Young brains at risk: Co-constituting youth and addiction in neuroscience-informed Australian drug education
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This article explores the developing relationship between neuroscientific understandings of ‘addiction’ and ‘youth’. Drawing on science and technology studies theory and social scientific analyses of both these concepts, it identifies a co-constitutive relationship between notions of addiction as a brain disease and of youth as a stage of brain development. These two concepts are then tracked in a series of drug education documents concerned with alcohol and other drug (AOD) use and addiction among young people, and their implications and effects and analysed together. The aim is to investigate the impact on drug education of neuroscientific approaches to youth and addiction. Are new concepts and directions for harm reduction created in the encounters between neuroscience, youth and addiction, or do they simply reinstate and reinforce existing assumptions and judgments? Is drug education shaped by these concepts likely to achieve its aim, that is, to increase young people’s sensitivity to harm and safety? The article begins by introducing neuroscientific accounts of youth and addiction, arguing that the two concepts share three key assumptions. First, both emphasise biology and sideline social context in the making of drug use practices and outcomes. Second, both reproduce uncritical treatments of brain scans (PET and fMRI images) as windows into minds and subjects. Third, both understand the brain as ontologically separate from its environment. These assumptions and their implications are then tracked through an analysis of Australian drug education resources, focusing on how drug education constitutes youthfulness and addiction as pathological disorders. In its reliance on neuroscientific understandings of youth and addiction, we conclude, drug education is unlikely to achieve its goal of reducing drug-related harm.
Keywordsaddiction youth drug education neuroscience Bruno Latour Annemarie Mol and John Law
This article explores the relationship between neuroscientific understandings of two concepts: addiction and youth, identifying and analysing the shared assumptions and organising logics at work in both. In drawing out these shared assumptions and logics, the article identifies a co-constitutive relationship between notions of addiction as a brain disease and youth as a stage of brain development. To unpack this relationship, the article analyses a key site of the production of contemporary notions of youth and of drug addiction: drug education. Ultimately, we ask whether the contemporary turn to neuroscientific accounts of youth and addiction in drug education is likely to achieve its aim – to reduce drug-related harm. We begin by introducing neuroscientific accounts of youth and of addiction. We then review social science critiques of both accounts. These critiques cover three main issues. First, they draw out the way neuroscientific approaches efface the action of social context in relation to both addiction and youth. Second, they raise important questions about positivist treatments of PET and fMRI scans as ‘windows’ into the youthful brain and the addicted brain. Third, they challenge the notion that the brain in general is ontologically separate from its environment. We draw these discussions together to argue that in their shared focus on the brain’s ‘reward system’, on impulsivity and rationality, and disorder and order, neuroscientific understandings of addicted and youthful brains reflect and maintain each other. This relationship is explored in the next section through an analysis of Australian drug education resources. In conducting this analysis, we draw on tools developed in Science and Technology Studies (STS). Specifically, we introduce John Law and Annemarie Mol’s notion of ontological multiplicity to argue that scientific and education practices do not merely represent reality but enact particular realities. We then turn to the work of Bruno Latour (2004) to introduce a research ethics concerned with the creation of ‘better’ science via the pursuit and recognition of ‘differences’. As we will suggest, in its reliance on neuroscientific understandings of youth and addiction, drug education is unable to account for the complexity of drug consumption practices. Further, in enacting a reality of ‘impulsive’ youth, young people are defined as intrinsically at risk of turning into addicts. Here, addiction is mobilised as a force that enacts the affected young person as forever incomplete; unable to travel the linear development path into adulthood. Overall, we argue that current drug education constitutes both youthfulness and addiction as pathological disorders. We conclude by examining the implications of these associations within drug education, arguing that neuroscientific approaches work to stabilise existing deficit notions of young people and those who consume drugs, notions likely to produce rather than reduce harm. Finally, we ask how drug education can be reframed to play a more effective part in reducing drug-related harm.
Drug consumption across the Australian population has been relatively stable for the last decade with 15% of people aged 14 years and older having reported using an illicit drug in the last 12 months. Similarly, rates of youth (ages 14–29) drug consumption have remained steady since 2010 (AIWH, 2014). However, people aged 20–29 are the most likely to have consumed an illicit drug in the last 12 months (27%) (AIHW, 2014). The most recent research suggests that young people’s age of initiation into illicit drug use rose from 16.0 in 2010 to 16.3 in 2013 (AIWH, 2014). It is in this relatively stable context that school drug education and social marketing health campaigns currently address young people and seek to reduce drug use and delay the onset of use (Draft National Drug Strategy 2016–2025, 2015). Classroom drug education tends to be designed as either “targeted” – focusing on specific ‘risk’ groups – or “universal” – designed to be delivered to all students (Teesson et al, 2012). Like universal school approaches, social marketing campaigns are generally untargeted, and focus attention on the effects of drug use, with special attention paid to risks and harms. While social marketing campaigns are not aimed at any specific group, they too tend to be designed to address young people. Despite the acknowledged influence of broad ideological interests and goals, and party political agendas, on the design and implementation of drug education, it continues to be an important element in government attempts to reduce drug use and harm associated with drug use in Australian young people (Midford, 2010). Given its continuing significance, it is important to analyse drug education, to track the changing influences upon it over time and to consider the effects and implications of certain conjunctions of expert ideas and everyday notions as they play out in drug education. As will become clear below, drug education in Australia is increasingly informed by neuroscience. It is the traffic between neuroscientific ideas and influential notions of youth and addiction that is the subject of this paper.
Early understandings of youth and the role of science in drug education
The turn to neuroscience analysed here is part of established much longer history of drug education debate. Since its inception, drug education has been a controversial part of education in Western countries. It is not our intention to review the entire history of drug education, rather we briefly point to two important trends in thinking around it. The first is the tendency to invoke particular notions of young people and the second is the mutual implication of politics and science in drug education. As we will argue, drug education has always invoked a particular notion of the young subject and looked to science as an important tool for teaching young people about the dangers of alcohol and other drugs.
