President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall, and the continuing shutdown of the federal government over it, is only the most recent symbol of the increasing schism in American public life. Despite extensive debate, there is no easy solution to reconcile the so-called red America–blue America divide.
The midterm elections of 2018 have been portrayed as a strong victory for Democrats looking to put a check on the excesses of President Donald Trump. But there’s a warning embedded in the results.
Whether Nevada voters approve the Marijuana Policy Project's ballot initiative in November to legalize marijuana for adults is not particularly important. Nevada already legalizes gambling and prostitution, and its current marijuana law subjects adults caught with pot, even three times, to mere misdemeanor citation. Another grownup party option in Nevada would hardly make history.
However, MPP's initiative is important because it reveals the capitulation by major drug-policy reform groups to the cruelties of America's "War on Drugs." Abandoning scientific research showing criminalization of drug use causes more harm than drugs themselves, MPP's initiative explicitly endorses the hardline drug-war doctrine that draconian, lifelong punishments should be imposed on young people who try marijuana. The Nevada initiative permitting adults over age 21 to buy and possess up to three ounces of marijuana also constitutionally commands the legislature to "provide or maintain" criminal penalties for persons under 21. Maintaining Nevada's law means a young person caught with a single joint faces a $5,000 fine, four years in prison, a felony record, and permanently jeopardized student loans, government benefits, and employment.
Half of all marijuana arrestees are under age 21, rendering MPP's claim that Nevada's initiative would "end the arrest of all marijuana users" flatly false. In fact, it sacrifices young people to increased drug-war endangerment in a political ploy to boost the odds of winning grass for grownups.
Nevada's initiative menaces young people in several ways. As every nation but ours recognizes, adolescents' task is not to abstain from everything, but to experiment with, practice, and master adult behaviors. This is why adolescents use drugs that are legal for adults far more than illegal drugs, and why families and locales with high rates of adult drug use also have high rates of teenage drug use. If Nevada's initiative passes, teenage marijuana use is likely to rise. Unfortunately, the more American adults grant themselves rights, the more they punish teenagers for acting like adults. It's no accident that the U.S. has the weakest laws governing adult alcohol use and the most punitive against teenage drinking, or that adult playgrounds like Nevada are notoriously mean to youths.
As Nevada's dismal campaign already shows, adolescents are falsely vilified as the "drug problem" by both drug reformers and drug warriors. Consider the worst distortions by both sides:
--Drug reformers such as the Drug Policy Alliance's Robert Sharpe and drug warriors such as Columbia University's Joseph Califano agree that drug policy should prioritize stopping all teenage use even of mild drugs. In truth, Americaâ€šs unadmitted drug abuse crisis, and worst drug threat to youth, is widespread addiction, overdose, crime, and family violence among middle-aged Baby Boomers.
--"Right now kids have an easier time buying pot than beer." This whopper is peddled by the reformist Common Sense for Drug Policy and DPA (quoted) and by Califano. In fact, all major surveys consistently show teenagers obtain and use legal, regulated alcohol and cigarettes two to 25 times more than any illicit drug. The 2001 Monitoring the Future survey is typical: 70 percent of eighth graders find alcohol and cigarettes "easy to get," compared to 48% for marijuana. Twice as many eighth graders regularly use alcohol than pot, and the gap for older teens is wider.
--"A regulated market with enforceable age controls"--such as we have for alcohol and tobacco and The Netherlands has for marijuana--will "protect children" from getting drugs. This bad joke by drug reformers reverses their previous, factual position that alcohol and tobacco are America's chief drugs of abuse. It dismisses the higher rates of legal-drug use by U.S. adolescents. It ignores definitive Trimbos Institute surveys showing that marijuana use quadrupled among Dutch youth after the Netherlands legalized marijuana for adults. While, two decades ago, Dutch teens smoked pot one-fourth as often as U.S. teens, today the levels are equivalent--another matter drug reformers misrepresent.
Is there some apocalyptic difference between a 16 year-old and a 30 year-old, or a 20- and 21-year-old, smoking marijuana that justifies a drastic difference in penalties? DPA's research bible, Marijuana Myths Marijuana Facts, reviews hundreds of scholarly studies and reports none showing marijuana more harmful for adolescents than for adults. Marijuana is not a "gateway drug" leading to hard-drug addiction, and older marijuana users face greater likelihood than younger ones of panic attacks and bad reactions from mixing pot with alcohol and hard drugs, research reports.
