Sex, Drugs and Prohibition

The latest report by the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse links teen sexual behavior with substance abuse – a conclusion based entirely on sensationalism.
While the war on drugs is primarily a government enterprise, federal drug warriors have plenty of allies at private think tanks. Perhaps the most prominent of these is Joseph Califano's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), located at Columbia University.

CASA's latest report, issued Aug. 19, is a profoundly strange document. More important, it is profoundly dishonest.

Califano – who was secretary of Health and Human Services back when Jimmy Carter was President and John Travolta was skinny – has built a substantial late career stoking the fires of prohibition. CASA regularly issues frightening reports that faithfully mirror the rhetoric of government drug warriors. The alarm bells ring constantly, but doubts about the efficacy of prohibition are never entertained.

CASA's Aug. 19 press release announcing its ninth annual teen survey proclaims, "Sexually active friends and dating practices can signal increase in a teen's substance abuse risk." In the statement, Califano warns, "This year's survey reveals a tight connection between teen sexual behavior and substance abuse." Kids whose friends are sexually active, girls with older boyfriends, teens who spend more than 25 hours a week with a girlfriend or boyfriend, and those who download Internet porn are at particular risk, the report explains. Califano advises, "Parents, make sure you are aware of the dating practices of your child and get to know your child's friends."

CASA's warnings about the link between sex and drugs are distractions designed to cloud the real issue: After 30 years of a war on drugs, marijuana use is going up, not down, illegal drugs remain readily available, and large numbers of teens are tuning out the warnings of adults. Instead of confronting these difficult issues, CASA has chosen to throw out a school of red herrings.

First of all, is anyone really surprised that kids whose social circles engage in proscribed sexual behaviors also break other rules? Amazingly, several major news organizations promptly reported the findings as if they were actual news.

What is most striking about the report is what CASA chose not to emphasize, and what's missing altogether. Buried in an appendix, for example, is the fact that the percentage of kids reporting use of marijuana rose this year, as did the number reporting having tried marijuana by age 13.

Missing altogether are tables showing whether there were any correlations they chose not to highlight, or any indication of which, if any, of the results – including the touted correlations between drugs and sexual/dating behavior – were statistically significant.

That's important, because some of the most sensational conclusions are based on breathtakingly small numbers. For example, girls with boyfriends two or more years older purportedly are six times more likely than those with no boyfriends to get drunk in a typical month or to smoke marijuana (they seem not to have asked about boys with older girlfriends). But that is based on a sample of precisely 21 girls who said they had boyfriends two or more years older – half of whom smoked marijuana and 35 percent of whom got drunk.

That's 11 girls smoking marijuana and seven getting drunk, out of a total sample of 1,000 kids. And the data an outside observer would need to run their own mathematical tests for statistical significance are left out of CASA's report.

Also missing from this year's CASA survey is a whole series of questions asked in previous years about the perceived harmfulness of various drugs. This is puzzling for what is billed as a survey on attitudes, especially given that the White House continues to blitz teens and their parents with ads designed to frighten them about marijuana. Don't they want to know if these commercials are having the intended effect?

One can't help but wonder if there is something in the answers to these questions that CASA would prefer not to hear. Other research has suggested that the White House ads may actually be counterproductive, and avoiding the relevant questions is one way to keep from confirming the bad news.

Or maybe Califano and colleagues realized that the answers kids give to these questions show how blatantly we are misinforming them about drugs. Consider: Last year, 57 percent of teens said marijuana is "very addictive" – which is just plain wrong. Only 49 percent rated regular use of alcohol as "very harmful" compared to 75 percent giving a "very harmful" rating to marijuana – another conclusion that a mountain of scientific evidence suggests is exactly backwards.

CASA's reports should get the same level of skepticism as any other document put out by an advocacy group with a very large ax to grind – as should the reports and studies issued periodically by government drug warriors. Uncritical reporting of such nonsense serves no one.
Bruce Mirken is a recovering health journalist who now serves as communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, www.mpp.org.
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