How the Drug War Harms, Not Helps, Kids
When George W. Bush recently revealed his drug war plan, which would pull another $2.7 billion from federal coffers to end the illegal narcotics trade, his speech was all about the children. "The job of protecting our children falls to us," he pontificated, calling drugs "the enemies of innocence and hope and ambition."
This year the federal government will spend more than $18 billion to, in Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey's words, "protect the lives of 68 million American children." Two-thirds of that money will be spent on interdiction and enforcement, an effort that McCaffrey says is aimed at "keeping drugs out of the hands of young people." State and local governments are expected to spend twice that much.
But is the drug war really protecting our children? Are our tax dollars, our booming prison industry, our international military aid really keeping illicit drugs away from our kids? The evidence suggests that far from keeping kids safe, drug prohibition actually gives kids more access to drugs, and that the drug war makes their world more dangerous in numerous other ways.
Marijuana is unquestionably the most commonly used illicit substance in America. There were more than 800,000 marijuana arrests in 1999, 85 percent for simple possession. Enforcement of marijuana laws accounts for the largest proportion of domestic drug war spending -- McCaffrey has repeatedly touted "a 12 year-old smoking a joint" as "the most dangerous drug in America."
Yet the University of Michigan's "Monitoring the Future" survey of 8th, 10th and 12th graders indicates that despite our best efforts at enforcement, nearly 80 percent of 10th graders and nearly 90 percent of 12th graders rate marijuana as "fairly easy" or "very easy" to obtain. Those numbers are up slightly since 1992, the first year for which such data exists. As for other illicit drugs, in 1999 cocaine was "easily" available to 25 percent of 8th graders, methamphetamine was "easily" available to 41 percent of 10th graders, and LSD was "easily" available to 45 percent of high school seniors.
Critics of current U.S. drug policy argue that a system of legal, regulated distribution of currently illicit drugs would place these markets under the control of responsible society. But McCaffrey has ridiculed the idea, telling the House Government Reform criminal justice panel on June 16, 1999 that, "American parents clearly don't want children to use a fake ID at the corner store to buy heroin."
The irony, of course, is that under prohibition there are no enforceable age restrictions on the purchase of illegal drugs. The corner store that sells alcohol might lose its state license if it sells booze to minors. But out on the corner itself, no one gets carded.
A survey conducted in 1998 by the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (www.casacolumbia.org), a non-profit organization under the direction of former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph Califano, underscores this point. The survey asked 9th through 12th graders which was easiest for them to buy: cigarettes, beer or marijuana. While each age group listed cigarettes as easiest, twice as many ninth graders and a remarkable four times as many 12th graders listed marijuana as easier to buy than beer.
History shows that we should not be surprised by these statistics. While alcohol prohibition was adopted under the banner of protecting children, its utter failure in that regard was noted most vividly by those on the front lines. In 1925, Salvation Army Colonel William L. Barker told the St. Cloud (Minnesota) Press, "Prohibition has diverted the energies of the Salvation Army from the drunkard in the gutter to the boys and girls in their teens," he said. "The work of the Army has completely changed in the past five years... Prohibition has so materially affected society that we have girls in our rescue homes who are 14 and 15 years old, while 10 years ago the youngest was in the early twenties." Protecting children, in fact, later became a rallying cry for prohibition's repeal.
In addition to being widely available, the drugs being distributed by the underground market today are both more pure and less expensive than ever before. According to the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention, Global Illicit Drug Trends 1999, "Over the past decade, inflation-adjusted prices in Western Europe fell by 45 percent for cocaine and 60 percent for heroin. Comparative falls in the United States were about 50 percent for cocaine and 70 percent for heroin."
That same report indicates that in the US, the purity of heroin on the streets has skyrocketed from around 6 percent in 1987 to an average purity of around 37 percent, with some street heroin testing out at 60 percent by 1997.
The dangers to children of such purity levels are twofold. First and most obvious is the increased risk of overdose at such levels, especially given wide fluctuations in purity between one dose and the next. Less obvious, but more pernicious is the ease of entrée into heroin use that such potency provides to young people. At 6 percent purity, injection was the only viable mode of administration. At current levels, however, the drug can be snorted or even smoked, making it more accessible to novice users who would otherwise have shied away. Snorting or smoking heroin, of course, can also be addictive and is likely to lead to IV use in people who do become dependent.
"Rising purity, falling prices and broad availability don't say much for the success of decades of escalating enforcement of drug prohibition," says Kevin Zeese, president of the non-profit Common Sense for Drug Policy (www.csdp.org). "[Drug Czar] Barry McCaffrey says that we are turning the corner in our fight against drugs. If that's true, then American parents ought to be very concerned about what horrors are lurking around that corner."
In spite of our efforts to keep kids abstinent, the Monitoring the Future Survey has found that over the 12 years of the survey's existence, between 40 and 60 percent of high school seniors admit that they've tried an illegal drug at least once. In 1999, the figure was 54 percent.
