Risk Factors for Drugs and Alcohol

Even if you feel strong and invincible, it’s important to realize that addiction can affect anyone. One friend may be able to drink regularly without becoming an alcoholic, while another may get hooked after the first drink. Given a certain combination of risk factors, life experiences, and emotional issues, even the most strong-willed, well-adapted, and composed person can fall prey to chemical dependency.

The following factors make some people more susceptible to addiction than others:

Personality. People who are aggressive, lack self-control, feel sensitive to stress, are unable to delay gratification, or experience anxiety or depression are more likely to develop addictions as a way of managing their emotions or self-medicating an underlying condition. Perfectionism, low self-esteem, and anger management can also feed addictive behaviors.

Age. The earlier you begin using drugs, the more likely you are to progress to more serious use as you get older.

Environment. If you grew up around people who were drug addicts or alcoholics, or who engaged in criminal behavior, you’re more likely to develop an addiction yourself. Being raised in an abusive environment also contributes to addiction, as you struggle to cope with negative emotions surrounding the abuse. Living in a low-income or impoverished area and having friends who use drugs are also factors that increase the likelihood of addiction. For teens, peer pressure can be a strong influence that leads to early drug or alcohol abuse as well as other harmful behaviors. Academic failure and poor social skills can compound the problem.

Emotional Distress. Teens who feel isolated, depressed, anxious, or like they don’t fit in with their peers often use drugs to cope with these painful feelings.

Genetics. Addiction has a strong biological component. In fact, scientists estimate that genetic factors account for between 40 and 60 percent of a person’s vulnerability to addiction. If you have a family history of alcohol or drug problems (i.e., your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins have struggled with addiction), you’re at greater risk of developing a drug addiction.

Type of drug and method of use. Some drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, are more addictive than others. Smoking or injecting a drug increases its addictive potential.

Drug or alcohol use during adolescence can have profound and long-lasting consequences. Adolescents are at greater risk of drug abuse and addiction than the general population because the area of the brain responsible for making sound decisions and controlling emotions and impulses (the prefrontal cortex) isn’t fully developed yet.

If you notice a number of these risk factors in yourself or someone close to you, your best bet is to stay away from drugs and alcohol, get involved in activities you enjoy, and find someone to talk to about difficult emotions and experiences that may lead to problems with substance abuse.

Why Marijuana Is Riskier Than You Think

“It’s just a little pot. What harm could it do?”

Because marijuana is the most widely used illicit drug among teens, there’s a popular misconception that smoking pot is a safe, consequence-free way to relax and have some fun. But experimenting with marijuana can put you, your health, and your future at risk.

Despite what you may have heard, teens can and do get hooked on pot. Research shows that long-term marijuana use can lead to addiction. Of course, not everyone progresses from drug use to addiction, but there is no way of knowing if you will be addiction’s next victim. Each year, more teens enter drug rehab with a primary diagnosis of marijuana dependence than for all other illegal drugs combined.

Even if you don’t become dependent, marijuana is considered a gateway drug, meaning frequent use can lead to the use of stronger drugs, which carry even higher risks for addiction. People who have used marijuana are eight times more likely to have used cocaine, 15 times more likely to have used heroin, and five times more likely to need addiction treatment.

Smoking pot can also lead to health, learning, and behavioral problems, especially for teens whose brains and bodies are still developing. Marijuana changes the brain in ways that are similar to those caused by cocaine, heroin, or alcohol. The main active chemical in marijuana is THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), which affects the hippocampus and the brain’s limbic system – areas responsible for learning, memory, and the processing of information.

Short-term effects of marijuana use include problems with memory and learning; mood swings; distorted perception; difficulty in thinking and problem-solving; loss of coordination; and increased heart rate, blood pressure, anxiety, and paranoia. In the long term, smoking pot has been associated with poor academic performance, memory loss, and lung cancer.

Quite the opposite of an “all-natural” high, pot consists of more than 400 chemical compounds and puff for puff, contains even more cancer-causing agents than are found in tobacco. Because the amount of tar inhaled by marijuana smokers and the level of carbon monoxide absorbed are three to five times greater than among tobacco smokers, teens who smoke pot regularly often have serious respiratory problems such as chronic bronchitis and frequent chest colds.

Research indicates that teens who smoke pot are lower achievers in school, engage more often in deviant and aggressive behavior, have poorer relationships with parents, and are more likely to be associated with drug-using friends. Consider these grim statistics:

- People who begin drinking and using marijuana regularly prior to their 15th birthday are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors (resulting in early pregnancies, school failure, chemical dependency, sexually transmitted diseases, and criminal convictions) well into their 30s.

- Teens with an average grade of “D” or below are more than four times as likely to have used marijuana in the past year as youth who reported an average grade of “A.”

- The more a student abuses drugs, the lower his grade point average is likely to be.

- Young people who drink or use drugs are up to five times more likely than their peers to drop out of high school.

- In a study reported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, even a moderate dose of marijuana was shown to impair driving performance, with 1 in 5 crash victims under the age of 18 testing positive for marijuana.

As a teenager, your life is filled with high-pressure social situations, school stress, conflict with family and friends, and a packed daily schedule. But drugs like marijuana are not the solution – they can impair your judgment, leading to risky decision-making when it comes to sex, criminal activity, and driving under the influence.

What’s more, smoking pot is illegal, and whether you agree with the law or not, getting caught using marijuana can involve fines and/or jail time – and a criminal record that can wreck your educational and career plans. Are all of these risks really worth a quick high?