Teens and Drugs: Just Shut Up
Issue #47, January 2000
When I was 12 in the early 1960s, my Okie Protestant father bought me a bottle of cherry vodka, which I could drink when I wanted but mainly confined to mixing with a large quantity of Seven-Up in front of late-Saturday-night horror features. Besides sucrose o.d., the result of my parental alcohol education was that I had little interest in the mystique of alcohol or peers' cowshit-oilfield beerbusts as a rite of passage.
In Oklahoma, quaint "3.2" laws back then permitted teenagers to buy beer and light wine but not liquor. I was happy with a quaff in front of Attack of the Crab Monsters or an even rarer pitcher with 16 year-old peers at Oklahoma City's numerous "3.2" bars, which admitted any kid who looked as old as Wally. Groceries sold Schlitz to anyone with more fuzzlip than The Beav.
Even the counterculture and college saturnalias of the late 1960s did not corrupt my habits. Occasional beer or red wine, a couple of joints every other weekend, and a half-dozen acid or psilocybin jaunts (all enjoyable) were the extent of my 1960s and '70s drug doings. Then, without thinking much about it, I gave up the whole mood-altering world during my 20s and 30s.
Now, nearing age 50, I've rediscovered wine and am thinking of taking it all up again. Intoxicated oblivion seems preferable to contemplating the mindless cruelty of American drug, alcohol, and sex wars. I got a dose of the national late-century lunacy helping parents supervise keggers for high school students in a small Montana town during the 1980s. My parents helped me learn to drink safely. I thought we owed as much to the next generation. The sensible sheriff looked the other way, conditioned on no drunken-cherub mishaps.
Having helped wise parents chaperone many a teenage kegger in a two-fisted state, I can say flatly that I'd rather be responsible for the safety of an army of high school drinkers than a handful of adults loose at a bar. Parent-sponsored keggers had rules, strictly enforced by the students. Keys were collected. Burly types moved in to stop any hint of trouble. Youths stayed the night or were ushered home by designated sober drivers (non-drinking teens were tremendously popular at these events). When the teen kegger shut down, I would drop in at a downtown bar to observe the "responsible adult" drinking. The county's highway toll told the tale: 200 grownup drunk drivers killed or injured folks in five years, but only one inebriated teenager (from out of town) had a fatal wreck and three caused injuries. None were from our parties.
In the late 1980s, I met the anti-teen-drinking gestapo, which considered the notion of "responsible drinking," especially by an adolescent, the vilest of obscenities. Made up mainly of Baby Boomers of liberal political mentality, nearly all drinkers (and some tokers) themselves, the zero-tolerance mob mobilized throughout Montana as it did nationally. Kids were kicked out of athletics, expelled from school, tested, forced into treatment and community service, and even jailed for having a quiet beer on their own time. Interestingly, the teenage alcoholics were treated leniently so long as they took the stage at zero-tolerance conferences to denounce "underaged drinking" before heading onto another bender.
Like the War on Drugs generals, the no-no-no forces were engaged in a holy war against sin -- conveniently, someone else's sin. They were utterly uninterested in whether their get-tough measures reduced alcohol problems. Great Falls was Montana's zero-tolerance mecca then, busting, intervening on, and jailing hundreds of students for drinking or being present when someone else drank. Their regime received national awards and praise, even though it was a disaster. When I checked the cold statistics, I found teens caused an appalling one-fourth of Great Falls' drunken crashes, and in one memorable event, 100 youths showed up drunk at high school. In my town, where teens drank more freely and experienced nothing approaching these tragedies, local zealots were champing to copy the Great Falls stamp-out-teen-drinking regime.
Americans view drug use and drinking not simply as vices, or even as potentially dangerous practices requiring strict controls, but as ammunition for a war against the sins of disliked societal groups. It's no accident that compared to other Western nations, the United States has the most lenient laws governing adult drinking at the same time the U.S., alone among Western nations, attempts to force absolute prohibition against teenage drinking.