In an influential essay, Eve Sedgwick argued that the notion of addiction emerged alongside Western Enlightenment concepts of rationality in which addiction came to be defined as its binary opposite (Sedgwick, 1993). Significantly, particular notions of youth, especially developmental approaches and the notion of ‘adolescence’, also have an important relationship with Enlightenment thinking. Much like addiction, youth and adolescence have historically been constituted as states of intrinsic irrationality (Gabriel, 2013). Drug education has a direct relationship to this philosophical history in that it is concerned with a threat to the development and maintenance of the rational subject: youth and addiction. The origins of drug education lie in nineteenth- and twentieth-century progressivist education agendas on issues of ‘vice’ (such as drugs and sex) in the United States (Tupper, 2014). Early progressivism sought to capture the potential of public education to contribute to the development of strong populations that could help establish strong nation states (Tupper, 2014). These education programs attempted to control what were understood to be young people’s developmentally immature ‘primitive’ urges such that students developed into fully rational and ‘civilised’ adults (Lesko, 2001; Tupper, 2014). In this way, early drug education programs drew on influential developmental psychology (such as the work of G. Stanley Hall) to conceptualise young people as incomplete subjects in the making. Following this logic, youthfulness itself was conceptualised as essentially ‘not-adult’. Young people were approached as not-rational, not-developed, and not-socialised, requiring all-knowing adults to guide them on their life path to adulthood (Lesko, 2001). Importantly, this logic suggests that young people are a social problem until they are successfully ushered into adulthood. These understandings constitute young people as lacking the rationality required to keep themselves and others safe from their innate propensity for engaging in risky practices such as drug consumption. In this way, drug education can be understood as an indivisible part of the Enlightenment goal of establishing rational, autonomous subjects.
Early drug education was bound up in the temperance movement in which drug educators sought to convince young people of the moral dangers and health risks associated with consumption (Beck, 1998). Selective reliance on scientific findings about the dangers of drug (primarily alcohol) consumption were a key strategy used during this time. These initial attempts at drug education utilised techniques that are arguably still common today. Scare tactics, for example, and a focus on harm and danger were common in the late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century US drug education. However, these strategies have always been hotly debated. Reflecting debates still going on today, critics of this early temperance education also turned to scientific findings, in this case to criticise these programs for providing inaccurate and hyperbolic information to support particular ideological and moral agendas (for contemporary examples of these arguments see, for example, Blackman, 2004; Nicholson et al, 2013; Tupper, 2014).
Contemporary drug education debates continue to articulate similar concerns. For example, drug education researchers criticise common conceptualisations of the young subject. Midford (2010) argues that many drug prevention strategies operate within a deficit model of young people, assuming all drug consumption stems from their lack of knowledge and skills. These strategies reflect the influence of developmental conceptualisations of youth that constitute young people as incompletely developed: lacking fully developed adult capacities. Yet, as argued by Midford (2010) and, more recently, Nicholson et al (2013), it is unconvincing to assume that all youth drug consumption stems from a problem or psychosocial lack. These researchers also advocate giving young people accurate scientific information about drug consumption that avoids exaggeration, arguing that unless young people are given more ‘objective’ information, drug education risks losing credibility in their eyes (Nicholson et al, 2013).
Seen in its historical context, the contemporary turn to neuroscience can be understood as a particularly recent expression of drug education’s reliance on the latest scientific findings to authorise advice to young people and establish credibility. Can this turn to more ‘accurate’ science, in the form of neuroscience, be relied upon to produce better informed, more credible youth drug education? Does the provision of scientific truths necessarily reduce harmful drug consumption among young people? What are the risks in calling on scientific authority in this way, and what are the alternatives? To begin to answer these questions, we must first review how notions of youth and addiction are understood in contemporary neuroscience.
Neuroscientific understandings of youth and addiction
Recent decades have seen neuroscience become a leading framework through which all manner of social and political phenomena are rearticulated. Among these are the two concepts that form the subject of our analysis here: youth and addiction. In drawing these two concepts together, it is important to point to the way that both ‘addicts’ and young people are often approached as self-evident problems threatening the stability of the societies of which they are part (Fraser and Moore, 2008; Wyn and White, 1997). An important way they are constituted as a problem is through accounts of their compromised brains. Specifically, neuroscientific accounts of youth are based on the notion of the ‘teen brain’ (see, for example, Steinberg, 2009). This notion understands young people’s brains as undeveloped or immature. Neuroscientists working in this area argue that young people’s ‘irrational’ or ‘troubling’ behaviour stems from this lack of development. Youth studies scholars Bessant and Watts (2012) note that these notions of youth are based on comparisons between ‘teen brains’ and ‘adult brains’ enabled by new imaging technologies: functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) scanning. As Bessant and Watts (2012) observe, some neuroscientific accounts of the teen brain use these scans to argue that young people have a reduced capacity to reason. The prefrontal region of the brain, required for planning, weighing risks and rewards and executive function in general, is yet to develop fully. Neuroscientists also argue that the connections between cortical and subcortical regions of the brain are undeveloped in young people, so that they are less effective at processing emotional and social information. One offshoot of this is the idea that young people are intrinsically more susceptible to ‘peer pressure’ (see, for example, Grosbras et al, 2007). Finally, teen brains are understood to develop via a process of proliferation and then reduction and redistribution of dopamine receptors. This fluctuation is thought to make young people more vulnerable to ‘risky behaviour’ such as drug consumption (Bessant and Watts, 2012; Kelly, 2012). Emphasising dopamine receptors in this way positions young people’s ‘reward circuitry’ as an essential part of their youthfulness and an important reason for their ‘sensation seeking’ behaviour (see, for example, Steinberg, 2009; Volkow and Li, 2004).
