Smart Kids Do Drugs


A study reported last month in the Journal of Epidemiology and Public Health found that smart kids are especially likely to use drugs as teenagers and adults. In data from the 1970 British Cohort Study, IQ at age 5 was positively associated with cannabis use at age 16 among girls and boys, cannabis and cocaine use at age 30 among women, and amphetamine and MDMA use at age 30 among men. The study's lead author, James White, a research associate at Cardiff University's Center for the Development and Evaluation of Complex Public Health Interventions, puzzles over these results in an interview with Medscape:

The takeaway message for MDs is that we should not assume that a high IQ will only be associated with healthy behaviors. For the most part, a high IQ is a very good thing, and has been associated in the past with a healthier lifestyle and robust indicators of cardiovascular risk, such as blood pressure and lipid levels. However, our study and others indicate it can also be associated with drug and alcohol misuse.

By drug "misuse," White seems to mean any illegal drug use at all. That much is consistent with prohibitionist orthodoxy. But are there sound medical reasons for putting pot smoking or MDMA use in the same category as high blood pressure and high cholesterol? If not, maybe the correlation between intelligence and drug use is not so puzzling after all. The Medscape article suggests a few reasons why people might rationally decide to use drugs:

The investigators note that because individuals with high IQs have been shown to score highly on tests of stimulation seeking and openness to experiences, it may be that alcohol and illegal drugs fulfill their desire for novelty and stimulation. Drug use may also be seen as a way of staving off boredom and/or a way to cope with stigmatization from peers.

In other words, people use drugs because they are fun, interesting, and relaxing, which to most people without public health degrees sound like good things, unless they come at an unacceptable cost. At the very end of the article, White concedes that "we need to know more about the exact level of harm associated with infrequent drug use, and we need more detailed research on the long-term harms of illegal drug use in the wider population, rather than just in those dependent on drugs." But that is after he has classified drug use as objectively unhealthy.

[Thanks to Nicolas Martin for the tip.]