The chief marijuana risk to youth is arrest and punishment--a danger Nevada's mean-spirited initiative exacerbates. The best hope for real reform lies in its defeat and genuine introspection as to how America's once-honest drug policy reformers devolved into duplicitous politickers willing to accept ruining youthful lives with harsh sanctions just to facilitate grownup highs. Until reformers are prepared to make the case for legalizing teenagersâ€š normal right to experiment with adult drugs, they should not propose expanding adult drug rights.
Mike Males has written four books on youth issues and teaches sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
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/
In 1988, R.J. Reynolds introduced its Joe Camel cartoon icon designed to market Camel cigarettes. Everyone from Ralph Nader and anti-tobacco groups to the Centers for Disease Control to conservative tobacco-state lawmakers insisted cigarette ads, especially Joe Camel, lure teens to smoke. Yet, none mentioned the startling fact that in the four years after Joe's advent, every survey showed teenage smoking declined -- down 19 percent among high schoolers from 1988 to 1992, twice as fast as the drop among adults.
Further, the biggest decline came among the youngest group (12-13). It wasn't until 1993, when cigarette ad spending fell and market analysts agreed Joe Camel was old hat, that teenage smoking went up.
Surprisingly, over the last 25 years, teen smoking and smoking initiation rates are negatively associated with cigarette advertising and promotion spending -- that is, the more companies spend, the less teens smoke, and vice-versa. That fact doesn't fit the needs of the "culture war." Researchers and officials expend strenuous effort (including one dubious study that branded nearly all teens as smokers and denied family and peers have any influence) but have never produced evidence that ads make kids smoke.
Or take the Center for Science in the Public Interests' claim that the marketing of sweet-alcohol beverages, like Budweiser's famous bullfrogs, stimulate teenage drinking. So what? Since these alcohol promos appeared in the early 1990s, high schoolers' drunken driving crashes, binge drinking, and alcohol overdoses plummeted. Under today's simplistic "correlation equals causation" assumption (that is, cultural expression A must be the cause of proximate behavior B), Joe Camel and alcohol ads should be praised for reducing teen smoking and drinking.
John Walters is a veteran of drug policy shambles. As the deputy director under former drug czar William Bennett, he helped craft drug war policies that have shattered millions of lives, wasted billions of dollars and exacerbated America's drug crisis. He's a hard-core ideologue who misrepresents the facts and spouts tough-on-crime rhetoric.
In other words, John Walters is the Bush administration's perfect choice to be the next drug czar.
If Walters wins confirmation as the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), as he is expected to do, don't expect many concrete changes. Like the recently departed drug czar, General Barry McCaffrey, Walters is dedicated to more drug testing and zero-tolerance regimens, misrepresenting drugs as "an affliction mostly of the young," and funneling ever more cash to public relations, interdiction, police, prisons and -- if Walters has his way -- churches.
But unlike McCaffrey -- a dutiful soldier, but one who bumbled when off script -- Walters has a sophisticated understanding of drug issues and articulates them skillfully. This, combined with his unyielding ideology, makes him more dangerous than his predecessor.
ONDCP's goals, established in Bennett's 1989 National Drug Control Strategy when Walters was his deputy director, specifically targeted drug "use itself," not abuse or addiction. Policies stigmatized and punished "casual users ... because it is their kind of drug use that is most contagious." Conversely, the Strategy de-emphasized treating addiction because drug addicts are "a mess" who "make the worst possible advertisement for new drug use."
Bennett's strategy of neglecting drug abusers while punishing casual users worked exactly as designed. In the 1980s and early 1990s, arrests and imprisonments for drug law violations skyrocketed, self-reported drug use fell and drug abuse exploded. Federal Drug Abuse Warning Network reports showed overdoses and hospitalizations skyrocketing, especially for those drugs most targeted by the drug war. In 1980, when Reagan took office, 28,000 Americans were hospitalized for abuse of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. In 1992, when Bush left office, the number was 175,000. In 2000, the latest figures available, 250,000 were hospitalized.