These accounts of the ‘teen brain’ and the notion of youth they constitute share much with increasingly influential accounts of the ‘addicted brain’. Despite the multiplicity of individual experiences of drug consumption and the complexity of the scientific practices that constitute the neuroscientific notion of addiction, the “explanatory narrative” (Fraser et al, 2014 p. 52) provided is quite a simple one. As with accounts of youth that focus on ‘reward circuitry’, addiction neuroscience emphasises the ‘reward system’ and its putative role in fundamental survival goals such as sex, searching for food, and eating (Hyman, 2005). Drugs that are considered to be addictive are said to ‘hijack’ the natural reward system, causing faulty reasoning and decision-making. The brain then adapts to these changes, increasing and reinforcing the effects of the drug (Fraser et al, 2014 pp. 52–53). Addiction is thus constituted as a “chronic relapsing brain disease caused by a drug-induced dysfunction in neurochemical reward systems” (p. 28). Again like the neuroscience of the teen brain, fMRI and PET scanning is of particular importance to these understandings: addiction medicine relies on comparing scanned images of ‘addicted’ brains to ‘normal’ brains in order to show the differences between them (see, for example, Volkow and Li, 2004; Goldstein and Volkow, 2011). Both the teen brain and the addicted brain appear as the opposite to the fully functioning, rational and ‘normal’ adult brain. With their impulsivity, sensations seeking and lack of self-regulation, the addict and the young person are seen as deviating from and threatening to dominant neo-liberal values of rationality, autonomy and health. As has long been the case for drug use and youth, this interpretation of addicted and teen brains articulates a range of anxieties about the cohesiveness of society (Ayman-Nolley and Taira, 2000; Fitzgerald, 2015).
Critical responses to the neuroscientific approach
These neuroscientific notions of youth and addiction have attracted a range of criticisms from researchers working in the youth and AOD fields. Among these are three shared by both fields. First, neuroscience is criticised as unable to account for the role of social context in subjectivity and conduct (in youth studies, see Bessant, 2008; Bessant and Watts, 2012; Kelly, 2012; and Males, 2009; and in AOD research see Campbell, 2007, 2010, 2012; Keane, 2002; Fraser et al, 2014). Kelly (2012) argues, for example, that the notion of the teen brain effaces the political-economic factors that together constitute what youth is understood to be and young people’s lives generally. Similarly, Males (2009) points out that socio-economic factors are better predictors of drug consumption patterns than universalised accounts of undeveloped rationality. AOD scholars make cognate criticisms of the addicted brain, noting for example that one result of locating drug addiction in individual brains is that the social-material relations that shape drug consumption and addiction are sidelined or erased from view (Alexander, 2008; Campbell, 2010).
The second criticism launched by drug use and youth researchers is methodological: neuroscientific uses of scan data are criticised as weak and lacking in rigour. Do scans really allow us to ‘see’ youth or addiction? In the AOD field, Keane (2002) and Fraser et al, (2014) criticise the notion that PET and fMRI images provide a window into subjectivity, experience, rational thinking or addiction. They take neuroscientists to task for assuming that research practices such as scanning and the interpretation of scans play no role in the constitution of the objects of study, and argue that these technologies do not simply provide a better way of seeing addiction but actively constitute new addictions (Fraser et al, 2014). Similar arguments are made by youth studies scholars. For example, Bessant and Watts (2012) and Kelly (2012) both draw on Dumit’s (2004) ethnography of neuroscientists working with PET scanning technology. Dumit argues that PET scans produce what appear to be simple and compelling “discrete, readable, and colourful” (2012, p. 197) comparisons between normal and abnormal brains. However, often presented in pairs, these neat images obscure the complex assemblage of practices, instruments and choices that go into their production. For example, the delimitation of the boundaries of ‘normal human’ brains is an achievement only made possible through a complex array of research practices which includes emphasising extreme images (those more easily ‘read’ and digested in public and policy settings) (pp. 59–60). Such images capture only a single moment of brain blood flow but are often extrapolated to stand in for ‘types of people’ such as the depressed, normal, adolescent, addicted, schizophrenic and so on.
The third criticism launched by drug use and youth researchers against the neuroscience of youth and the neuroscience of addiction is that its focus on the brain artificially separates the brain from its environment. The version of this argument made in youth studies is in some cases less critical of neuroscience than is the version made by AOD scholars in that it accepts the science of scans, calling only for more careful integration of neuroscientific insights and existing sociological knowledge (for an exception, see Kelly, 2012). In his analysis of the notion of the teen brain as both “gift” and “trap”, Sercombe (2010), for example, engages with neuroscience on its own terms, accepting its production of teen brains via PET and fMRI scans. In Sercombe’s view, the brain is governed by a “use-it-or-lose-it” principle in which those circuits and pathways of most use to survival gain strength and those that are not weaken and disappear (or are ‘pruned’). Thus, for Sercombe (2010), the structure of the brain and therefore individuals’ capacities are intimately shaped by their environment. Although Sercombe (2010) seeks to move away from the separation of the brain from its environment, he relies on essentialised notions of brain development. Gabriel (2013) adds that if the pruning process occurs through experience, and if these experiences are only made meaningful through discourse, then what may otherwise be thought of as ‘natural’ and thus determining – that is, brain structure and development – are more productively conceptualised as an effect of experience shaped by social context.
Approaching the issue from a different perspective, AOD scholars also question the separation of the brain from social context (Fraser et al, 2014; Keane, 2002). However, unlike Sercombe (2010), they do not accept neuroscience on its own terms. Instead, researchers in this area ask searching political and ontological questions about neuroscientific notions of addiction as a brain disease (Campbell, 2010; Courtwright, 2010; Vrecko, 2010). For example, Keane (2002) argues that neurological models of addiction as a brain disease can be criticised as extreme versions of scientific reductionism, neglecting subjective experience, social location and the role of the rest of the drug user’s body beyond the brain. These problems can be identified in the common practice of comparing fMRI and PET images of supposedly non-addicted brains and addicted brains. Such practices constitute a normal, natural brain and a brain corrupted by the external artificial force of drugs. However, as Keane (2002) argues, these same images also “represent the permeability and malleability of the border between what is constituted as the interior space of the brain and the exterior spaces of the social world” (p. 27). In this sense, the chemical notion of the brain suggests that inside and outside, natural and artificial, are unstable categories that require careful construction and reiteration in research practices to maintain them (pp. 29–30). PET and fMRI imagings are two such practices that maintain these distinctions. Significantly, neuroscience suggests that the brain has a natural affinity for the pleasures of drugs which are themselves not qualitatively dissimilar to the pleasures of food, sex and social interaction in that all are mediated through dopamine (also a central actor in constructions of the teen brain). If this is so, then addiction emerges not as a problem of the few, but one of the majority (Alexander, 2008; Fraser et al, 2014). Like youth and the notion of the teen brain, it appears the addict’s brain is in all of us.
