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Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Drugs: European Youth, a Target of Choice

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Christian Mirre
Christian Mirre
PhD. in Sciences, holds a Doctorat d'Etat ès Sciences from the University of Marseille-Luminy and has been a long term biologist at the French CNRS's Section of Life Sciences. Currently, representative of the Foundation for a Drug Free Europe.

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Drugs: European Youth – Currently, in this year 2022, the European population in the 27 Member States is about 447 million of inhabitants (INSEE) and among them nearly 108 million people are in schools (Eurostat), enrolled in institutions ranging from early childhood care to higher education. This pool of scholarized people are representing for the 0-17 years old around 18% of the total population.

The acceleration of widespread use of drugs … and the litany of new street drugs all play a part in our debilitated society. Even schoolchildren are shoved on to drugs    

L.RON HUBBARD (1911-1986)

It is well known that adolescence, defines as those between 10 and 19 years of age, is a critical period of life between childhood and adulthood which will impact their future development. Indeed, nowadays more than ever, living in a challenging environment, adolescence is exposed “to a range of risks, reinforced by the digital world and social media, and which include, inter alia, violence and abuse, sexual or economic exploitation, trafficking, migration, radicalisation, recruitment into gangs or militias, substance use and addiction”  noted the Committee on the Rights of the Child-General Comment, III-13 in 2016.

Following a large wave of cannabis policy liberalisation from some countries, aware of the economic stakes and of the trade-offs involved in this political debate, the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), based on 2 December 2020 recommendation, have rescheduled the cannabis and its resin from schedule IV to I of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, i.e. only available for medical and scientific purposes and remaining under all the control levels of the 1961 Convention. Meanwhile, the International Narcotic Control Board and the World Customs Organization ensure cannabis availability for the above purposes while “preventing the risk of diversion into the illicit market”.

Among the illicit drugs used in Europe, after alcohol (see a previous article) cannabis is the most prevalent drug used by adolescents. In Europe, an estimated 15.5% of the aged 15-34 and 19.1% of the 15-24 used cannabis (EMCDDA, 2022). Despite all the regulations, cannabis is the substance most frequently reported for acute drug-related health harm presentations, according to the Euro-DEN Plus hospital network (Drug Emergencies Network – EMCDDA, 2020).

 The cannabis psychoactive (mind-altering) substance, that people find so desirable is mainly concentrated in the glandular trichomes of the mature female bracts. It was only in 1964 that the psychoactive THC (Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) had been isolated by the Mechoulam team in Israel. The THC is a highly liposoluble terpene molecule, one of the numerous phytocannabinoids isolated and grouped in families. The Cannabinols family includes the psychoactive Delta-9-THC and also its less potent isomer the Delta-8-THC whereas the controversial CBD is part of the Cannabidiols family. Since the 1960ies, there is a regular increasing concentration of the psychoactive component (the Delta-9-THC) in the plant, from around 0,2% to 15-20% and even more, using breeding and genetic engineering technics. Unfortunately, this increase can be paralleled with increased risks for health damage and psychotic outcomes. As a result, in the young 11-21 age users is occurring an increasing risk of suicide ideation and suicide attempt (A. Fresan et al. 2022). And it has been shown that the risk of cannabis and alcohol use disorder is more serious in people who started to use during youth or adolescence. In addition, cannabis use is altering perceptions and behaviour, the skills, lowering reaction time, affecting coordination, concentration, attention, working memory, IQ and responsiveness.

In the 1990ies the Mechoulam team had identified the complex and vital endocannabinoid system (ECS) and its receptors CB1 and CB2 and their natural ligands, respectively AEA (anandamide) and 2-AG. The receptors CB1 are very concentrated in the central nervous system including the limbic system of the brain and CB2 is more concerned by the immune system of the body.

The liposoluble THC easily crosses the hemato-encephalic barrier and has a more stable connection with the CB1 receptors than the AEA. This results in the accumulation of a larger amount of dopamine which excessively activates in the limbic area, among others, the nucleus accumbens part of the reward system, generating the impulsion to act to obtain something desirable (Gardner M. et al, 2005) and at the origin of the “high”, the euphoric feeling. But the other side of the coin is now the need and repeated searches for this pleasurable time leading to tolerance and addiction problems.