Normally, such a monumental policy disaster would invoke calls for fundamental reform from the highest levels, especially after voters in a dozen states have signaled their support for reform. However, because drug abuse is financially and politically profitable for drug war interests, the czar's only permissible role is promoting tougher policies and further escalation. Walters' record reveals the consummate doubletalk skills necessary to fulfill the office's task of redefining disaster as success while simultaneously warning that worse disaster looms.
Walters' claims of success, like McCaffrey's, rest upon limited portions of indexes of drug abuse and rely heavily on the most unreliable measure, self-reporting use surveys. From 1979 to 1992, the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse reported, the percentage of people who said (truthfully or not) that they used illicit drugs in the past month dropped from 16 percent to 5 percent among teenagers and from 14 percent to 6 percent among adults. In a 1996 Heritage Foundation critique of Clinton drug policies, Walters credited "strong presidential leadership" for "a decade of consistent progress during the Reagan and Bush Administrations" that "helped rescue much of a generation." Yet, in President Clinton's first term, "the United States is losing -- some would say surrendering -- in the prolonged struggle against illegal drugs." Drug use is rising, and "the number of cocaine- and heroin-related emergency room admissions has jumped to historic levels" driven by falling prices and "increased availability of such relatively cheap drugs."
Walters' czarist capabilities are shown when he cites trends to indict Clinton's policies without mentioning how they equally discredit the Reagan-Bush drug war. From 1980 to 1992, heroin and cocaine prices dropped by 60 percent, heroin-related emergency admissions tripled, cocaine ER cases jumped 1,200 percent and drug-related murders quadrupled from 400 to 1,600. The Reagan-Bush era spawned the very "adolescent superpredators" Walters later mythologized to inflame national panic. His 1996 book, Body Count, coauthored with Bennett and John DiIulio, blamed "the alarming rise in teenage violence" on "a population of teenagers with a higher incidence of serious drug use, more access to powerful firearms, and fewer moral restraints than any such group in American history."
Walters qualifications to captain ONDCP are further revealed in his evasion of the role Reagan-Bush drug policy played in stoking inner-city violence. It is clear now, as it was then, that increased homicide and violent crime by young urban men in the late 1980s and early 1990s was not caused by their own drug use or what Walters labeled "moral poverty." In fact, adolescents, including inner-city youth, showed low drug abuse rates. Rather, the spike in gang violence in impoverished inner cities suffering high unemployment represented rational entrepreneurship among drug suppliers and gangs competing to reap immense profits from rapidly increasing demand for cocaine, crack and heroin.
Who created that demand? While Walters and other "experts" capitalized on deploring the violence by young black and Latino men at the street level of drug supply networks, none mentioned the customers: several million addicts, mostly middle-aged, suburban and white. The ranks of aging addicts soared amid the deliberate neglect advocated by Bennett drug strategy. During the Reagan-Bush reign, the number of adults 35 and older hospitalized for heroin and cocaine overdoses surged from 7,000 in 1980 to 130,000 in 1992, while hard-drug deaths leaped 800 percent.
Given his backwards definitions of "progress" and "rescue," it's not surprising that Walters' 1996 critique lambastes Clinton's "ineffectual ... focus on hard core drug users at the expense of stronger law enforcement and interdiction." Wrong in any case. Clinton's former drug czar, Lee Brown, belatedly advocated more treatment of addicts, but 70 percent of Clinton's drug budget went to law enforcement. Drug arrests rocketed from 1.1 million in 1992 to 1.6 million in 1996, the year Walters falsely accused Clinton of abdicating policing. Drug casualties continued to soar.
The latest federal reports show that after Republicans and Democrats spent hundreds of billions of dollars and imprisoned millions over the last 15 years, America now suffers its worst drug abuse crisis ever -- more annual drug-involved arrests (1.6 million), imprisonments (300,000), overdose deaths (16,000) and emergency treatments (600,000) than ever. But ONDCP thrives on policy shambles. In Walters, the office will have a drug czar experienced in presiding over them.
Mike Males, senior researcher for the Justice Policy Institute and sociology instructor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, authored Kids & Guns: How Politicians, Experts and the Press Fabricate Fear of Youth (home.earthlink.net/~mmales).