not have any direct contact with anything related to drug trafficking.
It regards us economically: Italian journalist and writer Roberto Saviano, when addressing the Bocconi Law School on April 12th on the activities of organized crime during the pandemic, explained how every 1,000 € of cocaine imported into Italy from abroad creates a revenue of 182,000 € for the local mafia. That is all money being used to further finance criminal activities rather than benefiting the economy.
It regards us socially: according to the CDC, the trend in drug usage among teens in the US and in Europe have been steadily increasing, not only with nicotine and marijuana but also stimulants such as cocaine and ecstasy, hallucinogens such as LSD, and prescription drugs that can become extremely dangerous and addictive. In this last category, we have Xanax, Adderall, Lean, Percocet, and many others. These substances are increasingly taken by the adults of the future, and if they make choices while being affected by a perpetual addiction to any of these substances, the future of whole societies may be compromised.
It regards us as human beings: the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction reports that in the EU there are about 10,000 deaths by overdose every year, mostly due to opioids (such as heroin). Each one of these lost lives is a lost potential contributor to the society’s future.
These considerations naturally create questions. For example, are people aware of what they are getting into when they begin consuming an addictive substance? And if they are, why do they do it anyway? How have so many new drugs appeared on the market in the past few years? And, importantly, can the issue be addressed at an institutional level to make sure that there is awareness of this phenomenon?
Obviously, none of these questions have a clear answer, or at least not one that goes beyond mere speculation, as there have not been enough instances in which these issues have been addressed at an institutional level besides a few isolated examples and the efforts of non-profit organization such as DARE in the US and the ECAD in Europe . However, even speculation may serve to better understand the society we live in and some of the changes that it has undergone in recent years.
For example, the increase of drugs within the market could be explained through an economic approach; as new criminal organizations appear on the market, competition increases, which increases the quantities of drugs supplied and encourages variability. Related to this, the increase in competition decreases prices of substances and, according to the STRIDE database, that is exactly what happened when the pandemic hit. Lower prices imply that drugs are more accessible to everyone, including teenagers.
Similarly, it is likely that the process of digitalization our world is undergoing played a big role in the increase in drug abuse among teens, not only because they are easily exposed to more information compared to past generations but also because with digitalization came social media. A consequence of this is that the phenomenon of drug abuse has been normalized, as many important and popular social media figures are not afraid to explicitly refer to and even use drugs. However, this normalization process is not accompanied by a thorough education. Such an education should not demonize drugs but clearly explain every aspect of the issue and give everybody the tools necessary to make informed choices when the time comes.
What kind of choices can a policymaker make that could address this? Portugal’s model provides a possible answer . In 2001, Portugal de-criminalized drug usage and possession, not only that of marijuana but that of all illegal drugs; the substances are still illegal, but in case one is found in possession of any of them, they are not arrested. Instead, they are sent to a commission composed by a judge, a doctor, and a psychiatrist, which evaluates the extent of the addiction and guides the patient to a complete recovery. The result 20 years later is that drug usage among teenagers has decreased, less people have died of HIV/AIDS (syringes used for heroin could be shared, which could spread HIV/AIDS), and less drug-related offenses have been observed. Some, like Switzerland and the Czech Republic, have implemented similar models with similar results. Does that mean that such a model would work if applied at a large scale, even with all the new drugs that have appeared in the meantime? That cannot be answered as of right now, but it would certainly be a strategy worth trying to implement.
The moment in which drug abuse will be perceived as a consequence of vulnerability rather than as the root of all evils and therefore something that should be spoken about will be the moment in which we will have taken one step further in understanding ourselves .