The Drug Debate Gets Dopier

When I asked an assembly of 300 youths locked in Chicago's mammoth juvenile prison why so few kids die from drugs (only seven of the city's 900 overdose deaths in 1999 were teens), several shouted: "Because you don't die from weed!" That's the point both America's disastrous "War on Drugs" and groups bent on reforming it are missing: the kids aren't the problem. Yet, respected drug policy reform advocates like the Lindesmith Center now insist that stopping teenage drug use should be our most urgent policy priority. Lindesmith and other reformers claim that if drugs were legalized for adults and regulated like cigarettes and beer, teens who now freely acquire marijuana and ecstasy through illicit dealers would find the stuff harder to get.

Lindesmith researcher Robert Sharpe recently wrote Ann Landers that The Netherlands' policy of legalizing marijuana with "age controls" has "reduced overall drug use" and "protect(ed) children from drugs." Common Sense for Drug Policy sensibly argues for prioritizing addiction treatment but still urges a tripling in spending to promote teenage abstinence. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, Marijuana Policy Project, and Change the Climate argue that "responsible adults" should be allowed to use marijuana while "minors" should be prohibited. (If honest, they'd emphasize that parents who use drugs, alcohol, or tobacco greatly multiply the odds their kids will, too.) Drug reform groups praised "Traffic" (the Drug-Enforcement-Administration-endorsed movie that featured black and brown pushers supplying upscale white kids) largely because of its absurd line that teens score heroin easier than legal, "regulated" alcohol.

Reformers, before their latest "protect the children" stratagem, used to argue that legal, government-regulated alcohol and tobacco were teenagers' big drugs-of-choice. True enough. The 2000 Monitoring the Future survey shows teens at every age believe alcohol and tobacco are far easier to get than every type of illicit drug. Their speculation is confirmed by surveys showing American teens use legal, age-regulated alcohol and tobacco 2.5 to 100 times more than illicit marijuana, ecstasy, or heroin.

The realities of The Netherlands' drug policy reforms are distorted both by American Drug War officials (such as former czar Barry McCaffrey, who mendaciously depicted Holland, whose homicide rate is one-eighth the U.S.'s, as awash in murder and crime) and by drug-reform groups. Unfortunately, American reformers who exploit fear of teenage drug experimentation in order to win legal highs for more addiction-plagued grownups are pursuing a strategy opposite to that Dutch reformers used: calming fear of youthful soft-drug use in order to redirect attention to treating middle-aged hard-drug addicts. Contrary to Lindesmith's argument that protecting "children" from their own drug use should be the "primary mandate" of drug policy, the Dutch implemented successful reforms precisely because they DIDN'T panic over teens and pot.

In fact, The Netherlands' Trimbos Research Institute found marijuana use in the previous month by Dutch 12-18 year-olds tripled from 3 percent in 1988 to 11 percent in 1996, then fell to 9 percent in 1999. Teenage marijuana use also grew in the 1990s in the United States and other prohibitionist countries, where anti-drug education and penalties escalated. The U.S. National Household Survey on Drug Abuse found 12-17 year-olds' monthly pot smoking rose from 5 percent in 1988 to 8 percent in 1996, where it remains in 1999.

Allowing for slight differences in trend timing and age groups surveyed, it's a wash. Dutch teens use marijuana, heroin, cocaine, and ecstasy at about the same rates as U.S. teens. Dutch teens use legal alcohol and cigarettes much more, as they always have. But use statistics don't matter. The important issue is that neither Dutch nor American teens show appreciable or increasing drug abuse. In both countries, teens under age 20 comprise only about 3 percent of drug abuse deaths, with the vast bulk of drug abuse occurring among adults 30 and older.

Thus, neither benign Dutch legalization nor draconian U.S. prohibition (billion-dollar anti-drug campaigns, tens of millions of arrests, skyrocketing imprisonment, military interventions) had any material effect on teenage drug decisions. In New York, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's police vans hauled away tens of thousands of roachclippers; in San Francisco, marijuana possession arrests declined sharply from the 1980s to the 1990s and private pot smoking is effectively decriminalized. The effect on teens? Nada. In The Netherlands and U.S., New York and San Francisco, teenage drug use and abuse patterns are identical. Obsession with every up-down tick in drug use surveys reflects the inflated self-importance drug-war combatants attach to their irrelevant squabble over whose policy would make youths just say no.

The larger point is that the Dutch decriminalization and harm-reduction reforms did contribute to dramatic reductions in drug abuse among mostly-older addicts. Dutch heroin deaths dropped by 40 percent from the late 1970s to the late 1990s while they tripled in the U.S. In America, 1999 and 2000 Drug Abuse Warning Network reports show hospital emergency treatments and deaths from drug overdoses soared to their highest levels ever. From 1999 to 2000, U.S. hospital emergencies involving cocaine increased 4 percent, heroin rose 15 percent, and methamphetamine leaped 29 percent, all reaching record peaks. Today, Americans are dying from heroin, cocaine, and speed at rates seven times higher than the Dutch. The point drug reformers should be stressing is that The Netherlands' "protects children" NOT by chasing around teens who smoke pot, but by reducing the devastating damage hard-drug addicts inflict on themselves and their families, communities, and kids.

Both the appalling failure of America's War on Drugs to stem drug abuse and the encouraging realities of the Dutch reforms validate the latter's harm-reduction approach more convincingly than misplaced conjectures about youths. Teenagers are not waiting with baited bong for the latest official "message" or "policy." Real-life lessons are far more compelling. Teenagers' avoidance of hard drugs and moderate patronage of soft drugs appears a generally healthy reaction to the alarming damage they see hard-drug abuse causing adults around them.

Lindesmith's excellent "Marijuana Myths, Marijuana Facts" scrutinizes hundreds of studies and government-commissioned reports that consistently "have documented the drug's relative harmlessness." Nowhere does Lindesmith's exhaustive research summary reveal any medical, developmental, or other reason why adults should be allowed to use marijuana responsibly but teenagers should be prohibited. Nor do Lindesmith, NORML, MPP, and other drug-reform groups explain why they're adamant that adolescent use of a "relatively harmless" drug should remain illegal or why they'd continue subjecting teens to the dangers they attribute to prohibition. For example, reformers' adults-only marijuana and ecstasy legalization scheme might assure safer supplies for grownups, but youths still would have to patronize illicit markets where hard drugs and contaminated knockoffs abound. The moralistic stance that widespread, moderate marijuana and ecstasy use by teens should remain outlawed absent solid evidence of harm sabotages "harm reduction" strategies, since harm-reducers risk punishment if they help youths break laws.

Young age is a politically convenient target for emotional crusading, but it is not a valid criterion for discrimination. Until the calming facts debunking irrational fears surrounding modern adolescents and drugs become more known and accepted, marijuana decriminalization will not happen. Lindesmith's and other reformers' campaign to "protect children" from their own drug use slants science to the point that many "fact sheets" drug reformers present selectively choose and omit "facts" just as Drug War propaganda does. And, like the Drug War's overriding precept, reformers' youth-prohibition stance upholds the myth that drugs are a menace of marginalized subgroups when, in truth, America's real illicit-drug crisis is mainstream, middle-American, and middle-aged.

Justice Policy Institute senior researcher and UC Santa Cruz sociology instructor Mike Males' writings and statistics on youth issues are at http://home.earthlink.net/~mmales/

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