Drug Charge

Why are more kids using drugs?


Teenage drug use is up and Orrin Hatch says it's Bill Clinton's fault. "President Clinton has been AWOL–absent without leadership–on the drug issue," the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said at a December press conference. "Ineffectual leadership and failed federal policies have combined with ambiguous cultural messages to generate changing attitudes among our young people and sharp increases in youthful drug use."

It's tempting to dismiss Hatch's remarks as partisan posturing. But history teaches us to be on guard when politicians start warning that the nation's youth are in peril. After all, parental alarm helped set off the wave of anti-drug hysteria that swept the nation in the 1980s.

And Hatch is right about one thing: Drug use by teenagers seems to be rising. In the 1992 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, 4 percent of respondents in the 12-to-17 age group reported using marijuana during the previous month. That figure rose to 4.9 percent in 1993 and 6 percent in 1994. The increase in marijuana use was the main reason for the rise in past-month illegal drug use, which went from 6.1 percent in 1992 to 8.2 percent in 1994. Those figures follow a 13-year decline, and they are still less than half the peak levels seen in 1979. But the rise seems to be more than a blip. The trend can also be observed in cultural indicators such as the movie Dazed and Confused, caps embroidered with cannabis leaves, the popularity of the pot-obsessed rap group Cypress Hill, and the Saturday Night Live-inspired catch phrase, "you can put your weed in there."

Hatch's explanation for the trend–Clinton's lack of enthusiasm for the war on drugs–is unconvincing. For one thing, Clinton, like his Republican predecessors, has requested ever-escalating anti-drug budgets. Hatch says more of that money should be spent on interdiction. But a wide range of drug policy specialists, including congressional researchers and scholars at the RAND Corporation, have concluded that beefing up interdiction is not a cost-effective way to raise retail prices or reduce availability.

Hatch also charges Clinton with neglecting enforcement. Yet during his administration the number of Americans in state and federal prisons surpassed 1 million for the first time, largely because of harsh sentences for drug offenses, and the United States now has the highest incarceration rate in the world. The total number of drug possession arrests reached a record 1 million in 1994, about 43 percent more than in 1991. Nearly half of those arrests were for marijuana, most for simple possession. Says Allen St. Pierre, deputy national director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, "These data confirm that the federal government's war on marijuana consumers has gotten significantly tougher under Clinton's regime."

Which makes you wonder just how much impact federal drug policy has on a teenager's propensity to smoke a joint. Another puzzle: The same surveys that find an increase in teenagers' use of marijuana and LSD also find an increase in their use of tobacco and alcohol. In the Household Survey, for example, the percentage of 12-to-17-year-olds who reported smoking cigarettes during the previous month rose from 9.6 in 1992 to 18.9 in 1994. Past-month alcohol use rose from 15.7 percent in 1992 to 21.6 percent in 1994. In proportional terms, marijuana use increased more than alcohol use but less than cigarette use. Enforcement of the laws forbidding sales of tobacco and alcohol to minors has never been very effective, but there's no reason to believe it has been especially lax in recent years.

On the other hand, during the last decade both legal and illegal drugs have been the targets of pervasive propaganda, much of it government-sponsored, aimed at convincing kids to stay away from them. Posters and TV ads depict smokers as disgusting, inconsiderate, and antisocial. DARE communicates an all-or-nothing, "Just Say No" message to elementary-school students. A typical fifth-grader exposed to DARE at a Los Angeles school where my wife taught wrote an essay in which she pledged never to drink beer or smoke pot, because she wanted to attend college, get married, and raise a family–accomplishments that exposure to alcohol or marijuana would make impossible. Commercials from the Partnership for a Drug-Free America portray pot smokers as lazy, stupid, and unattractive. Their vivid images (the fried egg/brain, the diver jumping into an empty pool) warn of disastrous consequences from experimenting with illegal drugs.

Those scare tactics may work over the short term, but they tend to backfire as kids get older. For one thing, teenagers discover through personal observation that much of what they've been told about drugs is nonsense. (Drug warriors are alarmed that the percentage of high school seniors who think smoking marijuana poses a "great risk" has dropped, but the truth is that smoking marijuana doesn't pose a great risk.) Perhaps more important, many adolescents define cool as whatever most offends adults. Which may explain why tobacco's popularity has increased the most.