Anecdotes, Aggregates, and Anguish


Today, NPR's Morning Edition had an audio commentary by a father whose 21-year-old son recently died of a heroin overdose, warning other parents to attend to warning signs like "the empty beer bottle in the backyard, the smell of pot on his clothes," rather than remaining in denial, as he says he and his wife were. Insofar as the message is that parents ought to be trying to keep their adolescent kids away from heroin, I don't think anyone can disagree with that. But I think the way the story ends up working rhetorically highlights one of the reasons the drug war remains such an uphill battle. Says the father (this may not be quite verbatim):

One day it was pot; the next day, a pill. And before we knew it there was a needle in our son's arm. Our family's experience isn't unique.

He goes on to cite National Institute on Drug Abuse survey data to the effect that half of all teens have tried an illicit drug by the time they're through high school.

Now, the thing is, in the face of this kind of paternal grief, I think most of us are inclined to shut down our critical responses: It seems churlish to be thinking something like: "Wait, that's a non sequitur." But it is a non sequitur. In fact, what that data underscores is just how unusual (if not literally "unique") his family's experience is. Nowhere near half of American teens, after all, are dying of heroin overdoses. What the NIDA figures say is that by the end of high school, over half of students have used at least one illict drug, just under half have smoked pot, and three quarters have used alcohol. Total who've ever used heroin at the same age? A whopping 1.5 percent. So, in fact, very few people—at least by the time they hit 18—are moving from pot to pill to the needle in the arm. That's no consolation to the parents of that small group who do go astray, of course, but sympathy shouldn't prevent us from saying: "Wait a minute, the huge majority of teens who smoke pot don't end up junkies. Lots do it a few times, some do it for a few years, and then by and large they grow out of it and go on with ordinary lives." Terrible as this guy's premature death is, I doubt that promoting the unrealistic notion that a whiff of the ganja on junior's backpack is likely to be a prelude to a heroin overdose is going to be conducive to either good policy or good parenting.