Anecdotes, Aggregates, and Anguish

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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.

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  1. attend to warning signs like “the empty beer bottle in the backyard, the smell of pot on his clothes,”

    Note to self: Clean up backyard. Do laundry.

  2. half of all teens have tried an illicit drug by the time they’re through high school.

    And the other half are goddamned liars.

  3. Mark:

    I never used drugs in high school; lots of us wait until college. 😉

  4. Mark:

    I never used drugs in high school; lots of us wait until college. 😉

    Anyway, I had more interesting criminal pursuits to undertake, like fraud, wiretapping and breaking and entering. I knew how to take advantage of the fact that, until you’re 18, they’ll only give you a slap on the wrist for such activities…

    (ah, to be so young and legally-immune again…)

  5. You people are nuts. I smoked my first cig at 8, had a beer that afternoon, popped some pinkies while watching “Mister Rogers” at 5:30, did a line by homework time, and was shooting heroin into my cock right before being tucked into bed.

  6. You people are nuts. I smoked my first cig at age 8, had a beer that afternoon, popped some pinkies while watching “Mister Rogers” at 5:30, did a line by homework time, and was shooting heroin into my cock by the time “Little House on the Prairie” went to its first commercial break.

  7. Though I believe it should be legal, It is a good idea to watch out for your kids taking pot and even drinking. The point is: parents should be involved in teaching right from wrong, not some buzz-cut, little mustache cop, and definitely not some lazy bureaucrat.

    I know a lot of people think it is best to just look the other way and not say anything. Some just want to tell their kids to be careful. Others think it best to teach kids that it’s wrong and not to do it (fully knowing they may do it anyway). Maybe this guy could have kept his kid from ODing, maybe not. One thing is for sure, someone will use this story to try to create a new agency, give more money to old ones, and run those stupid commercials where B-list celebrities tell us to talk to our kids and read to them and stuff.

  8. I agree with Todd. The father’s message wasn’t necessarily that pot leads down the slippery slope to heroin overdose, but that willfully blind parenting leads to bad outcomes for the kids. The latter point seems logical.

  9. I agree with Todd up to the point where it involves teaching kids that it’s “wrong;” I’d go with teaching that it’s (and the “it” I mean here is pot) illigal, dangerous and certainly not for children. On heroin I guess I’d go with “incredibly dangerous” and “not worth it.” I save “wrong” for things that involve doing harm unto others, I guess.

  10. “I agree with Todd. The father’s message wasn’t necessarily that pot leads down the slippery slope to heroin overdose, but that willfully blind parenting leads to bad outcomes for the kids. The latter point seems logical.”

    I’m not a parent, but how does a parent handle a situation like that? On the one hand I do not want my kid touching pot out of fear that it might lead to something else. Even if it is not that likely that he’ll do so. On the other hand I wouldn’t want to tell him that the stuff will ruin his life or kill him because it obviously won’t and he’ll eventually realize that. And if he thinks, as a result, that all my warnings about grass are bullshit won’t he think my warnings about coke and heroin are bullshit as well? Even though those particular warnings would have more validity? You need to walk a fine line in a situation like that i think.

  11. By the time I was 16 I had done every drug I could get my hands on, including heroin, and given it all up.

    I haven’t touched a recreational drug or drank a drop of alcohol since 1984.

    Some people are prone to abuse drugs, myself included obviously. Sometimes they get it together on their own.

  12. how does a parent handle a situation like that?

    It depends on where we want to pick up the story. If it is from day one the goal is to cut them off at the pass. You teach your children to respect themselves, you treat them well and you pray that they don’t ask about your youthful indiscretions. Mostly you suck it up and realize that being a parent involves forcing yourself to communicate with your children even when they have no interest in reciprocating. I doubt there is a one-size-fits-all response, you always parent on a case-by-case basis.

    If, on the other hand, you abjure your parental responsibilities for the first 14 years and all at once the kid is leaving beer bottles in the back yard and smells like Otto’s jacket then the challenge is significantly greater. At this point I would start to wonder what needs these decisions are filling and examine alternate ways of addressing the things missing in their lives. I would certainly research the treatment alternatives, although in my casual observation most of them are worthless. I would be miserable, get very little sleep, and try to comfort myself with the belief that even among those who choose to make some pretty stupid decisions, the survival rate is still pretty high.

    Of the two it is a lot harder up front to start parenting the day the kid comes into the world kicking and screaming, but like everything else, pushing the hard choices down the road makes them exponentially more painful.

  13. I haven’t heard what he said, but if the father was addressing parenting styles per se rather than the slippery slope dangers of adolescent pot and alcohol use, then poor logic wasn’t so much the problem of his warning as sample size.

    To put it bluntly.

  14. How do you deal with it? By giving your kids some credit and having a rational discussion with them . . . my parents are both recreational users, and offered me the opportunity to try it out in a safe home environment when I was a teen. And you know what? It never seemed quite as “cool” or “dangerous” after that, so I never picked up the habit. When my kids come of age, you bet yer ass they’ll be going to visit Grandma for a little talk.

  15. JenD has a pretty good point for emme to follow. Emme says,

    “On the other hand I wouldn’t want to tell him that the stuff will ruin his life or kill him because it obviously won’t and he’ll eventually realize that. And if he thinks, as a result, that all my warnings about grass are bullshit won’t he think my warnings about coke and heroin are bullshit as well? Even though those particular warnings would have more validity? You need to walk a fine line in a situation like that i think.”

