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This Is Your Country on Drugs: How the DARE Generation Got High

Exclusive from new book shares the '80s generation's encounter with illicit drugs, and how they really caught on.

The following is an excerpt from Ryan Grim's new book, "This Is Your Country on Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America(Wiley, 2009).

In the summer of 1999, the sixties generation celebrated itself by throwing a concert to mark Woodstock’s thirtieth anniversary. The do-over event was organized by the same ponytailed businessman who’d put the first one together, and typical of something organized by an aging boomer, it was a corporate shit show. Pizza sold for six dollars a slice, and in the middle of a heat wave, water cost four dollars for a tiny bottle. For those who couldn’t make it to the concert in upstate New York -- at a Superfund-listed former U.S. Air Force base -- the entire festival was available on pay-per-view.

More than 200,000 young people did show up, though. And unlike their gate-crashing parents, they paid $150 each to get in.

The sixties crowd might have lost their idealism somewhere along the way, but their children showed some antiestablishment -- or at least antisocial -- spirit on the last day of the festival, breaking into a riot, setting fires, looting vendor booths and ATMs, and allegedly raping four female concertgoers.

It’s a notorious instance of the way that boomers’ children simultaneously embraced and rejected the mythology of the sixties. A less-well-known manifestation of that attitude involves those kids’ drug use: during the mid- to late nineties, American teens got as high as any group of young folks since the seventies, right under the noses of the people who had kicked off the last national indulgence.

For most of American history, drug-use trends among younger and older people have moved roughly in harmony -- if not to the same degree, then at least in the same direction. The late sixties were an exception: use rose first among college students and then increased among high schoolers and the rest of the country. Since then, young people have been the leading indicator of drug trends.

The next deviation was in the nineties. In 1991, eighth-graders, according to their answers to the University of Michigan Monitoring the Future survey category concerning "any illicit drug," started getting high more often. But no other segment of the population did. The next year, eighth-, tenth-, and twelfth-graders all showed increases in use, while college-student and adult use remained largely flat. The trend continued over the next few years, as middle- and high-school students continued to show more drug use while older groups’ use remained steady.

By 1996, tenth-graders were doing more drugs than their adult counterparts. In 1997, their use equaled that of college students; by 1998, it had eclipsed college-age use. The wave broke that year, as eighth-graders finally reported a decline in drug use. As those younger kids grew up, they took their temperate ways with them, and at the very end of the decade, use among tenth- and twelfth-graders took a downturn. By 2004, tenth-graders were once again using drugs less often than college students and adults. The party didn’t completely die down, however: Twelfth-grade use, even while eighth- and  tenth-grade use fell, stayed roughly constant.

The Michigan researchers who first noticed the trend call it a "cohort effect." The pattern is clearly visible moving through the charts over time. Take cocaine use: among eighth-graders, it rose from 1991 to 1998; among tenth- and twelfth-graders, from 1992 until 1999; among college students, beginning in 1994; and among young adults, starting in 1996. Clearly, these are the same people doing coke.

Understanding why begins with recognizing that the survey numbers are only a partial reflection of the reality of drug distribution and consumption.

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