The great brain robbery

Trevor Grice is the Director of the Life Education Trust in New Zealand, where he is in constant demand as a drug counsellor, industry adviser and speaker to high-school students and parent groups. He has lectured extensively in Australia and the USA. He co-authored The Great Brain Robbery with Tom Scott, an award-winning New Zealand journalist and cartoonist.

MercatorNet: Why are kids turning to drugs?

Grice: Teenagers get into drugs through innocence, through ignorance, through hormones, and through the deliberate actions of the illicit drug industry. When kids reach puberty – which can be as young as 10 or as late as 15 –there’s a great need to belong, to be different. They have esteem problems and they have image problems. There’s pressure on them to achieve academically, to deal with the opposite sex, and sometimes there’s trouble in the home.

There’s no polytech or university courses for parents, and parents get no time off for good behaviour. Their job has become even more difficult with the new technology the kids are immersed in – the texting, the iPods, the PlayStations and so on – which opens up a huge gap between the parents and the kids.

Here is an absolute harvest for drug cartels, which are very actively extending their market. Their aim is to get the kids hooked young and keep them hooked. Teenagers and children have much faster absorption rates than adults and less efficient metabolic systems, so they get addicted five times faster—at least five times.

Worse still, this happens at a time when the brain is rapidly changing, and the interference of a foreign substance can cause damage that will rob the child of its full potential. So we have to get kids to understand that those years after puberty are the most profoundly important years of their whole life. Every human brain is a miraculous tapestry, utterly unique to the weaver. When we tear this fragile tapestry we are damaging a one-off that can’t easily be repaired.

MercatorNet: What’s new in the second edition of The Great Brain Robbery?

Grice: We’ve incorporated new research which shows that, contrary to what was thought, the brain undergoes structural changes right through to about age 25. As teenagers learn who they are and what they want to become a pruning and shaping of the brain takes place. The last part to be shaped to its adult dimensions is the pre-frontal cortex, home of the so-called executive functions such as planning, suppressing impulses and weighing the consequences of one’s actions. Of course, the sex hormones are already active creating an appetite for all sorts of thrills, so for a while the teenage brain is all accelerator and no brake. This has obvious implications for the way we deal with adolescents.

The main new threat is in the potency of the drugs. The backyard chemists have been busy introducing industrial contaminants to maximise the impact. The new designer drugs – things like P (methamphetamine) and E (Ecstasy) – are highly destructive. For example, we’ve published a long list of chemicals the police have found in samples from P labs: lead acetate, lithium, mercuric chloride, sulphuric acid, potassium cyanide… only microdot amounts, but hugely increasing the power of the drug. Amphetamine on its own will be metabolised within an hour, but with methamphetamine users can go high for up to 16 hours.

All highs mimic the brain’s feel-good chemicals – things like dopamine and serotonin – and when they take this stuff it’s like putting a vacuum cleaner to the ear and sucking out all the natural feel-good chemicals. Then the reptilian brain emerges and as the high wears off it can leave people capable of extraordinary acts of aggression. Heavy users become incapable of reason and empathy and that’s why we are seeing such brutal assaults and murders today.

MercatorNet: With drugs like P to contend with, should we worry about marijuana?

Grice: Yes we should. The jury has come into the courtroom on marijuana and the verdict is guilty. For one thing, marijuana also has increased in potency. It is what we call lipophilic (fat-loving). Teenagers’ bodies are awash with lipo activity and they are far more susceptible than the adult. Smoke one joint and 50 per cent can be found in the blood four days later; 10 per cent is still there 90 days later.

I don’t care what adults do, but I do care about the kids, and we can predict from our experience with lowering the drinking age that if marijuana is legalised or decriminalised the age of use will go down. What’s certain is this: The chemistry of the drug will never be altered by its legal status. It will always be toxic for teenagers. What we have to do is protect our kids by getting information to parents that is accurate and that they can use.

MercatorNet: Why is TGBR the most frequently-stolen book in New Zealand?

Grice: Because it’s got information in it that both parents and kids want. Not just the content about drugs, but what it says about puberty and the developing brain. We’re not explaining puberty well, we’re teaching them sexuality like we teach them plumbing when we should be teaching them their full physical, mental, emotional and spiritual development.