Adolescence has been described as a critical time of life, where cognitive, emotional and social maturation occurs. It is at adolescence that the ECS reaches the highest levels of activity including internal changes occurring in the brain. And the social maladjustments are due to a yet immature limbic system and prefrontal cortex.  At adolescence, around 11 years of age for girls and 14 years for boys, the brain has reached its final size but is not yet at its full maturity as the synaptogenesis and rewiring (pruning and myelination) is not complete until about 25 years of age. This brain plasticity, enhancing the ability to solve problems and process complex information, provides an opportunity to develop talents and interests whereas any trauma, chronic stress, or psychoactive substance abuse, may have a deleterious impact.

Alcohol is the most used substance by 79% of adolescents, according to the European School Survey Project (ESPAD-2020) including heavy use during binge drinking (by 35%) with significant alcohol toxicity. And this is worse when the current society and media advertising show drinking as socially acceptable.

A lower perception of the risks associated with drug use has been linked to the higher rates of drug use, …and highlight the need to bridge the gap between perception and reality in order to educate youth and preserve public health.

UNODC Executive Director Ms. Ghada Waly (2021 Report)

The other favorite illicit drug used is marijuana by some 17% of the European adolescents (range:4.2%-29% according the country). The use has been stable over the last two decades.

The other drugs are the inhalants (7% with a range from 1% to 25%), then the non-medical use of prescription drugs as sedatives (6.6%) and painkillers (4%) to get “high”. Have to be also mentioned the new psychoactive substances (NPS) used by 3.4% of students, more than for amphetamine, cocaine, LSD and ecstasy.

As a note: the last ESPAD results show that gambling for money is becoming a popular activity for 22% of the students (mainly lotteries), 60% are playing digital games and others spending 2-3 hours during a school day on social media.

Adolescence is also the time when in search of their identity, eager to become and behave as adults, to share social experience, be part of a group, or seeking for new experiences and taking challenging risks, the adolescents meet with alcohol,  cannabis/marijuana, and other substances.

The sociologist D. Le Breton (2014) presents the risky behaviour, including body harm, of the adolescents as a resistance to a suffering or an attempt to be heard and exist in the eyes of the parents or the entourage. This is sometimes a symptom of the family relationship and emotional dysfunctions. Indeed, adolescents are hungry for signs of recognition from their elders. This distress can “affect between 15-20% of adolescents, with an over-representation for those who grow up in single-parents or blended families”. He recalls that these sufferings are powerful butreversible with responsible and attentive parents and eventually practitioners. And he warns on the fact of systematically associating a mental pathology with an adolescent behavior.

Thus, it is only by paying attention to children and young people, to their needs, to their frustrations and aspirations that parents, teachers, prevention workers and policy makers, can develop effective responses. Among them a crucial point often neglected:

At the core of science-based prevention is a very simple concept, something we all know how to do, but perhaps spend too little time doing: listening

Y. Fedotov (UNODC 2016).

Another solution, to protect the youth from drug use, is to get them out of ignorance and to empower them, starting as early as possible with accurate and objective fact-based and scientific-evidenced data on the harmful effects of drug use. This is prevention. This means stopping problems from arising, giving knowledge, skills and confidence to the youth.


In a rapidly urbanizing world, drug control will be won, or lost, in the cities …This malaise is not the fault of the founding fathers of the drug control. It is an inescapable result of inadequate implementation of existing crime control agreements … History will judge us severely unless we protect more effectively health, security and development

Antonio Maria Costa, UNODC 2009).

Every child, every youth and young adult has the right of a healthy and safe life as mentioned in the different Conventions. They have to be protected from the debilitating effects of drug use to enable them to realize their talents, to develop their potentialities and thus actively contribute to the social and economic life of their country. Indeed, we must invest in children, since they are the foundation of sustainable development.

So, youth drug awareness through appropriate education will establish a strong basis for building their resilience to the current temptation emanating from pro-decriminalisation and legalisation groups having vested interests in the broad use of drugs.

Drug prevention and education, by using The Truth About Drugs materials, are the basis upon which all the activities of the Foundation for a Drug-Free Europe (FDFE) and its hundred of Say No To Drugs associations and groups of volunteers endeavour to carry out across Europe. 

Drugs are a waste of time. They destroy your memory and your self-respect and everything that goes along with your self-esteem.

Kurt Cobain (1967-1994).

Drug information on: www.fdfe.eu

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