He’s Spending His Earnings on Drugs

A new Allies in Recovery member wonders what role—if any—he and his wife can play to prevent their 18-year-old son from spending his work earnings on drugs.

This post originally appeared on our Member Site blog, where experts respond to members’ questions and concerns. To sign up for our special offer and benefit from the Allies in Recovery eLearning program, click here.

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My wife and I are new to this site. Our 18yo son has been diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Over the past year he has developed an addiction to marijuana (dabs) and is growing addicted to benzos (xanax). Since he does not have a prescription he buys his benzos from friends, but there is no guarantee they are not spiked with something even worse.

We know that in various ways that we have been enabling his drug use and are trying to scale those activities back. One way is money. He has a part time job (still in high school) but he does not have free access to the money that he earns. A few months ago we found out that he was ordering research chemicals online so we took away his debit card to prevent him from ordering more. Now when he gets paid he gives us his check and we give him some (roughly half) of his money and put the rest in a separate account. Even though he does not have access to all his money he still manages from time to time to get ahold of benzos, which is the main drug we’re afraid of.

By us giving him the cash that he earns from work, is that enabling him? Would it be better to give him control of his debit card and make him responsible for his own cash so we’re not seen as financing his usage? We’re so afraid he’ll just spend all his money on street xanax and drive himself further into addiction, or possibly death due to a fentanyl-laced pill. What are your opinions?”


The CRAFT approach is by far the best option— Dominique Simon-Levine presents options for ‘controlling’ their son’s spending

Welcome to the site. Your son is still a teenager and is living at home. In theory, you have more control over him and how he accesses and spends money. I say “in theory” because teens can still ignore a parent and do as they please. The elements of CRAFT that we teach on this site through the Learning videos— showing respect, positive communication and listening skills, boundary setting, and engaging/supporting treatment—apply equally well to those over 18 as well as those under 18. These CRAFT elements are the best studied and most successful ways to interact with someone who has a problem with drug or alcohol use. Confronting, dominating, and exerting your authority over someone doesn’t work well regardless of age.

It sounds though as your son accepts the limits placed on his earned money. Hurray, we’ll take it.


Access to money when drugs are a concern

Access to money for someone actively using drugs or alcohol is a central concern. You are right to be writing in with your question. It is a concern many of us have on this site.

We recently wrote a post related to this issue of money (He’s Bullying Me for Drug Money)

It is a vastly different reality to be parenting a child at high risk of addiction. Faced with this situation, parents often feel torn between wanting their loved one to learn how to handle money and to feel the reinforcing effects of money as a reward for working, and the real possibility that they may use the money to buy drugs.

Any cash is likely to be diverted to drugs. For as long as you still can, it’s worth seriously limiting his access to cash. This is a short-term and partial solution but it is one strategy worth pursuing.


Other options also exist

A partial solution is the Integrity Card we mention in the referenced post above. The card gives a person spending options (money is put on the card) but the card-holder’s purchases are limited to those that are safe. We normally don’t promote particular treatment entities. From time to time though, we will point out innovations in recovery supports that are out there.

I wonder how well a recovery debit card would solve the immediate problem?

(You probably already know that individuals who use drugs are quite resourceful, so, spoiler alert, the card can probably be circumvented. I worked with the parents of a young woman who returned everything she had ever been given to the store for cash. Your son could also offer to pay for someone’s Starbuck’s coffee and get the cash in return. Nothing is 100% guaranteed. But the card at least puts a few more roadblocks in place when it comes to your loved one’s spending).

I also want to stress that an 18-year-old is already very likely a seasoned drug user. At 18, many have been dabbling, using, abusing drugs for 5 to 6 years on average, plenty of time for chemical obsession and life problems to have developed.

Try telling your son…

  • We are proud that you are working and we know that (or….we are concerned that) cash in your pocket makes buying drugs very attractive to you. It makes perfect sense to us, as the need for a drug becomes more and more central to your life.
  • We love you but we hate the drug use. We are terrified that the drugs are going to get the best of you, that we will lose you. Because of this, we have figured a way to give you your earnings back in a debit card. This will limit your spending on safe, non-using purchases. So here is all your earnings in this kind of debit card. I think this card helps both of us. You get all your earnings, we get a better night’s sleep. What do you say?

If the card is not a solution, the other suggestion is to monetize the privileges he receives from you. You could allow use of the car (already gassed up), the cell phone, clothes, tech gadgets…. He is 18 after all, so you could argue that it’s time to shift responsibility for these items onto him. You then deduct the privileges from his pay.  This goes for rent, utilities, food….again, as he is now an adult.


Which came first, the anxiety or the drug use?

One last thing. It is largely futile at this stage to figure out which came first (did the anxiety and depression lead to drug use or did the drugs lead to anxiety and depression?). Either way, getting your son engaged into some mental health counseling (and possible psychiatry), or a young person’s “at risk” group, will address the underlying vulnerability that may be driving your son to use pot and benzodiazepines.

If he is not already receiving treatment, use the strategies outlined in Learning Module 8 (available to members) to shepherd him into treatment. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, an evidence-based approach (see our Resource Supplement, available on our member site), can help your son become aware of what is causing the hard emotions and provide alternative steps he can take to calm those emotions. These are critical life lessons. One of my favorite clinicians is fond of saying, “DBT should be required for anyone over the age of 2.”

Thank you for writing in. Let us know how things progress.

Yes, the family DOES have a role to play. Your stance, behavior, and choices DO make a difference. At Allies in Recovery we are absolutely convinced of this. “Tough love” is not a successful technique. Our learning platform is set up to help family members learn the techniques that will reduce conflict, build that bridge of communication, and be effective in guiding your loved one into treatment. Together we will move your loved one towards recovery. Learn more here.


By | 2018-03-09T17:22:59+00:00 February 22nd, 2018|CRAFT|

About the Author:

Dominique Simon-Levine
Dominique launched Allies in Recovery in 2003. Her work has been featured on HBO and NPR. She is a facilitator and a trained speaker on issues of addiction and the family. She has worked extensively developing and evaluating federally-funded substance abuse programs for organizations and clinics throughout Massachusetts and New York. With an interest in recovery and substance abuse that spans 20 years, she sees a huge need to help families develop the skills that will help a loved one recover fully in a supportive, whole, and lasting way in their families and in their communities. Her mission is to have Allies in Recovery fill that gap.

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