The term I repeatedly hear, from local school "chemical dependency" programmers to the White House, is that banning even the mildest teenage use of beer or marijuana is a crusade, a war. And if I thought the 1980s were dismal, the 1990s brought worse developments as those who want to legalize pot and reform drug laws joined the jihad against adolescents with a vengeance.
War ultimately corrupts both sides by making their goals the same. Reformers' drive to power renders them as oppressive as establishments. And so those groups who once sought to reform America's draconian drug policies are becoming as scary as the War on Drugs.
I've criticized the War on Drugs in dozens of articles, two of which won awards from Project Censored -- not because they were brilliant exposes, but because coverage of drug issues Left to Center to Right is so abysmal. Now the reformers I used to admire who campaigned to decriminalize marijuana are shedding their libertarian tolerance and sounding like Baby-Boomer mutations of Nancy Reagan: let us aging hippies get high, but just say no for our kids. Apply that attitude to America's traditional drugs: booze, tobacco, Valium -- and poof! It's the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.
The differences between White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey and legalize-pot luminaries are diminishing, especially for the issues that count. Both agree on the most crucial point necessary to sustain wars on drugs: the scapegoat. They agree that teenagers symbolize society's drug problems, replacing past villains (Mexicans and reefer, black musicians and cocaine, Orientals and opium). Both agree that legal highs for "us" grownups are fine (disagreeing only on what drugs are acceptable to upload). Both agree that any use of mood-altering substances by teenagers (which both call "children," the term for teenagers when there's no war being fought) are terrifyingly wrong. Both refuse to discuss drug abuse by grownups and instead obsess over mere drug use by teenagers, ratifying the drug war's insistence that mere drug "use" is a bigger problem than addiction. And both toss aside any fact that gets in their way and trumpet any cockamamie cure-all that supports their goals.
Just as Bill Clinton stole Republican thunder by sounding more repressive than the GOP, so drug-reformers seem eager to preempt drug war "toughness." Drug-reform lobbies have become more alarmist about teenagers. In fact, major reformers wink, if we lay off adult druggies, we'll have more resources to train on stopping teens from taking the tiniest toke of pot or sip of beer. The drug-reformer's "Common Sense for Drug Policy" hypes a non-existent crisis of "rising" heroin and cocaine use by eighthgraders to argue the drug war has failed. In fact, the 1998 National Household Survey shows, regular hard-drug use by adolescents (and even once-a-year use by younger teens) is too rare to be reliably measured. In giant drug-infested California, out of 7,400 drug deaths among all ages from 1990 through 1997, only 20 involved teens under age 16.
To see the deterioration of the drug-reform movement, visit their major websites. On the most recent tour, I got a pleasant surprise: Common Sense for Drug Policy now puts treatment of drug users ahead of its former priority, which was "reducing drug use by adolescents." That progress was offset by the newest lobby, Change the Climate, an organization of "parents andbusiness professionals" hailed as "provocative" and "unique" by the reformist online compendium, "Drug Sense Weekly."
Change the Climate's web page reveals nothing unique or provocative except extraordinarily distressing obtuseness. Its goal is "to end the practice of busting 600,000 adult Americans each year for using marijuana for medicine or recreation." This implies the group supports the continued arrest of marijuana-using youths. Youths comprise only one-sixth of marijuana smokers but one-third of marijuana possession arrests.
Change the Climate epitomizes vintage 1990s grownup me-me-me-ism, repeating every worn-out cliche about adolescents, disdaining research findings even from its own recommended studies, all to provide parents a justification for blazing up while expressing pious terror that their kids should ever touch the stuff. In short, this pot-legalization group treats getting high just like arch-drug-foe (and daily scotch drinker) Joseph Califano does about drinking: let me have fun, but just say no for kids.
En route to promoting legal grownup highs, CTC declares that it is a "myth" that marijuana is dangerous. Then, CTC lapses into standard drug-war lingo that it is also a "myth" that "it's okay for children and teenagers to smoke pot." Advisories on how parents should strictly forbid their "children" to smoke marijuana through anti-drug lectures, education, etc., are straight out Partnership for a Drug-Free America fantasies. But if marijuana's so safe, why would any parent who lets their kid do the Dew or chomp on Skittles care if their teenager lit up? Are they afraid kiddies might pinch their fingers in roach clips?