It would be reasonable, then, to assume that some significant portion of our school-based drug education might be directed at the 50 percent of our kids who have chosen not to "just say no." This would put drug education in line with sex education curricula, which, while urging abstinence, offers students factual information about STD's and birth control to minimize the dangers of saying yes. But Congress insists that federal monies earmarked for drug education be limited to abstinence-only programs. Kids are told that drugs are dangerous, but they are not told that some drugs, and some drug-taking behaviors, are more dangerous than others, and why. Even though such information could make the difference between life and death.
Joel Brown, director of the Center for Educational Research and Development and lead author of "In their Own Voices," (www.cerd.org/FINALOT5.html) one of the largest and most comprehensive studies to focus on school-based drug education in the United States, says that our zero-tolerance approach not only leaves kids in the dark, but also weakens the impact of legitimate health warnings by discrediting the messenger.
"Our research, along with numerous other studies, shows that young people experience a significant emotional disturbance when their educational experience doesn't match their real life experience in regards to drugs," he says.
The consequences can be far reaching. "The challenges they face are much more complex than just being able to say no to drugs," says Brown. "Eventually they must learn to be responsible decision makers with regards to prescription drugs, alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. So the information they receive is not only insufficient, it ill prepares them for the challenging and complex drug decisions that they will face over their lives."
DanceSafe (www.dancesafe.org), a group that provides health and safety information to young people at raves and nightclubs, is one of a handful of organizations that has emerged to fill the vacuum left by government-sponsored drug education. DanceSafe volunteers often provide pill-testing services at these events, letting users find out whether the substance they are about to ingest is in fact what they believe it to be.
"Over the past couple of years, there has been a steady rise in the use of MDMA, Ecstasy, particularly on the club and rave scene," says Theo Rosenfeld, who trains volunteers nationwide. "There are risks associated with ecstasy use, and our volunteers provide that information, as well as advice on how to minimize those risks, especially around dancing and heat stroke. But because the ecstasy market is so lucrative (a single dose of between 80 and 130 milligrams can sell for as much as $35) there are an enormous number of tablets and capsules being sold as MDMA which in fact contain other, often far more dangerous substances, both legal and illegal. In Chicago several months ago, three young people died at a rave after ingesting PMA, a very powerful stimulant, when they thought they were taking ecstasy."
Drug prohibition, Rosenfeld contends, led directly to those deaths along with scores of others.
"There is no labeling on the illicit market," he says. "It would be nice to be able to just tell kids 'hey, you shouldn't be taking drugs at all.' But the reality is that millions of people are doing it despite those admonitions. Prohibition leaves those people, many of them young people, at the mercy of the underground market."
Along with the dangers of drugs themselves, the drug markets fueled by prohibition add yet another temptation -- the siren song of easy money. During the first half of the century, prohibition-era gangsters like Al Capone captured the imagination of a nation. Today, drug prohibition has brought us "gangstas." Young and often from impoverished backgrounds, their relative wealth and power, ephemeral as it may be, beckons strongly to young people with risk-taking personalities and entrepreneurial spirits.
As Mike Gray, author of the book "Drug Crazy: How We Got Into This Mess and How We Can Get Out" notes, "Unfortunately, the young people we're sending up the river are the very ones who hold the keys to the future -- the risk-takers, the entrepreneurs, the organizers who know how to compete in a marketplace that would leave the average businessman gasping for air."
An item in the Miami Herald dated July 30, 1998 illustrates the potency of the "culture of prohibition" on even the very young. According to the Herald, 12 elementary school children in Pompano Beach, Florida came to the attention of local police when they were found playing "drug dealer," handing our baggies of pretend drugs to each other in exchange for play money.
"You expect these little guys to be playing police or firemen but not dope dealer," sheriff's Lt. James Chinn told the Herald. "This hit me right in the face and ruined my day. This is what they see every day."
Given our insistence on prohibition as the one and only acceptable drug control strategy, government response to kids and the drug trade has been predictable, if ineffective. Harsher laws and a growing willingness to charge, sentence and incarcerate minors as adults have cast a wider and wider net of criminalization around youth culture and behaviors. Rarely, if ever do policymakers address the larger issue of why drug markets are so out of control that "the land of the free" has become the world's leading incarcerator of young people.
According to research by the Justice Policy Institute (www.cjcj.org/jpi), between 1985 and 1997, the number of children under 18 incarcerated in adult prisons for drug crimes climbed by more than 1400 percent. Children incarcerated with adults are far more likely to re-offend, to be assaulted, to be raped and to commit suicide than are minors sentenced to juvenile facilities.
Meanwhile, zero tolerance policies and aggressive drug detection practices by police and school officials have made even "good" kids the object of suspicion, and the target of punitive and exclusionary measures.
