by Cheryl K. Olson, Sc.D.

Cigarettes used to be the most-accessible for experimentation. In many places, it’s now e-cigarettes or marijuana.

When you think of the natural and predictable behavioral drives that occur during adolescence, issues like rebellion against authority and testing of limits may come to mind. But there’s another drive during that stage of development that helps explain why some teens experiment with and even abuse substances ranging from vaping and combustible tobacco to alcohol and illegal street drugs: the desire to experience altered states of consciousness.

Viewed from that perspective, adolescents’ desire to test the limits of their rapidly changing brains makes sense. It’s similar to their drive to test what their growing bodies can do that they couldn’t do before, and to exercise their newfound insights into logical thought by arguing. Experimentation with vaping, smoking, or marijuana are normal behaviors for teens, not signs of pathology.

This doesn’t mean that such experimentation is always safe! There’s a broad spectrum of risks which teens, because of the limitations of their brain development, especially in the area of the prefrontal cortex, may not appreciate. They have far more difficulty than adults in their late 20s or older understanding the long-term implications of the choices they make, which may lead some of them to engage in profoundly risky and even self-destructive behaviors.

Nor does this mean that all teens are driven to experiment with various chemicals. For some, the altered state of consciousness comes from sports or theater; for others, it may come from religion. But chemicals, ranging from nicotine and THC to alcohol and methamphetamine are readily available and inexpensive, so they’re often tapped into. Cigarettes used to be the most-accessible psychoactive drug for experimentation. In many places, it’s now e-cigarettes or marijuana.

From “Just Say No” to “We Get It–Here Are Alternatives”

This insight into the drive to experience altered states of consciousness has profound implications for how one should design substance abuse prevention programs for smoking, vaping, and marijuana, as well as for “harder” drugs and alcohol. Too many of the old-fashioned programs saw total abstinence as their goals, and predictably failed.

Among behavioral scientists, two of the best-known drug abuse prevention programs, the Reagan-era “Just Say No” campaign and the school-based Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program with police officers as teachers, are notorious for not only showing minimal benefit to children, but possibly increasing the likelihood that they’ll experiment with drugs–the opposite of their intended effect.

Similarly, well-meant sweeping statements like “drugs will kill you” fall flat with teens, who readily counter that argument with observations of people who have used drugs and are living. Such an approach simply undermines the credibility of the presenter.

When developing a substance abuse prevention program for adolescents, it’s critical to design its components so that they work with the natural drives of teenagers rather than ignore or try to quash them.

Respect teens enough to tell them the truth rather than manipulate them through fear. By explaining the drive to experience altered states of consciousness, harm reduction programs take the first step to redirect that drive into behaviors that reduce risks and foster healthy self-discovery.