To sum up, neuroscientific notions of addiction and youth share many features and assumptions. Both addiction and youth are treated as properties of the brain. Both are characterised in terms of compulsion and irrationality, and both threaten individuals and the productivity and cohesiveness of society. Importantly, both are said to be made literally visible through brain scans, often presented in binary pairs. Like these scans, conceptual binaries are at work in understandings of both concepts too. The notion of the addict/non-addict and the youth/adult both work to neatly position some as immature and inferior and others as mature, coherent and rational. Understood as fundamentally neurological, addiction and youth are both treated as essential entities even as they are measured according to culturally situated markers of rationality, productivity and the good life. In all these ways, addiction and youth are articulated through mutually affirming sets of ideas which, while often analysed separately, can also be seen to support and reproduce each other. This reciprocal dynamic is yet to be addressed in the literatures analysing the neuroscience of addiction and youth, and drug education researchers are yet to scrutinise the turn to the neuroscience of both in drug education. This reciprocally authorising dynamic and its emergence in drug education will be examined more closely in the analysis of the materials to follow.
The analysis to be conducted here is informed by Science and Technology Studies (STS). In the critical social science literature discussed above can be seen an implicit ontological orientation towards constructionism. This is the idea that the world does not pre-exist the practices (such as scientific practices) usually thought to discover or ‘see’ it, rather, the world and the realities it is entailed in are made or co-constituted through such practices (Mol, 2002; Law, 2004; Barad, 2007). STS approaches are exerting increasing influence in qualitative AOD studies, providing researchers with the conceptual tools necessary to engage with the heterogeneity of AOD practices, the instability and unpredictability of AOD effects and the intrinsically political realm of AOD research and policy (see, for example, Dwyer and Moore, 2013; Fraser et al, 2014; Fraser and Moore, 2011, Fraser, 2010; Gomart, 2002; Hart and Moore, 2014). Of particular relevance here is the work of STS scholars John Law and Annemarie Mol, who argue that in their constructedness all phenomena are ontologically multiple. By this they do not mean that there exist many representations of phenomena, for example, of addiction or youth. Rather, addiction and youth are materially constituted in many different ways: over time, in relation to different forces and in different contexts. In this sense, phenomena such as addiction and youth do not have an internally coherent essence. Rather, they are enacted differently through different practices (Mol, 2002; Law, 2004). Importantly, this enactment is an ongoing process. So youth is, for instance, enacted anew in each set of research practices that seeks to study it. Likewise, addiction is constituted anew in each set of research practices seeking to study it. In this sense, research must be understood as a political practice: its enactments create an apparently singular, stable world even as they bring certain realities into being whilst denying others (Mol and Law, 2002). Given the radically open and political nature of phenomena and therefore of reality, Mol (1999) argues, researchers must consider carefully what is at stake when they study (or make) the world in particular ways.
These arguments have important implications for notions of good and ethical research. In a world made up of constituted realities, ‘scientific fact’ loses its privileged position as the transparent arbiter of good knowledge, good research and good responses (such as drug education) (Law, 2004). How then should we make knowledge (and therefore realities), and what role should science play in this process? These questions have also been addressed within STS, in particular in the work of Bruno Latour. In a 2004 article, Latour draws on the work of philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers to argue for a new normative notion of good science, one that is consistent with the recognition that the world comprises multiple constituted realities. In a world in which capturing a singular ‘truth’ is no longer the measure of good science, he says, good science must work to render “talkative what was until then mute” (Latour, 2004 p. 217). Frustrated by the capacity of scientists to speak as though one account – theirs – can pin down and exhaust realities even as it excludes those it describes, Latour argues against reduction, and in favour of the proliferation of ‘differences’. Good research does not merely reduce phenomena, then. Instead it enacts more differences in phenomena, more possibilities, and therefore makes way for the introduction or enactment of more alternative realities in the world.
What kinds of realities are enacted in drug education, in particular in its engagement with neuroscience and its deployment of the ‘youth brain’ and the ‘addicted brain’?
Does drug education enact novel realities and possibilities of youth, addiction and drug consumption – does it proliferate differences and all the potential this allows – or does it merely reduce: enact taken-for-granted common-sense assumptions about youth, addiction and drug consumption?
Is drug education likely to achieve its aim: the production of young people with increased sensitivity for AOD-related safety and harm?
The analysis conducted here is based on a corpus of 63 drug education resources. These can be divided into two categories: (1) school-based classroom resources and (2) social marketing campaigns designed for public dissemination. The resources were collected between February 2013 and February 2015 as part of a PhD project mapping the way Australian drug education understands young people, their sociality and the role of drug consumption in it. The documents were assembled using two primary strategies: (1) Google searches1 and (2) direct contact with government-funded organisations publishing the material.
Of the original dataset of 63 items, 24 school-based teaching resources and curriculum packs were identified for close analysis as well as 39 individual pieces of social marketing material. All texts chosen for close analysis were published by government departments or government-funded organisations and focused on alcohol and illicit drugs. At time of collection, all materials were available on federal and state government websites that specifically targeted young people. Excluded materials were those designed for primary school-aged children (as these do not relate directly to the constitution of the category ‘youth’) and those produced by religious organisations (as these use atypical knowledge systems and moralities in the Australian context, are not officially endorsed and require a specific analysis outside the scope of this analysis).
