Adolescents who live in homes in which drug and alcohol abuse is prevalent are, along with criminal offenders, two populations found to be facing risk for the potential of becoming substance abusers and drug addicts. This should come as no surprise, of course, since both populations not only constantly face risk factors for abuse, but also lack protective factors that may prevent addiction.
National surveys indicate that drug and alcohol use not only occurs at alarming rates but increases over time among adolescents, particularly those in eighth through twelfth grades. Data from the Monitoring the Future survey over an eleven-year time period shows that marijuana use has more than doubled among both eighth and tenth graders. Drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines are also on the rise, with the percent of eighth and tenth grade cocaine users doubling over the time period. Almost one-fifth and one-third of eighth and tenth graders, respectively, had admitted to having used alcohol within the previous thirty days. Anyone still living under the delusion that hard drug and alcohol use is not uncommon among children between the ages of 13 and 15 needs to open their eyes; maybe they should even open a bedroom or basement door as well.
While many adolescents are being exposed to drugs and alcohol, either through direct use or from peers who use them, those children who live in dysfunctional homes are at an even higher risk for future drug abuse. Children who live with drug addicted or alcoholic parents experience an unhealthy living situation that can affect every aspect of their lives and increase the likelihood that they themselves will turn to drugs and alcohol. Parents who are drunk or high have difficulty communicating with their children, or for that matter even keeping track of their whereabouts. Thus, not only do these children have greater freedom in what they do or with whom they associate, but they also are not able to rely on a rational parent to help them work through all the many difficulties that adolescence heaps upon them. Additionally, since the parent is using drugs and alcohol, there may be no negative consequences for the child doing the same. The parent may actually involve the child in obtaining substances, perhaps by having the child pick up prescriptions at the pharmacy or simply retrieving a beer from the refrigerator. Asking your ten old kid to bring you a beer from the fridge may not seem like a big deal, but it’s a small step in the larger picture of how American society not only sanctions and approves of alcohol consumption, but conspires to make it seem a natural progression in the coming of age process. Most of us laugh at the idea of a forty year old virgin, but we believe they exist; very few probably believe there exists a forty year old person who has never imbibed alcohol. Drugs and alcohol become commonplace in the life of the adolescent, coming to be viewed as normal. These conditions coupled with the increasing prevalence of drug and alcohol abuse among peers in this age group increase the risk that adolescents from drug addicted homes will themselves turn to drugs and alcohol.
A second group at high risk for substance abuse is criminal offenders. Drug and alcohol use is ubiquitous among criminal offenders, as indicated by two different national surveys. Almost two-thirds of arrestees surveyed tested positive for at least one drug; this drug use would have occurred within several days prior to testing. This is almost ten times greater than estimates for the general population, most of which have never been arrested for criminal activities. Among these offenders, marijuana and cocaine are the most commonly used substances. In fact, marijuana use doubled over a ten-year time period among both male and female criminal offenders.
The reasons behind the high prevalence of drug use among criminal offenders, which in turn likely leads to high incidences of substance abuse and addiction, are varied. As much as politicians want to convince us that every social problem has an easy answer, it’s simply not true, not even when it comes to drug abuse. Research does indicate, nevertheless, that poverty may be one of the most significant underlying factors that contribute to addiction. While certainly not all low-income individuals choose a life of crime and drug addiction-not are all drug addicts poor, of course-many living in poverty feel a sense of hopelessness and an inability to control their environment or change their destiny. Drug use provides a means of escaping a desperate reality. Crime then becomes a means of providing the financial resources to purchase the drugs. It actually becomes a cycle, with the desire for drugs spurring crime and crime used as a means to obtain drugs. The existence of gangs in poverty-stricken neighborhoods may also contribute to higher incidences of the crime and drug abuse cycle.
Poverty contributes to another factor related to crime and drug abuse-the lack of opportunities for education. Poorer communities often lack the financial resources to provide a solid education to students. These individuals may then grow up not realizing the value of education and its capacity for helping one to rise out of poverty. Additionally, those suffering in poverty likely do not place college high on their priority list when they must struggle each day just to obtain the basic necessities of life, such as food and shelter.
Substance abuse has not gone away just because Nancy Reagan advised a generation to “Just Say No.” Addiction and abuse remain a growing problem that result in devastating consequences, not only for the abuser, but also for loved ones and for the rest of society who may not even come into contact with addicts on a daily basis.