An honest drug-reform website would flatly declare to parents, "If you smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, or use pot, you triple or quadruple the odds your teenage kids will, too." "Talking to your kids" about why you can do drugs but they can't deserves their amused derision. If you're going to get your boxers in a bunch if your high schooler has a beer or joint, the best deterrence is not to indulge those delights yourself. Conversely, if you insist on drinking and smoking knowing those odds, you care more about your pleasures than whether your kids drink or get high. Healthy cultures understand that adolescent, literally, means "adult in progress," not "abstain from everything."
The second thing a candid drug-reform group would tell parents is even more sobering. Research and statistics are clear that society and the individual are in far more danger when you, the parent, drink or use drugs than when your high school teenager does so. Neither side in today's monumentally dishonest drug debate goes anywhere near that dynamite.
National health figures and California's detailed statistics agree. First, surveys show that the average 16-17-year-old drinks about as often, and uses drugs a little more often, than the average 40-41 year-old. Yet in 1997, the latest report as of this writing, nine California youths ages 16-17 died from drug or alcohol overdoses and another 665 were involved in alcohol-related traffic crashes. Meanwhile, 211 Californians ages 40-41 died from drug or alcohol overdoses and 903 were in drunken traffic crashes. In 1997, 3,500 Californians died from drug or alcohol overdoses and from intoxicated driving; just 130 of these (4%) involved teens under age 20.
Second, even these teen figures are overstated. Traffic accident analysis shows that in 60% of all drunken driving deaths of persons under age 20 (including nearly half of all "teenage" deaths), the killer driver was an adult 21 or older! In California, besotted adults killed more than twice as many teens on the highways as the other way around. More kids would be saved if abstinence were imposed on adults than if it were imposed on teens.
Detailed statistics are not available for drug-related hospital emergency cases and deaths. However, 1997 figures from the national Drug Abuse Warning Network show that on a per-person basis, adults over age 35 are treated four times more for drug and drug-alcohol overdoses than teenagers are. When it comes to adults in the vulnerable 30-50 parent ages, the drug casualty risk soars up to 20 times higher than for adolescents.
Third, when trends are examined, the picture becomes more dismal still. Drug abuse, hospital cases, and deaths have skyrocketed to record levels among adults in the 30-50 age group -- exactly the parents Change the Climate and other reformers would allow greater freedom to use drugs. But teenage drug abuse casualties have risen only marginally and remain only a fraction as common. Indeed, the DECLINE in teenage drug abuse was most pronounced in the late 1970s, when surveys showed youthful marijuana experimentation prevalent and rising. Then,teenage drug abuse rates leveled off and rose a bit in the 1980s and 1990s when War on Drugs edicts demanded "just say no" with increasingly punishing force.
In sum, a Martian anthropologist who took full stock of science, observation, and ethnography would conclude that American teenagers should be allowed to drink and get high, but adults should be prohibited. What are we to make of these most puzzling statistics from our most solid drug tabulators? It is good intuition to worry that teenagers are less experienced with drugs and booze and therefore would suffer more mishaps. That said, there is no excuse for substituting theory for what is really going on, especially for those who believe they are sincere about caring for kids.
What are we to make of the fact that both sides in the War on Drugs completely ignore these realities in pursuit of misrepresenting drug abuse as a teenage problem? It is because these realities, overwhelmingly documented by standard drunken driving, alcohol and drug overdose, hospital emergency room and mortality statistics, blow America's pointless drug-policy squabble sky high. It is here that the fundamental dishonesty of the marijuana legalization and drug-reform groups becomes most disturbing. Not only have reform groups solemnly pledged to bring facts and common sense to the debate, they propose societal acceptance of expanded, legal use of drugs by adults.
Change the Climate's web page betrays no awareness of the thundering freight train of aging Baby Boomers' drug disasters. Instead, its chief drug warning is to claim that "the effect of marijuana on kids in their developmental stage has not been studied." For that and other unspecified "common sense" reasons, "marijuana use by youth is not acceptable." This is ominous, given CTC's failure to rule out police action against youths.
