As 2015 comes to a close, the internet is having a good laugh at "Stoner Sloth," the series of anti-weed TV spots produced by an Australian government agency. The ads have been mercilessly mocked for everything from featuring a cute animal that isn't exactly imperiled by being a bit sleepy to the fact that aneasy-to-make errorin the URL teased in the commercials leads to apro-marijuana site.
A meme was born, gladdening the hearts of T-shirt makers everywhere.
But to anyone well-versed in addiction, the ads are more disturbing than funny. They show how far we have to go in understanding the nature of the problem and the best ways to prevent it. Because these Australian commercials aren't outliers in using social stigma to try to prevent drug use—indeed, to paraphrase the kid in a famously stigmatizing 1980s American PSA, they (likely) learned it from us. And unfortunately, across the world, health agencies still seem addicted to stigma.
In the Aussie ads, a female sloth is shown being shamed by a teacher and classmates for failing an exam and a male sloth is humiliated by his family because he passes the salad rather than the salt at dinner. He's also excluded by his friends after he doesn't respond quickly enough to the catty remarks they are making about someone else at a party.
Stoner Sloth can respond only with pathetic grunts and shrinking, submissive body language; he or she never speaks. Indeed, Stoner Sloth seems far more like a Depressed and Disabled Sloth: The long talons don't seem capable of either writing test answers or physically passing anything smaller than the salad to mom. The big brown eyes radiate distress. But rather than compassion, our poor sloth is met each time with contempt, ridicule, and rejection. No wonder they want to get high—everyone around them is an asshole.
Almost accidentally, the ads illustrate an important truth about addiction, which often includes heavy marijuana use and drinking during adolescence. The people who are most vulnerable to all types of substance use disorders are indeed the outcasts, the kids who don't fit in, the ones who are desperate for connection. While teens who do well socially and academically also take drugs, they are not the group at highest risk for drug use disorders.
High-risk teens often have developmental disabilities like attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or mental illnesses like depression—at least 50 percent of youth with substance use disorders have another psychiatric diagnosis. Often these conditions—even before they are fully manifest—make kids stand out from their peers, either because they behave strangely or because their inner lives make them feel like outsiders.
Children at high risk of addiction are also commonly victims of trauma—at least two-thirds of teens getting treatment for substance abuse have suffered at least one devastating early-life adversity, like losing a parent or being a victim of sexual assault, abuse, or neglect. Research shows that the greater the number of childhood traumas, the higher the risk for substance use disorders of all types. And whether children stand out, feel different and behave unusually because of trauma, learning disorders, or incipient mental illness—or some combination thereof—they become targets for bullying, which further raises addiction risk.
Consequently, the "stoner" kids adults most want to reach with such ads are often sad and withdrawn long before they ever smoke pot—social rejection is what they are trying to relieve by getting high. Telling them that drug use will make them into outcasts isn't going to work if that's where they already think they are.
To do better, people who want to prevent addiction need to start by taking the drug user's perspective. Otherwise, they fail to recognize the upsides of drug culture, which do exist and must be replaced if the goal is to make drugs less appealing. Drug culture solves real problems for kids who are different: Not only does it offer potential escape and pleasure, but it provides a highly forgiving social group, which actually welcomes and celebrates weirdos and oddballs. As long as you take drugs and aren't going to call cops, you can behave almost as strangely as you like and be accepted—and you can blame the drugs for it if you do make a faux pas.
In my own experience with drugs, it was only among fellow users that I first felt accepted. It wasn't just the drugs that made me feel comfortable and safe, but also the warmth of the friends who included me. And I am far from the first to have had this experience and made these connections. In fact, studies show that in treatment for addiction, shame and humiliation only worsens outcomes, while kindness and respect improve them.
If we want to prevent addiction, then, we have to increase social acceptance, not stigma. The last thing Stoner Sloth—or anyone with a drug problem—needs is more shame and self-loathing. Indeed, research suggests the schools that work hard to create an inclusive caring community not only reduce bullying, but also reduce drug problems. Feeling connected and included at school was one of the best predictors of reduced drug use, according to one large national study.
Stigma doesn't prevent addiction—it only makes it worse. And if kids live in a social world where the only people who don't reject them are drug users, should we really be surprised that all they want to do is get stoned?
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