The dataset was limited to documents published between 1995 and 2015. This span allowed us to track differences over time as well as differences between settings: school-based spaces and public spaces. Importantly, this period also broadly reflects the establishment and subsequent influence of neuroscience. As noted by Campbell (2012) and Bessant and Watts (2012), neuroscience first began to influence the AOD and youth fields in the 1990s and has grown since then. Indeed, this historical trajectory is reflected in our corpus. Explicit use of neuroscientific understandings of youth brains and addiction began to appear in the early 2000s and has become increasingly explicit over time. In this sense, our corpus reflects developing trends in educational strategies for drug education in classrooms, and for health promotion in general. It also charts the stabilising practices holding together certain accounts of youth and drugs over time.
The drug education curriculum packs analysed here are made up of structured lesson plans and activities. Usually colourful and interactive, they outline AOD-related situations and problems for young people to analyse in classroom settings. Role plays, board games, quizzes and ‘true or false’ exercises are all common. The social marketing materials we analyse attempt to engage audiences in different ways. Lacking the formalised access to young people available to the school-based resources, the social marketing materials use eye-catching slogans and colourful, attention-grabbing imagery. Information is often organised into simple categories such as ‘short-term’ and ‘long-term’ effects of drugs. While classroom drug education resources and social marketing differ in many ways, they share certain strategies. They both attempt to constitute a particular rational subject by providing ‘the facts’ (for example on the addictiveness of drugs). They also work in an emotive register, aiming to elicit feelings of shame, disgust and regret in relation to drug consumption (see, for example, Brown and Gregg, 2012; Farrugia, 2014). This mix of rationality and emotion aims to cultivate very specific attitudes. The literature exploring how young people relate to drug education and health promotion campaigns is limited, but what research is available suggests that appeals to scientific certitude can stimulate scepticism (Farrugia and Fraser, 2016), while attempts to instil shame and regret may fail altogether (Brown and Gregg, 2012). As will become clear, the materials we examine also emphasise facts and rational decision-making, with the facts carefully curated and presented to invoke emotions and to render abstinence the only rational choice. Overall, both classroom and social marketing materials articulate a range of drug problems for young people to identify and learn from. In doing so, as we will show, they also offer accounts of addiction and youth.
As we have already noted, our aim in this article is to consider the ways youth and addiction are constituted in the drug education materials outlined above, and examine the ways each is entailed in the other. We begin with a simple example of the place of neuroscience in drug education by examining the pamphlet, Drug Smart (2006), a social marketing resource produced by the New South Wales state government’s Department of Health. This colourful document begins with a warning to young people that when it comes to information about alcohol and other drugs “sometimes fiction gets in the way of fact”. One such fact that must be rescued from the shadow of fiction is that “drinking alcohol before you are 18 can affect your brain development and make it harder to learn and remember things in the future” (p. 1). Here alcohol is presented as especially dangerous for young people because their brains are not yet fully developed. In making this argument the resource relies on the neuroscientific account of youth and its idea that consuming alcohol affects and therefore endangers vulnerable young brains.
Mirroring material in other resources we analyse later, this account relies on neuroscientific understandings of the young brain to enact disrupted development as one of the primary dangers of alcohol. Here alcohol is enacted as a stable chemical substance, its effects naturalised as stemming from neurotoxicity. On the same page under the heading “Alcohol dependency”, we read that “experiencing problems with it [alcohol]” can be “related to changes that are occurring in the adolescent brain” (p. 12). Visible here is a reliance on neuroscience to convince young people to abstain from alcohol consumption. In this instance, notions of the developing and dependent brains are mobilised in ways that reflect and reproduce each other. Other resources rely on similar accounts of drug effects and the young brain to present the dangers of illicit drugs.
Heavy drinking in adolescence is […] likely to have a negative effect on healthy brain development. The human brain is still developing until the mid-20s. Alcohol is a neurotoxin and can disrupt important changes that are occurring in the brain during this period.
Here, ecstasy is enacted as a singular substance that works in a singular way: by speeding up the nervous system. Serotonin levels are reduced as part of this process. This effect, young readers are told, may be permanent. In consuming ecstasy, it seems, young people change their brains and thus who they are, in potentially irreversible ways.
Heavy users [of ecstasy] report symptoms of depression (such as lethargy and mood swings), decreased concentration skills and memory damage. This is because the serotonin in the brain is reduced by ecstasy use. Animal studies indicate that this serotonin depletion can be long-lasting (up to three years) and may even be permanent.
Again, the account is one of the negative effects on the brain: the drug ‘floods’ receptors, potentially resulting in a total loss of the ability to experience pleasure. As with the account of ecstasy, neurochemicals (here, dopamine and monoamines) are central. In placing chemical reward at the centre of the narrative, liking, or pleasure, comes to be replaced with needing, and drug use is easily rendered as addiction. Disordered individuals are consumed by a practice and a drug the pleasures of which they are no longer able to enjoy (Fraser et al, 2014). By explicitly locating drug effects and addiction in brain receptors, this resource enacts complex substances long known to be connected to many different practices and experiences (Fraser and Moore, 2011) as singular. These, readers are told, are the ‘real facts’.
WHAT IT DOES: […] The drug works by flooding the brain’s receptors with monoamines. With repeated use, these receptors are killed off, so that the user is unable to feel pleasure at all without more ice. Hence its highly addictive nature.
Like the social marketing material already discussed, this resource places the brain at the centre of drug consumption. The language of ‘neuro-adaptation’ recalls the notion of the hijacked brain, the rewiring of which leads to addiction/dependence. Indeed, the reference to withdrawal gestures towards dependence, and the concept is defined more formally on the same page:
Accumulative cannabis toxicity increases the likelihood of an adverse response. Neuro-adaptation may occur leading to the risk of withdrawal symptoms upon ceasing use.
In this example, the vulnerable, adaptable, brain (here the young brain) may come to be a dependent brain. In this way, young people are presented with a causal chain in which the brain adapts to cannabis and goes on to develop dependence. The abject addict stands in here as the unavoidable endpoint of illicit drug use. This linear narrative offers the addicted brain as a warning to young people of what can happen if they fail to protect their brains. The enactment of the abject addict here also operates to frame drug ‘choices’ in very rigid terms. In positioning addiction as the unavoidable result of the ‘choice’ to consume drugs, the materials go beyond providing health information for making choices. Rather, as has been identified in drug education curriculum in the past, they constitute the ‘right’ choice, abstinence (Blackman, 2004; Farrugia, 2014; Tupper, 2008). To choose otherwise is to fail both oneself and society generally (Farrugia, 2014). In this way, the use of neuroscience in drug education stigmatises people who consume drugs and ‘addicts’ and fails to provide robust conceptual resources for reducing harm.