However, CTC's own bible, the Lindesmith Center's excellent compendium of marijuana research, "Marijuana Myths Marijuana Facts," reports extensive studies of teenagers who use marijuana. It reports little reason to worry about teenage marijuana use and absolutely NO concern about adolescent pot smoking that would not apply even more to adult use.
Perhaps the worst of the CTC's illogic is reliance on unfounded assertions by Dr. Marsha Rosenbaum, director of the Lindesmith Center West in San Francisco. Rosenbaum regularly issues hysterical claims about the dangers of drugs and alcohol to "children" while ignoring massive adult drug abuse. Rosenbaum's perverse denials are doubly remarkable since her own city, San Francisco, displays the highest levels of drug overdose and casualty among grownups of any area in the country, and one of the lowest rates of teenage drug mishap! Fewer than 2% of the San Franciscans who die or are treated in hospital emergency rooms for drug abuse are under age 20, an astonishing confirmation that the city's liberal marijuana policies do not endanger teenagers.
But reality makes no difference compared to prejudice. "For teenagers, risk-taking goes with the territory," Rosenbaum asserts. "... If marijuana use is defined as risky, it becomes attractive rather than unattractive to teenagers."
It would be hard to find, even by the craziest Drug War zealot, a more bizarrely wrongheaded claim distorting every reality of research and America's 1990s drug landscape. The adult stereotype that teenagers are especially risk-prone has been studied for decades and found to be a myth. A 1993 Carnegie Mellon University research team reviewed more than 100 recent studies, replicated them, and found that if anything, adults are more prone to risk-taking and delusions of invulnerability than adolescents are. Northwestern University psychiatrist Daniel Offer, the nation's leading researcher on adolescents, published a similar review "debunking the myths of adolescence" summarizing 150 studies over 30 years.
If teenagers were attracted to risk, they would be consuming heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines and liquor. Instead, previous National Household Surveys reveal astonishingly low rates of hard-drug use among teens: fewer than 1% of 12-17 year-olds used cocaine (including crack), and virtually none use heroin as often as once a month. Of 6,778 youths surveyed, only 20 reported using heroin even once in the previous year. The rarity of use of hard drugs by teens is confirmed once again by federal health statistics: of 41,000 persons treated in hospital emergency rooms for heroin overdose in the first half of 1998, just 450 were under age 18. So much for the latest kids-and-smack terror campaign jointly orchestrated by War on Drugs officials and the news media.
Rather, teenagers of the 1990s are attracted to the lowest risk drugs -- beer and marijuana -- when they use intoxicating substances at all. The reason for the remarkably low level of teenage casualty from drugs and drinking is simple: teenagers use milder drugs and in safer settings than adults do. Teens are less likely to mix drugs, less likely to use drugs addictively, and less likely to drive after drinking or getting high.
Adolescents, in fact, display exactly the types of moderate use drug reformers tout as the essence of "harm reduction." The Lindesmith Center's "Marijuana Myths Marijuana Facts" reports long-term studies by UCLA and Berkeley researchers showing that teenagers who used beer or marijuana moderately (the large majority) not only were healthier than teenagers who abused alcohol and other drugs (a small percentage). The moderate users "were better-adjusted socially and psychologically than non-marijuana-using teens"! Further, Lindesmith found, "the same dose" of drugs" produces more dramatic effects in adults than in youths" because of adults' lesser resilience, and persons who begin using marijuana in adulthood are more "prone to having panic reactions" (a marker for suicide) than those who begin using pot as teens.
In short, Rosenbaum and Change the Climate distort their own research agency's study in order to exaggerate the dangers of marijuana to youths. Drug reformers correctly accuse the War on Drugs of making emotional statements unfounded in research; the same can be said of reformers when it suits their purpose.
However, when pursuing adult rights to get high, Change the Climate's website faithfully reports research findings that marijuana smoking does not harm teenagers in any known way. No long-term health, reproductive, behavioral, academic, cognitive, or developmental damage is documented in decades of study except in the small fraction of teens and grownups that use marijuana heavily. No "gateway" effect is glimpsed, either. Seventy-two million Americans smoked pot and 140 million drank alcohol, nearly all when they (we) were teenagers. Fewer than 5% became addicts, abusers, or aficionados of hard drugs.
