A Strange Time in the Drug War -- Youth Feel the Heat

For several decades, government money has been pouring into a war on teen drug use, cigarette smoking and unsafe sex. Now that the dust is beginning to settle, the initial effects of this attack are becoming clear, and the outcome is surprising.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just released their 1999 survey of 15,349 high school students on "youth risk behavior." The survey found that teen drug use and cigarette smoking are on the rise, while the number of teens having sex has decreased slightly. It also found that more teens who are sexually active are using condoms.

The percentage of students interviewed who said they smoke marijuana rose from 14.7 percent in 1991 to 26.7 percent in 1999. The number of students who said they had tried marijuana once also increased -- the number jumped from 31.3 percent in 1991 to 47.2 percent in 1999.

Cocaine use also went up: 1.7 percent of the students surveyed in 1991 said they used cocaine at least once in the prior month -- the percentage reached 4 percent in 1999. The number of students who had tried cocaine was 5.9 percent in 1991 and 9.5 percent in 1999.

Big Tobacco has launched several youth smoking prevention campaigns, yet despite their efforts, teen smoking is on the rise. A June 9 Associated Press article compared the CDC youth risk statistics from 1991 with those of 1999. The number of teens interviewed who said they had smoked at least once in the previous month increased from 27.5 percent in 1991 to 34.8 percent in 1999. In 1991, 12.7 percent of teens surveyed said they smoke frequently -- that number rose to 16.8 percent in 1999.

In response to the survey, Brendan McCormick, spokesperson for the Philip Morris Corporation, says that the tobacco corporation is trying to support programs that can help protect kids from making risky decisions. According to the Philip Morris website, the company has a department focused on youth smoking prevention nationally, as well as internationally, with a 1999 budget upwards of $100 million.

The domestic teen smoking prevention programs Philip Morris is involved in include a communications campaign with youth smoking prevention television advertisements, school and community-based youth smoking prevention programs, the We Card program which aims to limit youth access to cigarettes at the retail level, and curricula such as the three-year long Life Skills Training program for middle school students. Developed by Dr. Gilbert Botvin, the director of Cornell University Medical College's Institute for Prevention Research, LST is a drug, tobacco, and alcohol abuse prevention program. Apparently this also does not provide a strong enough message to combat the images of smoking with which teenagers are constantly inundated.

Sex is the one area of the survey which revealed that safer habits are being practiced now than they were 8 years ago. The number of students who reported in the survey that they have had sex decreased from 54.1 percent in 1991 to 49.9 percent in 1999. The number of teens who said they were currently sexually active remained at about 36 percent since 1991. But 58 percent of teens in the 1999 survey said they used a condom -- the 1991 number was 46.2 percent.

In 1999, 90.6 percent of students said they have been educated about AIDS in school -- the 1991 percentage was 83.3.

Marsha Rosenbaum, director of the San Francisco office of the Lindesmith Center, a drug policy research institute says the past decade has seen a shift in sex education largely because of the AIDS epidemic. To address the reality of AIDS an abstinence-only message was replaced by programs which educated young people about safer sex and protection. "The idea that we could tell teens to be abstinent was missing an opportunity to keep them safe," she says.

Luis Fernandez, senior and yearbook editor at San Gorgonio High School in San Bernardino, California, says sex education programs in high school are "almost like being in science class."

Like Rosenbaum, Fernandez says the reality of AIDS hit home to teens. "Teens want to have sex but they don't to risk their teen years or their lives with STDs -- especially AIDS," he says.

Rosenbaum says that drug education should be modeled after sex education. "The best policy [with drug education, like sex education] is to provide as much information as possible and make sure the information is grounded in science."

Rosenbaum believes that a dangerous flaw in drug education and the Drug War message is that many programs continue with a "Just Say No" message and do not provide teens with information they could trust were they to use intoxicating substances.

"I think we have to face up to the reality that teenagers are using intoxicating substances," she says. "No more Reefer Madness -- kids can see through those kinds of scare tactics and then they discount everything adults tell them about drugs."

When asked about the increase in teen drug use through the 1990s, Dr. Laura Kann, head of research at the CDC's Division of Adolescent School Health and co-author of the CDC survey, says there are no simple solutions and that parents, schools, communities, and teens all need to be involved in drug education programs. "These programs should be involved in good science also," she says.

Rosenbaum also wants to see youth drug education programs with a basis in science.

Yet, despite what appears to be a clear statement that "just say no" is not effective, the federal government is moving in from another angle -- that of "get-tough" legislation with none of the nuance or educational edge Rosenbaum and others have suggested.

Beginning July 1, when the new provisions to the Higher Education Act of 1998 are implemented, college students will also begin to feel the heat of the drug war. According to the Act, students convicted of a drug offense can lose their financial aid.

Students from at least 25 college campuses were active in a campaign to fight the provisions, yet their efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. Rep. Barney Frank's (D-MA) legislation to eliminate the financial aid provisions was defeated in the House in May.

The provisions to the Higher Education Act originally determined that students could lose their financial aid for drug convictions accrued prior to receiving aid. Now, under a new amendment enacted June 12, students can only lose their financial aid if convicted while enrolled and receiving aid.

The Drug Reform Coordination Network, a national network which works toward drug policy reform, is taking an active stance against the financial aid provisions. DRC Net Campus Coordinator Steven Silverman, who graduated from the University of Maryland earlier this month, says, "We [those who are fighting the provisions] convinced Congress to amend it."

But the new amendment to the provisions also mandates that students must answer a question regarding drug convictions on the Free Application for Student Financial Aid (FAFSA) in order to receive aid. Not only does the concession dampen the victory of the amendment, it also introduces a racist element into the application process; ethnic minorities -- often the populations most in need of aid -- have higher drug conviction rates than whites, although drug use is not necessarily higher in their communities.

"In essence," says Silverman, "it seems the Congress is trying to close the school doors and open the prison doors."

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