Drug of choice: From then to now

Susan Slotnick

Susan Slotnick

In 1958, the drug of choice among teenagers was tobacco. In my “crowd,” all the boys smoked Lucky Strikes and all the girls smoked mentholated Kools. The girls — eyes outlined in heavy black — sauntered around in tight clothes, chewing a wad of gum, acting tough and flicking away the butt of cigarette after cigarette with disdainful grace.

Only a few years later, the costume changed to tie-dye, day glow, vintage clothes, and the drug of choice became marijuana. We would hang out together sharing a “joint,” smoking continuously until it became a “roach” so small it looked like a piece of ash fallen from a fireplace. There were community rules — you could not “bogart” the joint, taking even one puff more than your companions.

Our parents drank alcohol and some, like my mother, took the early tranquilizer Milltown, which was used to relieve anxiety, nervousness and tension.


Our smug disapproval was directed at our parents’ drug use — we wanted to “turn on” and “tune in,” and they chose opiates, which cause unconsciousness — “tuning out” and “turning off.”

When the “straight people” (virtually everyone else but us) suggested that marijuana use would eventually escalate to hard, more lethal drugs, we believed that was just ludicrous propaganda from the older generation — already reviled by us because of their support of the Vietnam war.

Never would the thought have crossed our minds that, in the future, our children and grandchildren would be victims of widespread opiate addiction, with heroin becoming increasingly the drug of choice.

Several years ago, I wrote a column about the heroin use here. Local high school students were shooting up behind Stop & Shop. It was a strong column, cautioning parents and community members to wake up and take action. It received no response. How did this happen? Why? Who is too blame?


The parents

I asked a drug counselor: Are the parents to blame? Her response was, yes, but not because of bad parenting. It’s the opposite, too much “good parenting.” She used the word “privileged” several times during our conversation. Her belief, not necessarily mine, was that kids today don’t have to struggle, life is too easy and they are looking for intense experiences to alleviate boredom. (In both cases, intense works as an adjective, whether it is describing intensely tuning in or intensely tuning out.) Parents are in denial and believe because of nurturing, hands-on parenting, lots of lessons and sometimes private school, that their child is immune — it can’t happen in my family. But it can happen in any family. Good parents respect their child and trust they will make good choices. Since so much drug information is passed around among teens on Facebook and other media sites, the drug counselor believed no matter how “good” your child seems to you, spot checks of their internet exchanges should be made in the present — before they have the chance to delete.


Too much information

What has happened in the last 50 years causing teens to go from wanting to heighten their awareness to wanting to deaden their awareness? Research during the past ten years, powered by technology such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, has shown young brains have both fast-growing synapses and sections that remain unconnected. This leaves teens more prone to impulsive behavior. Our brains, evolutionarily, have never been subjected to the amount of cognitive input that’s coming at us all the time. It cannot be stopped. Teens are bombarded by information in this electronic age. Sensory overload, constant multitasking, pressure to compete for high grades, a scarcity of part-time employment, fears about getting into college and a smaller pool of good jobs after college, all conspire to make life come at them at break-neck speed. Opiates slow it all down, provide a chance to quiet the turbulence inside and temporarily “nod” out.


Availability of opiates

Following dental surgery, I received a prescription for 60 Vicodin pills. I only needed to take one half of one pill. The indiscriminate prescribing of pain pills has put opiates in many accessible medicine cabinets. Without parents keeping a careful eye on these medications and throwing out unused pills, young people can consume and sell these medications without parental knowledge. Many parents don’t realize the prevalence of perfectly legal and obtainable over-the-counter drugs far stronger and more dangerous than the illegal ones. I looked up the ten most widely used over-the-counter drugs teens use to get high. I was shocked by how many are in my home medicine cabinet right now. I refuse to list them here in fear of giving someone information that could damage or even cause loss of life.

I arrived in New Paltz in 1966 with a new wardrobe, new hopes, a fishing tackle box filled with paints, a desire to end the war in Vietnam and a belief that my generation would usher in the Age of Aquarius, which would change the world forever — sex, drugs, rock and roll, make love not war, turn on, tune in, drop out. It was all so utopian and naïve and strangely brave.

Now nose drops can kill our kids. It’s almost humorous were it not true.

Again, at this moment in time, parents and grandparents are required to muster up the same hopes, willfulness, bravery and idealism from our past. Let’s roll up our sleeves and make a better world for our kids — even if that requires us to go against some of our core beliefs. Snoop, invade their privacy, assume no matter how much you love them and believe in yourself as a parent, your cherished child can become a heroin addict. It can happen here. It is happening here. It’s been going on for a long time. We can’t afford to lose another child. We don’t have to.