The point is not that marijuana or alcohol is good for adolescents or anyone else. The point is that there is no evidence to support the claim that adults can safely use pot and alcohol while teenagers cannot. This is what makes CTC's myth-spouting as scary as the Drug War's. It is a dangerous recapitulation of American adults' desires to preserve intoxicating pleasures for themselves while loudly affirming puritanical rejection of intoxicating pleasures undertaken by powerless groups.
The troubling prospect is what will happen when scotch-gulping, weed-blazing, coke-sneezing Baby Boomers realize their teens are not going to stop drinking beer or smoking pot, no matter how sweetly benign "drug education," "talking to kids," public service announcements, and "mentoring" are applied. The history of American prohibitionism (particularly liberal prohibitionism) and present reality says the "reformers" will join the call for force against the scapegoats: mass student drug tests, expulsions, forced treatment, even jail to "protect children."
Add to that the 1990s complication that adult drug use is more hazardous than teenage drug use by every measure available, and the elements for Change the Climate's "reformist" stance to contribute to an even more repressive War on Drugs are present. Adults who would defend their own habits, including denial of bad ones, by casting about for a scapegoat to punish in the name of "caring" can be counted upon to impose more meanness than drug-war generals driven by politics. In fact, if drug reformers gain enough political power to threaten the drug-war cabal, an alliance between the two to repress youths is inevitable.
Legalizing marijuana for adults only, as Change the Climate and others propose, should be opposed because it represents an extension of Americans' dangerous, decades-old attitude that "vices" are acceptable for privileged groups and punishable in disliked ones. The same drug reformers who argue that government repression of a drug does more damage than the drug itself seem perfectly happy to continue inflicting repressive damage on adolescents. Further, banning even the mildest teenage drinking and drug use is proof that American adults as a society are too immature to handle the responsibilities of intoxicating substances. In healthier cultures, grownups accept that their use of alcohol obligates them to set good examples and to establish processes by which young people can experiment with drinking in reasonably safe family and public settings.
Before the 1980s' wave of hysteria, a series in the government review "Alcohol Health & Research World" reported that when adults and teens drink together, both age groups display moderation and are less prone to drunken driving. The age-integrated nature of drinking is a major factor in European safety; it is harder to get ripped when the wife and kids are along. Rigid age segregation in the U.S., where hundreds of thousands of establishments display "no one under 21 allowed" signs where alcohol is sold, is a major reason why so many Americans drink irresponsibly.
True reform of the disastrous U.S. hypocrisy toward drugs and drinking demands rigorous attention to the facts before us, no matter how surprising, no matter how impolitic. It would recognize the refreshing fact that most modern teens appear to be avoiding adult hard drug/alcohol woes and would base its "responsible use" model on the present reality that most teenagers either abstain or use milder forms of alcohol and drugs in moderation. The result would affirm the rights of teens to drink and use marijuana and other drugs allowed for adults at the same time stronger steps are taken to prevent and treat drug and alcohol abuse. The scapegoating vital to drug wars and recurring waves of oppression would be demolished by affirming the scapegoat.
Alcohol segregation bans young people from participating in much of the life of their communities. Marijuana segregation would add to this isolation at a very time when stresses between generations are widening. That even groups dedicated to challenging drug-war tyranny have come to accept its worst anti-youth dogmas suggests there is a far deeper hostility against young people by grownups that transcends reasoned examination. Increasingly, American adults seem to want to get away from their kids and retreat into worlds reserved for grownup pleasure and prerogative. Alcohol and marijuana provide the perfect route to do just that.
Social ecology Ph.D. Mike Males, of Santa Cruz, California, wrote The Scapegoat Generation: America's War on Adolescents, Framing Youth: Ten Myths About the Next Generation, and Smoked: Why Joe Camel Is Still Smiling (Common Courage Press, 1996, 1998, and 1999, respectively).