Drugs and Thugs


In 1990 Jonathan Shedler and Jack Block, two psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley, were attacked as traitors in the war on drugs after they reported that "problem drug use is a symptom, not a cause, of personal and social maladjustment." But three years later, the results of a government-funded study lend support to that conclusion.

Describing a careful longitudinal study of 101 subjects in the May 1990 issue of American Psychologist, Shedler and Block wrote: "Adolescents who had engaged in some drug experimentation were the best-adjusted in the sample. Adolescents who used drugs frequently were maladjusted, showing a distinct personality syndrome marked by interpersonal alienation, poor impulse control, and manifest emotional distress. Adolescents who, by age 18, had never experimented with any drug were relatively anxious, emotionally constricted and lacking in social skills."

These differences showed up early in childhood and seemed to be related to the way the kids were raised. Shedler and Block concluded that "the meaning of drug use can be understood only in the context of an individual's personality structure and developmental history."

That assessment now appears to be respectable. The May/June issue of NIDA Notes, the newsletter of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, reports on a recent study of 51 male teenagers in a Denver drug-abuse treatment program, all of whom had engaged in misbehavior such as stealing, truancy, fighting, arson, property destruction, cruelty to people or animals, lying, and running away. Seventy-seven percent of them said they had started using drugs regularly one to 13 years after they began misbehaving.

"The majority engaged in these behaviors both while they were intoxicated and when they were not, and for reasons related and not related to drugs," said McGill University psychiatrist Mark Zoccolillo, coauthor of the study. "The antisocial behaviors not only begin before the substance abuse but continue to occur independently of the substance abuse." He concluded that early antisocial behavior is a forerunner of both drug abuse and crime, "challenging the assumption that drug use causes crime."