Anecdotal evidence of zero-tolerance mania abounds, from the would-be valedictorian from Gulf Shores, Alabama who was expelled after a random drug dog search of the school parking lot turned up a tiny amount of unidentified plant matter on the floor of her parents' car; to the Dayton, Ohio 8th grader suspended after she passed a friend a Midol on the school bus for relief of menstrual cramps; to a six year-old in Colorado Springs suspended for sharing a lemon drop with a playmate with the admonition that it would make his friend "strong."
Suspension and expulsion, disciplinary actions once reserved as a means to dispose of the most destructive and disruptive of students, are now commonly invoked as the result of intrusive searches designed to unearth drugs even when no obvious evidence of drug taking or selling exists.
In an age where presidential candidates shrug off their own "youthful indiscretions," young people caught with even tiny quantities of drugs may lose the chances for higher education, let alone higher office. In October of 1998, President Clinton signed into law the Higher Education Act, including a provision that delays or denies federal financial aid to any student for any drug conviction. The provision was shepherded through committee by Rep Mark Souder (R-IN), who defended the provision in USA Today this summer, saying "the law sends a clear message: ACTIONS HAVE CONSEQUENCES, AND USING OR SELLING DRUGS WILL RUIN YOUR FUTURE." (Emphasis Mr. Souder's.)
Students for Sensible Drug Policy (www.ssdp.org), a two year-old student organization that is already active on dozens of campuses nationwide, has used the provision as a rallying point to alert their peers about the failures of the drug war. "We are the generation the drug laws were supposed to protect," reads an SSDP flyer. "It's up to us to stand up and say, this isn't working."
SSDP argues that the provision will be discriminatory, since the drug laws are enforced disproportionately in poorer communities -- overwhelmingly against people of color. In addition, wealthier students who generally do not qualify for -- or need -- federal financial aid face no such extra judicial penalty (judges already had the power to disqualify students of a case by case basis). Finally, they say that withholding educational opportunities is counterproductive if our goal is to empower people to live lawful, productive lives. Last year, Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) introduced a bill to overturn the provision.
Our relentless and punitive prosecution of the drug war against adults, and the subsequent explosion in our prison population has had dire consequences for children as well. Of the more than 2 million Americans behind bars, at least 450,000 are there for non-violent drug offenses. Many of these prisoners are parents. Nora Callahan, director of the November Coalition www.november.org, a non-profit organization of drug war prisoners and their families, says there are over one million "drug war orphans" in America. These children, with one or both parents serving time, are more than five times as likely as other kids to end up in prison themselves.
"Many of these kids never get to see their parents, who are often sent to facilities hundreds or even thousands of miles from home," said Callahan. "If they do see them, it's in the context of a prison visit, which can itself be traumatizing. Many are unlikely to be reunited with mom or dad until well into their own adult years, if ever. Whatever one might think about the drug war, about prohibition, even about non-violent drug offenders, the fact is that we are destroying the lives of an inordinate number of children who themselves have done nothing wrong. And, very likely, we are breeding the next generation of inmates."
We teach our children that drugs kill, but the drug war exacts its own casualties as well. On the streets of our cities and towns, a perpetual state of war between the police and an ever-present enemy, a war in which anyone -- and thus everyone -- can be a suspect, leaves many children caught, literally, in the crossfire.
In 1998, 18 year-old high school student Esequiel Hernandez was shot and killed by camouflaged US marines on an anti-narcotics surveillance mission as he herded his family's goats in Redfern, Texas, near the Mexican border. Last year in North Carolina, a fifteen year-old boy was shot and injured by police when a house he and five other teens had gathered at to play video games was the target of a raid. Just weeks ago, 11 year-old Alberto Sepulveda was accidentally shot in the back and killed by police as they raided his parents' Modesto, California home to enforce a drug warrant.
These are just a few of the hundreds of young casualties of drug war violence. Over the past several years, teens pressured to act as police informants have been brutalized and murdered by drug dealers, others have been killed in the crossfire of drug disputes, and hundreds have died needlessly of overdose because the people they were with were afraid to seek medical assistance for fear of arrest.
The drug war, now in its eighth decade, is a lot of things to a lot of people. To government agencies involved in carrying out its dictates, it is a source of funding. To corporations in the prison, defense, drug testing and other industries, it is a profit center. To politicians, eager to exploit issues for votes, it is an easy rhetorical hook. And to millions of Americans concerned about substance abuse, it is a noble if flawed response to a seemingly intractable problem. What the drug war is not, as indicated by the rising purity and falling prices of illicit drugs, and their pervasiveness in every city, county and town in America, is an effective drug control strategy.
Everyone, on all sides of the drug policy debate, agrees that children should not use recreational drugs. But in our zeal to protect them by passing more laws and building more prisons in response to every new drug scare or every election cycle, we seem to have missed the larger point. That is that prohibition has both deepened and multiplied the very dangers it seeks to abate. Perhaps it is time to re-examine our course. Perhaps it is time that the welfare of our children, rather than our natural but unrealistic urge to banish that which we fear, takes precedence in our policymaking.