Iceland Figured Out How to Stop Teen Drug Substance Abuse—Can the Rest of the World to Do the Same?


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In Iceland, teenage smoking, drinking and drug use have been radically cut in the past 20 years. Emma Young, of Mosaic Science, writes how they did it, and why other countries won’t follow suit. An abridged version of that article was written for HIGH TIMES by Maureen Meehan.

Twenty years ago Icelandic teens were among the heaviest-drinking youths in Europe. Today, it is exactly the opposite.

How did Iceland Do It?

The dramatic turnaround, radical and evidence-based, relied a lot on what might be termed enforced common sense.

“This is the most remarkably intense and profound study of stress in the lives of teenagers that I have ever seen,” said Harvey Milkman, an American psychology professor who teaches at Reykjavik University for part of the year.

“I was in the eye of the storm of the drug revolution,” said Milkman, who did an internship at the Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital in New York City in the early 1970s. “LSD was already in, and a lot of people were smoking marijuana. And there was a lot of interest in why people took certain drugs.”

At Metropolitan State College of Denver, Milkman was instrumental in developing the idea that people were getting addicted to changes in brain chemistry.

“People can get addicted to drink, cars, money, sex, calories, cocaine—whatever,” Milkman said. “The idea of behavioral addiction became our trademark.”

That idea spawned another: “Why not orchestrate a social movement around natural highs: around people getting high on their own brain chemistry—because it seems obvious to me that people want to change their consciousness—without the deleterious effects of drugs?”

By 1992, his team in Denver had won a $1.2 million government grant to form Project Self-Discovery, which offered teenagers natural-high alternatives to drugs and crime.

“We didn’t say to them, you’re coming in for treatment,” he explained. “We said, we’ll teach you anything you want to learn: music, dance, hip hop, art, martial arts.”

The idea was to provide a variety of alterations in their brain chemistry and give them what they needed to cope better with life.

At the same time, they received life-skills training on improving their thoughts about themselves and how they interacted with other people.

In 1991, Milkman was invited to Iceland to talk about his findings and ideas and soon became a consultant to the first residential drug treatment center for adolescents in Iceland where he worked with University of Iceland researcher, Inga Dóra Sigfúsdóttir.

In 1992, teenagers in every school in Iceland filled out questionnaires about their drug and alcohol use, which was shockingly high. The process was repeated in 1995 and 1997.

Using the survey data a new national plan was introduced, Youth in Iceland, that closely involved schools and parents through organizations, which by law had to be established in every school.

Parents were encouraged to spend a quantity of time with their children rather than occasional “quality time,” and to talk to their kids about their lives, explained Inga Dóra.

State funding was increased for organized sports, music, art, dance and other clubs, to give teens alternative ways to feel part of a group. Children from low-income families received help to take part.

Could the Iceland model work in the United States?

Clearly, the U.S. has challenges that Iceland does not.

For example, underage drinking accounts for about 11 percent of all alcohol consumed nationwide, and excessive drinking causes more than 4,300 deaths among under-21 year olds every year. Staggering statistics.

And there is size—325 million people in the U.S. versus 330,000 in Iceland. Thirty-three thousand gangs in the U.S. versus virtually none in Iceland. Around 1.3 million homeless young people in the U.S. versus only a handful in Iceland.

Then, there is the idea of government control, which Americans tend to loath. In Iceland, the relationship between people and the state enabled the program’s success, and, in the process, brought families closer and helped teens become healthier in all kinds of ways.

But Milkman and his colleagues wonder if other countries will decide that these benefits are worth the costs.

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