What does being an adult mean? Without getting too bogged down in philosophical questions, most of us would take adulthood to mean the time where we are fully physically developed. Others might even say that adulthood begins when you’re 18, and no longer legally an adolescent. Most of us would also understand it to be the time we are ready to be responsible for our actions — including ones relating to drug and alcohol use.
We’d like to think that the idea of “18” being the age when we become adults is universal and based on science. But it’s important to remember, however, that the threshold of 18 was made less than 200 years ago, when science did not yet fully grasp what biological adulthood truly was. Even at the turn of the 20th century, it was not unusual for teens as young as 12 to be considered grown-up in many circumstances.
The Brain Keeps Growing After 18
Today, however, we know better. Numerous studies and reviews of scientific literature point show that biological adolescence continues well beyond the age of 18 for most people, usually ending in one’s mid-20s. Studies of human brains show that significant development of the kind associated with adolescence continues up to around the age of 25.
When it comes to drug and alcohol use, this has serious implications. One can interpret this as making the legal drinking and cannabis purchasing age of 21 as too low. Additionally, colleges and universities throughout the US are known for tolerating drug and alcohol use on campus in many instances, handwaving it due to many of their students being of the legal age or older.
Binge Drinking May Be More Dangerous Than We Thought
What this means is that many people who engage in binge drinking or heavy drug use might be doing it at a time of their lives where their brains are still uniquely vulnerable.
Biological adolescence is not just obvious physical changes like one’s development of secondary sex characteristics. It is also characterized by high neuroplasticity or brain plasticity, which is the ability of the brain to learn as well as create new cells and connections.
Any behavioral patterns, beliefs, or traumas that are ingrained during adolescence and childhood, when neuroplasticity is high, tend to get deeply embedded during adulthood, when brain plasticity dramatically slows down.
If one develops a substance use disorder (SUD) in adolescence, the data suggests that it may be much more difficult for the individual to seek effective treatment. SUD is typically not as difficult to treat when a person develops it when they are fully-grown adults. This may likely be due to the differences in brain plasticity at these different stages.
Unfortunately, young adulthood is also the same time when experimentation with drugs and alcohol is tolerated, expected, and sometimes encouraged. This means that many are unwittingly engaging in activities that have far more serious consequences than they realize.
Cannabis Use Disorders Affect Teens and Young Adults Disproportionately
Cannabis use is likely to be legal at a federal level within this generation. Recreational cannabis is already legal in varying degrees in many states, though not here in Texas. More importantly, cannabis laws in states where it is illegal are often intentionally unenforced.
What this means is that teens have more access to cannabis, both illicit and legal, than ever before. However, it’s now clear that cannabis, particularly the high potency strains that are widely available, contain concentrations of cannabinoid compounds enough to effectively stop adolescent brains from forming new connections, stunting them.
This can have the two-fold effect of creating a substance use disorder that is not only harder to treat, but also prevents the affected individual’s brain from maturing properly.
Find Age-Appropriate SUD Treatment Today
At present, age groupings for drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs rarely take new understandings of biological adolescence into account. To date, not all facilities and programs are up-to-date on the latest developments in psychiatry and neuroscience. Even if they wanted to, there may be liabilities for grouping legal minors in with adults.
However, that doesn’t mean that there are no good treatment options out there. Our team at Dallas Drug Treatment Centers can help find you some of the best evidence-based drug and alcohol rehab programs in North Texas, for you or a loved one.
Call us at +1(214) 935-2287 to discuss your options or simply to learn more about the risks of adolescent drug use.
- Sampedro-Piquero, P., Santín, L. J., & Castilla-Ortega, E. (2019). Aberrant brain neuroplasticity and function in drug addiction: a focus on learning-related brain regions. Behavioral Neuroscience.
- O’Brien, C. P. (2009). Neuroplasticity in addictive disorders. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 11(3), 350.
- Kalivas, P. W., & O’Brien, C. (2008). Drug addiction as a pathology of staged neuroplasticity. Neuropsychopharmacology, 33(1), 166-180
- Winters, D. E., & Beerbower, E. (2017). Mindfulness and meditation as an adjunctive treatment for adolescents involved in the juvenile justice system: Is repairing the brain and nervous system possible?. Social work in health care, 56(7), 615-635.