Study Links Drug Experimentation, Psychological Health

By Ellen Flax — May 16, 1990 2 min read

Teenagers who have experimented with marijuana are more likely to be psychologically healthy than teenagers who either abuse the drug or who have never tried it, a new study suggests.

The study, which appears in this month’s issue of the American Psychologist, suggests that frequent drug use is an outgrowth of long-term psychological problems that are evident before a child ever uses drugs.

It also concludes that current drug-education programs, which teach children how to “say no” to drugs, are “misguided” because they do not deal with the underlying causes of drug abuse.

The study, conducted by two psychologists at the University of California at Berkeley, followed 101 teenagers from the Bay Area from age 3 to 18.

At age 18, the youths were divided into three groups: the abstainers, who had never tried marijuana or any other drug; the experimenters, who had used marijuana a few times or once a month; and frequent users, who had used the drug at least once a week and had tried at least one drug other than marijuana.

According to the study, while 68 percent of the teenagers had tried the drug, only 20 percent were frequent users, and nearly 30 percent had never tried the drug. Sixteen percent of the children did not fall into any of the three categories.

Compared with the experimenters, the researchers found, the abusers were typically troubled, alienated, emotionally withdrawn, uncontrolled, and distressed. Such problems were evident when abusers were as young as 7 years old, they said.

“The data clearly indicate, then, that the relative maladjustment of the frequent users precedes the initiation of drug use,” the study states.

‘Deviant’ Abstainers

In contrast, teenagers who abstained from drug use were found typically to be overcontrolled, tense, emotionally-constricted, and lacking in social skills, when compared with the experimenters. Such tendencies were also evident during their early childhood, the researchers said.

Both the abusers and the abstainers had mothers who were seen as being relatively cold and unresponsive, according to the study.

“When the psychological findings are considered as a set, it is difficult to escape the inference that experimenters are the psychologically healthiest subjects, healthier than either abstainers or frequent users,” the study says.

The researchers, who stressed that they did not condone drug use, said they used the experimenters as their point of reference in the study because “some experimentation with marijuana cannot be considered deviant behavior for high school seniors in this culture at this time.”

“In a statistical sense,” they said, “it is not trying marijuana that has become deviant.”

Current drug-education efforts are “flawed,” according to the report, because they focus on resisting peer pressure and not on the “psychological triad of alienation, impulsivity, and distress.”

It suggests that more effective programs would concentrate less on “drug education” and more on improving parenting skills, enhancing self-esteem, and fostering better interpersonal relationships.

The U.S. Education Department challenged some of the study’s major conclusions.

“We don’t believe that you need to experiment with drugs to grow up in America,” said Dick W. Hays, director of the department’s drug-abuse-prevention oversight staff. “That shouldn’t be part of your process.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 1990 edition of Education Week as Study Links Drug Experimentation, Psychological Health