Kicking addiction is a struggle under the best of circumstances, and there’s mounting evidence that the earlier a kid gets a drug habit, the harder that struggle becomes. I was reminded of that powerfully, and painfully, when I heard that Nic Sheff, author of the hard-hitting memoir Tweak about his teenage struggle with addiction, had relapsed.
Today is 4/20 day, a counterculture holiday for potheads to light up and celebrate their favorite mind-altering drug, marijuana. (Theories about the origins of the name, which also can be written 4:20 or 420 day, are diverse.) Last year, on April 20, 10,000 people convened at the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus for the impromptu WeedFest. I have fond memories of lounging on the quad at my own university on a sunny spring day, with the air thick with the sweet smoke of weed. It seemed like harmless fun, though even then we could see that some of our classmates were getting too befuddled to function.
In the past 10 years, scientists have learned a lot about how the human brain makes huge leaps in growth and learning in the teenage years. The theory is that the teen brain’s talent for learning makes it easier to “learn” to be addicted to any drug, be it marijuana, meth (two of Nic’s drugs of choice), tobacco, or alcohol. Most teenage users won’t become addicts, of course, but teens who are frequent users are far more likely to have trouble with jobs and relationships in adulthood. About 8 percent of Americans age 12 or older use illegal drugs, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and many more abuse the legal options, alcohol and tobacco.
I interviewed Nic and his dad, David Sheff, last year when they were touring to promote their twin memoirs. Their faces were full of hope for the future, and the stories they told were of past horrors. (David’s book, Beautiful Boy, details his anguished attempts to get Nic off the streets and into rehab, plus his own guilt at having treated Nic’s teenage drug use lightly.) When I heard Nic had slipped, I was so sad —but not surprised. Relapse is a constant risk for any recovering addict. It must be even harder to resist for a young adult eager to explore the world and all its adventures. That sounds like a lot more fun than the daily self-restraint needed for sober living. (Here’s CNN’s interview with Nic about his relapse, as well as a letter Nic sent the network.)
In honor of Nic, I’d like to make this 4/20 “Let’s stay straight day.” I'm not a pot smoker, but I’ll forgo an after-work beer in a gesture of solidarity and in the hope that he’ll have many, many more days that are sober and happy.
Related: My colleague Sarah Baldauf explains the new research on how marijuana affects the brain; it’s particularly useful for us moms and dads whose memories of high school pot smokers are pretty benign. Dr. Bernadine Healy, a former director of the National Institutes of Health, offers a cogent argument on why Obama shouldn’t legalize marijuana. And I recently described the science behind the amazing powers of the teen brain. I don’t want to be a teenager again, but I’d sure love to have that razor-sharp thinking machine.