In particular we don’t teach boys about themselves. I tell boys, “If you want to reach the superhighway as a love-maker you must learn to delay gratification in the early teens. You’re manufacturing a huge amount of testosterone to build muscle, bone and muscle for the transition to manhood, but unfortunately it does a lot of other things; it distracts and causes sensations and what have you.”

How do young people themselves respond when you talk about delaying gratification? Do their eyes glaze when you say that?

Grice: Not at all. When I go into schools I tell them, “I haven’t come here to tell you to do anything. What I’ve come to do is share with you some physiological and neurological facts that are going to affect the rest of your life. And when I’ve finished, you might consider delaying your decision about certain things.” And they accept that approach. We’ve tried to attract their interest rather than just promote a message, and part of it is using huge amounts of humour. If you want to get through to kids, especially boys, you have to use humour.

I’ll tell you what –kids, it doesn’t matter what school or culture they come from, they all have a fascination with the biological crown jewels. So if we can focus on that in a beautiful way, then we’ve got a chance of getting better education through to them.

MercatorNet: Where did you get your passion for this task?

Grice: I had 25 years working in the best human laboratory in the world, and that was the American government’s Antarctic program. The admiral put me in charge of human relations which included dealing with drug and alcohol problems. I found that all the people who got into trouble – apart from those with psychological problems through isolation -- started in their early teens.

That’s how I became interested in the question of what happens between the ages of 10 and 20. I got in with some scientists who specialised in the endocrinology of puberty, and we began to break the scientific language down into something parents and ordinary people could understand. What transitions are going to take place in the body? What chemicals have to be built up before we can say he is a mature male or she is a mature female?

MercatorNet: Is there something basically faulty in the Western approach to the adolescent these days?

Grice: Oh yes, there is. We’ve lowered the drinking age, we’ve legalised prostitution, we treat abortion as a means of birth control – and the kids are watching all this, the disrespect for life, for the body. The next thing we’ll be legalising euthanasia – devaluing life at the other end. It’s a moral wasteland. And once you lose basic values in society the first to be affected are the little children.

At the same time we have disenfranchised parents through privacy legislation, and I think this goes to the heart of your question. Parents are not being led, we’re being managed and controlled, while all kids hear about in school is their rights, nothing about responsibility. So a 12-year-old is told she can have an abortion and the mother doesn’t have to know – it’s an outrage. Parents have rights. They have responsibilities and they should have the greater rights. The rights a child has are to love and nurture and food and shelter and education. They don’t have to make adult decisions until they are ready for them.

MercatorNet: But if we can’t agree on values at least we can minimise harm – isn’t that the best we can hope for today?

Grice: I’ve got the original book on harm minimisation in this field, written in England in 1987. It’s called Taking Drugs Seriously and the first chapter is called "Your Imaginary Drug Career". Then it goes on to tell kids how to deal with the police. This approach has caused huge problems. It’s behind the exchange of needles schemes for drug users, which assume that an irrational mind at two o’clock in the morning is going to worry whether the needle is clean or not. It’s nuts, and governments in the United States and Australia and elsewhere can see that and are throwing it out.

It’s the same crazy approach that’s been used in sex education, giving condoms to kids. It teaches them to go for something whether they are ready or not. I’ve said in the book that kids are like sapling trees and the branches aren’t strong enough yet to hold the fruit. When they get into these substances and behaviours the fruit will wither on the vine.

Horace, the Roman poet, a year before the birth of Christ, said, “Always remember that new vessels will long retain the taste of what is first poured into them.” And Socrates said God is love expressed in humanity, and that love for a human being is an irresistible necessity, especially for children. If we keep on teaching them lust – not just for sex but for money, for instant gratification – instead of love, there’ll be trouble.

The interesting thing though is that they’re disillusioned with lust. I see these young people by the hundreds and they’re sick of it all.

MercatorNet: So they’re actually ready for a moral and spiritual message?

Grice: Oh, it’s coming. It’s coming like a tidal wave.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.


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