A person becomes dependent on the substance after prolonged or heavy use over time. They feel a need to take the drug consistently to feel ‘normal’ and avoid unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. They may develop a need to consume more of the drug to attain the same effect or feel less benefit from their usual dose (tolerance).
Here, we encounter an apparent contradiction in that the notion that drug effects are primarily the product of brain function appears to separate the drug and the brain from their context. At best, this enacts the three elements (drug, individual, environment) as ontologically distinct entities that then merely ‘interact’, at worst it discounts context altogether. In both cases, drug effects are to some extent naturalised: in the first because pre-existing stable, natural phenomena (drugs as pharmacological entities, brains as physiological entities) are given priority over environment, and in the second because drug effects are seen solely as the product of pharmacology and physiology.
A psychoactive drug is a chemical substance that acts primarily upon the central nervous system where it alters brain function, resulting in temporary changes in perception, mood, consciousness and behaviour. When cannabis is used, THC is absorbed into the bloodstream and carried to the brain (NP)
Using in larger amounts or for longer than intended
A persistent desire to use cannabis
Unsuccessful efforts to control use
Spending a long time trying to obtain, use and/or recover from cannabis
Continuing to use cannabis despite knowing the physical and psychological effects of cannabis (NP)
Here we can see the way Climate enacts a particular relationship between brains and drugs that produces the possibility of addiction. Addiction is defined by a range of behavioural criteria such as spending time obtaining cannabis and consuming it despite knowing the effects. Notably in this last point, negative effects are assumed to outweigh positive effects and motivation to pursue consumption is presented as the effect of pathological addiction rather than reasoned desire for pleasure despite ‘risks’. Such logics constitute missed opportunities to recognise and capitalise on the multiple enactment of addiction itself. Pointing to time commitments (spending a long time trying to get cannabis), for example, indicates that addiction is constituted by culturally specific understandings of what should be prioritised in life and what is a ‘good’ use of time. Rather than focusing on the social contexts that frame, shape and give meaning to drug use practices, however, readers are merely presented with the developmental endpoint of addiction, directly caused by a singular chemical substance. At best, this approach fails to capitalise on opportunities for learning and at worst actively works to limit young people’s harm-reducing agential capacities.
Significantly, this impulsive youth brain is very similar to that of the addicted (dependent) brain. Both are compromised compared to normal ‘adult’ brains and both are more susceptible to influence from external stimuli. Also, as we have seen, the nature of both states, addiction and youth, can be observed via neuroimaging. The key difference between youth and addicted brains lies in temporality. The impulsivity and other problems posed by the youthful brain are thought of as an essential but transient stage of development. If all things proceed as expected, the youth brain will continue on its linear developmental path into rational adulthood. Linked with, but in contrast to, this developing youth brain is the addict’s brain: a stalled, developmentally failing brain, one that is caught forever in a stage of youthful impulsivity and irrationality. There is an important connection here: both are ‘impulsive’, lack self-control and make poor decisions. In this way, the youth and the addict are articulated as the opposite to the ideal neo-liberal self-regulating individual (Fraser et al, 2014). The image of the addicted brain and the addict serves as a warning to young people of where they could end up and the kind of person they could become. This consistent focus on addiction is thus one part of a broader regulation of young people’s development in which they are enjoined to achieve rational adulthood and therefore full personhood and the status of worthy subjects. The flipside of this is that at this stage in their development young people are indeed compromised subjects primarily defined by their deficient brains.
individuals with an impulsive nature are thought to be at greater risk of substance use uptake than those without … of particular relevance [are] young people who are in a stage of neurocognitive development which is associated with heightened levels of impulsivity … neuroimaging studies have shown that compared to adult brains, adolescent brains show a heightened response to novel stimuli, suggesting a greater vulnerability to initiating substance use … As such, smoking cannabis can progress to further frequent use via increases to impulsivity. [references omitted]
As argued earlier, such treatments invite us to locate the essence of drug effects and youthfulness in the brain. We are also invited to adopt the now familiar notion that the youth brain is fundamentally impaired. Young people’s pre-frontal cortex is not fully developed and as such their ability for ‘rational thinking’ is reduced. This does not stabilise until later in life and until this point must be carefully protected.
During adolescence the brain undergoes a lot of changes. As it is still developing, it is more sensitive to alcohol and alcohol may affect how the brain develops.
Areas of the brain that may be particularly vulnerable to alcohol’s effects are those that are involved in decision making, memory and emotions…
Different parts of the brain develop at different rates as we grow, and depending on whether we are male or female. One example is the pre-frontal cortex, which houses the part of the brain that controls rational thinking. This part of the brain does not begin to mature until age 19 and only fully matures by around age 21 in women and age 28 in men. Therefore damage to the pre-frontal cortex during its development can have life-long consequences for memory, personality and behaviour.
Central to this account is the parallel it draws between maturity and the capacity for rational thought, and the implication that such rational thought constitutes a higher stage of development – one that the young people being addressed have not yet reached. In relying on this developmental narrative, these resources betray the continuing influence of nineteenth-century progressivist education principles (Tupper, 2014). Here drug education attempts to usher young people into the next stage of their development into rational and civilised adulthood. This perspective, steeped in pseudo-scientific binaries of savage/civilised and owing much to nineteenth-century colonial project, stretches beyond vice education (Tupper, 2014) and can be traced into more general enactments of youth and ‘adolescence’ (Lesko, 2001). By enacting rational thinking as a capacity to be developed and a capacity that can be lost to addiction, these resources construct an ideal of the internally coherent, fully rational and developmentally complete adult. This stable, responsible adult is posed as the opposite of both the addict and the young person. This account has been further criticised as underestimating the complexities young people already negotiate (schooling, employment and social relationships), and the reasoned thinking they must bring to these negotiations (Wyn and White, 1997). The account also assumes that to do anything other than protect the brain through abstinence is to behave irrationally (Farrugia, 2014). Enacting drug consumption as intrinsically irrational in this way creates a circular logic, working to fulfil the predictions of developmental narratives that assume young people are inherently prone to compromising themselves and are thus at high risk of developing an addicted brain.
