Drugs

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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If the availability and price of a drug are constant yet its use goes up or down, it means that a couple of different things could be happening. Perhaps a new drug has hit the streets and has begun to corner the market on a particular kind of high. Or maybe the change isn’t economic but cultural, with changes in use reflecting new levels of approval or disapproval for a certain substance.

The forces that drive these phenomena can be captured only roughly by the Michigan survey, which asked kids about their personal disapproval of using a drug even once, and about the amount of perceived risk associated with taking a drug. If an antidrug campaign actually works, surveys should first show attitudes hardening against the drug, then a decline in its use. In a pro-drug environment, attitudes will soften -- users will see less risk in trying a drug once and will disapprove of it less -- and then, a few years later, use will predictably rise.

The survey also measures "perceived availability," which can affect drug trends as well. Many younger users, studies have shown, get their drugs from other casual users, rather than from a specific dealer. So when there are more casual users of a drug, there are more sources for other casual users. As use declines, those sources disappear and the trend feeds on itself, further bringing use down. When use of a drug goes down among a group of casual users, perceived availability follows it. However, if perceived availability declines at the same time as, or before, a registered drop in use, then the reduction is probably supply- rather than demand-driven.

In the early nineties, kids reported that the supply of their favorite drugs was steady. It was demand that was up.

In a span of five years in the early nineties, "personal disapproval" of marijuana fell by a fifth. Disapproval dropped first for eighth-graders, a year before their use increased, and the same pattern held for the older kids. The number of young people who thought that the drug is dangerous also dropped significantly. Both beliefs are leading indicators in the survey: when kids don’t disapprove and aren’t afraid of a given drug, a rise in use is on the way.

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The high-school class of 1996 was the first one to increase its use of drugs since the across-the-boards decline of the eighties. That group of students had entered kindergarten around 1983, the same year that the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, now D.A.R.E. America, was founded by Los Angeles Police Department chief Daryl Gates.

The idea behind D.A.R.E. is simple. If drug use spreads like a virus, the thinking goes, then inoculating children before they’re exposed could slow the spread. Early on, however, D.A.R.E.’s creators made a decision that has been critical to both its success and its failure: they chose cops as the ones to deliver the vaccine. The current course includes some essay writing and test taking, but it’s mostly about watching and listening as a uniformed officer conducts an intentionally frightening version of show-and-tell.

Using cops as the public face of the organization -- though not surprising, given Gates’s background -- won it a vocal and politically popular champion. Police forces appreciated the rare opportunity to forge relationships with children outside the cops-and-robbers matrix. The police officer as public servant is a role cops understandably enjoy playing. "D.A.R.E. ‘humanizes’ the police: that is, young people can begin to relate to officers as people," offers the organization’s promotional material. "D.A.R.E. permits students to see officers in a helping role, not just an enforcement role."

Officers chosen to be part of the program first go through eighty hours of training in child development, classroom management, and teaching. Those who take on high-school classes get an additional forty hours’ worth. Though versions of the program are available for all grades, D.A.R.E. concentrates on fifth- and sixth-graders. The curriculum is highly standardized, with seventeen sessions focusing on the dangers of drugs and drug addiction, as well as the "Three R’s": "Recognize, Resist and Report." The officer shows the kids what drugs look like and tells stories of lives ruined or ended. He or she teaches students how to avoid peer pressure and how to build their own "self-esteem" -- which, it’s assumed, will give kids the strength to say no.

D.A.R.E. cops often stick around for lunch and recess to talk further with their kids about drugs -- and much else. As a 1988 federal Bureau of Justice Assistance study explains, "Students have an opportunity to become acquainted with the officer as a trusted friend who is interested in their happiness and welfare. Students occasionally tell the officer about problems such as abuse, neglect, alcoholic parents, or relatives who use drugs."

The campaign has succeeded on many fronts, as any parent who’s been scolded for drinking by a young child knows all too well. And it has inspired more than mere scolding. In 1992, a Maryland girl told her D.A.R.E. officer that her parents were growing pot, and they each spent thirty days in jail, according to the Washington Post. Two kids in Boston reported their parents the same year; the year before, a Colorado child called 911 and said, "I’m a D.A.R.E. kid," then told the operator about a baggie of pot that he’d found. A nine-year-old Georgian called the cops after stumbling on some speed in his parents’ bedroom. "At school, they told us that if we ever see drugs, call 911 because people who use drugs need help," said Darrin Davis to a reporter for the Dallas Morning News. "I thought the police would come get the drugs and tell them that drugs are wrong. They never said they would arrest them."

In the forthcoming excerpt: D.A.R.E. backfires, helping to bring about a psychedelic renaissance.

Ryan Grim is the senior congressional correspondent for the Huffington Post and can be reached at ryan@huffingtonpost.com. He is author of "This Is Your Country on Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America (Wiley, 2009).