In analysing the production of youth and addiction in drug education, it is also important to note that other realities are also done ‘along the way’ in such accounts (Law, 2011). Gender is one such reality of concern here. By arguing that the brains of men and women ‘mature’ at different rates, this resource works to enact biological sex. As with the treatment of drug effects and brain chemistry in general, biology is prioritised here over the social process of gendering in explaining youth AOD practices. The implications of this biology of difference are serious. Not only does it serve to naturalise gendered behaviour in a mode that is no longer credible since the advent of second wave feminism and the many subsequent critiques of simplistic biological explanations of social conduct including gender (Butler, 1990; Gatens, 1996; Grosz, 1994), it also offers an exculpatory discourse to young men and not to young women. Indeed, it can be seen as complicit in the gendered moralising so often at work in health promotion campaigns (see, for example, Brown and Gregg, 2012; Farrugia, 2017).
Familiar narratives of youth and addiction
The neuroscientific accounts of youth and addiction found in Australian drug education are relatively new, yet the narratives on which they rely are not. Irrational, impulsive and developmentally incomplete young people risk becoming irrational, impulsive and developmentally incomplete addicts. What is behind the popularity of the neuroscientific approach and its reproduction of commonplaces of youth and addiction? Recalling other medicalising approaches, proponents argue these enactments are less stigmatising than others. As Campbell (2010) notes, however, neuroscientific accounts of the addicted brain are easily reworked in popular culture to support established moral ideologies of personal responsibility and choice (p. 97). Perhaps the ready assimilation of neuroscience into existing moralising discourses of addiction is no surprise. In reproducing addiction as a problem of the individual, caused by problematic drug consumption and the biological processes built into drugs and brains, alternative understandings are neglected. Much the same can be said of these accounts of youth and their unfinished brains. Linking ‘troubling behaviour’ such as drug use to the impulsive young brain, as is most clearly evident in the Cannabis and Consequences II teaching notes, enacts youth as an individual biological problem with little relationship to the socio-cultural forces within which young people negotiate their lives. Both enactments attempt to construct biological truth according to culturally produced notions of responsibility, good judgment and health. Addiction remains an issue of personal conduct, and those who consume drugs are seen to do so at the expense of unanimously held values of productivity and the good life. They are, as such, intrinsically disordered (Fraser et al, 2014). Similarly, these enactments of youth take for granted that reason, restraint and ‘troubling behaviour’ are self-evident, objective categories rather than historically, socially, and culturally emergent and specific (Bessant, 2008). It is striking that, despite its status as a ‘new’ field of scientific understanding, neuroscience reproduces the very same notions of impulsivity, emotionality and irrationality found in the very earliest psychological enactments of youth (see, for example, Hall, 1904). This reiteration of historically entrenched attitudes to youth and addiction suggests that part of the enthusiasm for these particular neuroscientific enactments may arise from their affirmation of existing prejudices and moral orders (in youth studies see, Kelly, 2012; in AOD research see, Campbell, 2007).
Neuroscientific accounts and the goals of drug education
In their reproduction of existing ideas of addiction and youth via the discourse of a new and value-free science, neuroscientific accounts of youthful and addicted brains conspicuously fail Latour’s call for a better science. They do not, we might say, introduce new ‘talkative’ phenomena into the world (Latour, 2004). Of course, novelty cannot be the only arbiter of good science. Of more importance for drug education is whether relying on these commonplace accounts of addicted and youthful brains is likely to increase young people’s agential capacity to reduce harm traditionally thought of as drug-related, and increase their capacity for safety in the context of drug use. The neuroscientific accounts of youth and addiction presented in drug education fail in this regard too. In treating youthfulness as an inherently disordered state defined by lack of self-control, the resources do not provide young people with any conceptual resources commensurate with safer drug consumption. Instead, the young targets of the materials are merely informed that they occupy an intrinsically problematic developmental stage the only cure for which is time. Until this time has elapsed, their capacity to practice the restraint demanded of them is fundamentally limited. The enactments of addiction found in the resources assemble an even more reductive reality. Young people are informed that if they consume drugs they will permanently kill the receptors in their brains, rendering them unable to experience pleasure, forever slaves to a practice they no longer enjoy. In enacting realities of youth and addiction in these ways, drug education offers few ‘differences’, homogenising and generalising drug use, youth experience and risk even to the point of implausibility, declining to enact alternative realities that may have harm reducing potential. What might these alternative realities look like? A growing social science literature points to the merit in recognising that drug consumption emerges in complex social relations, is bound up in productive practices of intimacy and trust, takes meaning from space as well as subjectivity, and addresses pleasure, care and risk as contingent and multiple rather than determined and singular (see, for example, Farrugia, 2015; Fraser, 2013; McLeod, 2014; Duff, 2015; Pennay, 2012; Race, 2015).
Before closing, it is important to consider a contrary trend in neuropsychopharmacology that has the potential to complicate neuroscientific enactments of youth and addiction in drug education. Throughout this article, we have focused on the neuroscientific enactment of addiction as a chronic relapsing brain disease (Fraser et al, 2014). However, neuroscientific investigations of ‘psychedelic’ drugs raise important issues here. Unlike the focus on dopamine evident in research on addiction and ‘addictive drugs’, investigations of psychedelics drugs such as psilocybin (MacLean et al, 2011), ayahuasca (Soler et al, 2016) and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) (Carhart-Harris et al, 2016) place a specific serotonin receptor (5-HT2A) at the centre of these drugs’ effects. Here, addiction is not seen as a primary, or even likely, danger of consuming such drugs, despite the pleasure with which they are associated. Rather, certain substances such as ayahuasca (OsÓrio et al, 2015) and psilocybin (MacLean et al, 2011) are lauded as having therapeutic potential (for an exploration of the educational potential of psychedelic drugs see, Tupper, 2003). Clearly, even within neuroscience, the relationship between the brain and drugs and the potential for addiction remain controversial. This further suggests that many of the realities so confidently enacted in drug education would be better approached as provisional and contestable. This is not to argue that these findings should simply be taken as truths. Rather, in line with the approach we have developed in our analysis, we can say this research enacts specific realities rather than stable facts. Importantly, these realities offer the opportunity to introduce new sensitivities into established realities of dangerous and addictive drugs. As such, future drug education attempting to engage with drug consumption and pleasure more constructively could attend to these research areas. As drug education stands, the multiple realities enacted in its mobilisations of the neuroscience of youth and addiction limit its potential to articulate harm-reducing realities and sensitivities.
In this article, we have identified and explored the co-constitutive relationship that operates between neuroscientific articulations of addiction and youth. Our analysis of drug education documents teased out specific empirical examples of the ways in which notions of addicted brains and undeveloped youth brains draw on and reproduce each other. In the focus on reward systems and dopamine and diminished capacity for reason, and the claim that one can literally ‘see’ subjective states, neuroscientific enactments of addiction and youth constitute a singular view of the normal rational adult subject, producing along the way equally singular (but abnormal) youth and addicted subjects.
The purpose of this article has not been to comment on the subjective relevance of these resources for the young people targeted by them. Our method is not suited to this aim, and we make no assumptions about audience response (notably, however, we have argued elsewhere that scepticism is not uncommon among Australian young people – see Farrugia and Fraser, 2016). Instead we have asked important ethical and political questions about the implications of the use of these concepts in drug education. We have asked, for example, whether the encounter between neuroscientific notions of youth and addiction in the context of drug education works to produce new directions for harm reduction or simply reproduced existing commonplaces. We have argued that rather than fostering new productive differences, the re-enactment of these concepts in drug education offers young people only reductive accounts of their own impulsivity, lack of reason and lack of competence. In making our point, we have noted that drug education can, and should, be done otherwise. In order to avoid producing harm, drug education might be reorientated to proliferate rather than suppress differences and possibilities (Latour, 2004). Such a project would require drug education to focus on highlighting the potential heterogeneity of drug use practices, to, perhaps more courageously, exceed normative accounts of uncontrollable addiction and incompetent youth. In this sense, drug education could point to the multiple production of realities in practice.
That drug education foster a respect for the complexity of drug consumption practices. This may be achieved by focussing on the heterogeneity of drug consumption practices and their ‘effects’. Here the social contexts that shape and frame drug consumption and its ‘effects’ could be highlighted, for example, religious ceremonies, youth parties, street scenes and so on. In acknowledging pleasure alongside risk, drug education could avoid devaluing the social relations of consumption, preserving credibility and reducing stigmatisation.
That drug education actively engage with the politics of knowledge. Knowledge about alcohol and other drugs could be introduced as intrinsically political and contestable. Classroom exercises could weigh knowledge claims about youth and drugs in the media, scientific materials and elsewhere. For example, common media narratives of ‘drug-related crime’ and popular notions of risky youth are ripe for the analysis proposed here.
That drug education adopt a more nuanced and respectful notion of the young subject. Here recognition could be given to the place of forces beyond the individual brain in shaping agential capacities. This can be achieved by presenting different narratives of consumption that emphasise the many forces that come together to create each event. Written from this perspective, drug education would emphasise young people’s capacity to modulate consumption, practise harm reduction and experience pleasure safely and ethically.
Our suggestions here are particularly important considering that as it stands, rather than enacting new and novel realities of youth and drug consumption, it appears neuroscientific inspired drug education reinstates the status quo of addiction and youth, reinforcing fundamental values of neo-liberal subjectivity, in which drug users and young people always register as second class, especially when they are actively constituted and disciplined through each other via institutional discourses such as that of AOD prevention. In enacting such understandings, drug education does not engage with the heterogeneous and complex nature of young people’s drug consumption practices. Rather than attempting to enact young people with an increased sensitivity for safety and harm, drug education seems to enact and reinforce a deficient youth (Latour, 2004). At the same time, the abject addict is used to police young people’s presumed linear cognitive development, serving as an image of failure and a warning to those who do not protect their brains. Paradoxically, in ordering reality in this way to limit young people’s behaviour and ward off danger, drug education courts it. Where neuroscientific accounts of youth and addiction are mobilised to exclude consideration of new possibilities, competencies and options, important opportunities are lost, opportunities to foster new harm reducing capacities, subjects and realities.
The Google searches were performed using Google’s standard search field, and the search terms: ‘drug education’, ‘drug education resources’, ‘drug education resources for teachers’, ‘secondary drug education’, ‘drug information’, ‘drug info’, ‘harm reduction drug education’, ‘harm reduction resources’, ‘harm minimisation education’ and ‘harm minimisation resources’. After the search results were displayed, teaching resources produced by Australian state and federal government departments, such as the Commonwealth Department of Education, and Training (DET) (formally Commonwealth Department of Education, Science, and Training), were selected for analysis. Some resources were also collected by searching government-funded research centres such as the National Drug Research Institute (Curtin University) and the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (University of New South Wales). This description of the project method first appeared Farrugia (2017).
Available http://www.druginfo.adf.org.au/attachments/085_DIF_teendrinking_complete_4.pdf (Accessed 13/09/16).
Available http://www.drugs.health.gov.au/internet/drugs/publishing.nsf/content/campaign/$file/bkFact.pdf (Accessed 12/09/16).
Accessed online at https://ncpic.org.au/professionals/ (25/06/2015).
The National Drug Research Institute at Curtin University is supported by funding from the Australian Government under the Substance Misuse Prevention and Service Improvement Grants Fund. Suzanne Fraser’s research is supported by Australian Research Council Future Fellowship (FT120100215). The authors state that this manuscript comprises original material that is not under review elsewhere, and that the study on which the research is based has been subject to appropriate ethical review.
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