    This is really quite easy: be honest. If you, like the stupid ONDCP, equalize all drugs, then, if he/she finds out that one is much less a threat than you claimed, it will, by default, lessen the expected risk of the others. Thus is the problem with being dishonest—and it’s also the problem with the State criminalizing all narcotics. At a very basic level, “Heroin=illegal + Weed=illegal” sends a terrible message.

    So just be honest and straightforward. And don’t ever be afraid to explain to them, in no uncertain terms, that while the gubmint may be wrong, that won’t matter when you’re on trial. So while, aside form government laws, marijuana is much safer than heroin, that won’t mean much to the local overweight cop with self-esteem problems who has nothing better to do than toss your ass in jail for even thinking about possessing a bag of a particular dried plant. On the other hand, there are drugs that are much more dangerous—and you need to draw this distinction. I think kids are more receptive if you’re just honest with them.

  16. And if he thinks, as a result, that all my warnings about grass are bullshit won’t he think my warnings about coke and heroin are bullshit as well? Even though those particular warnings would have more validity? You need to walk a fine line in a situation like that i think.

    Kids are little justice and fairness machines, who never tire of asking “why”, so it’s a matter of being able to explain/justify why one drug is not going to hurt them, why another might, and why they should hold off till they’re older.

    Where many folks go wrong is they simply tire of making fine distinctions or working out justifications to meet the demands of a hungy young brain. So they just say “because” or “I said so” or “the Bible says so” or some such thing.

  17. Tellin’ them the truth is usually a good idea. Perhaps explaining that getting arrested sucks, and why it it sucks, no matter the wisdom of the law. Explaining that some intoxicants are a lot more dangerous than others, and which ones are which. Also, that being intoxicated, for most people, is at least somewhat of a hindrance to being productive, and for some people, an absolute barrier to being productive. Of course, it helps if you’ve taught them, through experiences, how being productive is personally rewarding, and often times a lot of fun. Unfortunately, our education system does an excellent job of teaching kids that being productive is largely drudgery. No wonder that getting high seems so attractive.

  18. A weeping parent is the mother of all bad legislation. Or, at least, most of it.

  19. I learned it by watching you, Dad! I learned it by watching YOU!

  20. The question is not whether he experimented with marijuana.

    The question is, did he experiment with guitar?

  21. the funny thing is that’s exactly the argument ann coulter makes about why the 9/11 widows are evil personified.

  22. Kids are little justice and fairness machines.

    Well, no. Kids are little self-interest machines.

    If you listen carefully, most of their statements re fairness seem to regard “fair” and “me getting what I want right now” as completely synonymous.

    “Justice” only interests them when it is meted out to others, preferably others who they regard as (previously) better off than themselves. When it comes to their own deeds, they are much more interested in mercy.

    Just like the rest of us, really.

  23. I’ve yet to receive a death threat for my repeated postings of this. And since it’s kinda-sorta on topic, here it is again:

    Setting: Sunny day in the park, father and son taking a stroll.

    Kid: Dad, did you ever do drugs?
    Dad:[stammers] Well uhh

    [guy with large Que cards (QCG) runs up and holds up card that reads:
    YEAH I DID
    AND IT WAS A DUMB THING TO DO]

    Dad: [Looks at card, begins reading, vaguely dispassionate]
    Yeah I did, and it was a dumb ?
    [shakes head begins speaking in engaged conversation voice ]
    Yeah, yeah I did. I did a lot of dumb things too. But I also had some great times. Some of the best moments of my life happened when I was high. Like the first time I made love to your mother.

    [QCG gets panicked look on face. Turns card over and reads it (twice) turns card back around and holds it up, waves it back and forth]

    Kid: Sooooo, you’re saying drugs made your life better?
    Dad: I’m saying that drugs are powerful things. And like all powerful things, you need to have a healthy fear of them. You see son, drugs, like cars, a little knowledge, and religion, can be very dangerous. But they can also be useful and life enhancing when used responsibly. It’s important that you educate yourself on the effects and risks before you start experimenting.

    [QCG rotates the “yeah I did” card to back of stack. He frantically waves the new top card which reads:
    BUT NO ONE EVER TALKED TO ME ABOUT IT]

    Dad: [turns his back to QCG and faces his son] And the biggest risk of all is the fact that they’re illegal. Not only can you get arrested, but if you’re convicted you loose any chance of getting into college or landing a decent job. And of course there’s no FDA or even Consumer’s Reports to ensure purity and quality. For instance, Ecstasy is far safer than beer, but when you buy pills on the black market, there’s no way of knowing what is in them. You could be putting anything from sugar to cyanide in your body.

    [Father and son begin walking again. QCG violently throws the “no one ever” card away. His new card reads:
    DRUGS ARE BAD
    MMMMM-KAY
    He is walking backwards and jamming his finger at his card]

    Kid: So if making drugs illegal actually makes them more dangerous, why don’t we just end drug prohibition?
    Dad: Well it’s like I said son, people do a lot of dumb things.
    [Father and son continue talking and walk off together]
    [QCG trips and falls to ground, cards go flying. Close up on his face ? look of exasperation]
    QCG: I need a drink

  24. Dang Warren, we need to get you some money to produce that into a nice commercial and get it broadcast widely.

  25. “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.”

    Actually that’s the same reason the government suggests that parents lie about their own adolescent drug use. All those whitebread moms and dads who didn’t end up in the gutter.

    BTW, say I have a teenager. One day he comes home smelling of weed. I search his backpack and find fixings for heroin. Now what? Call the cops? Get him into a program? Take him to the hospital? Report the pusher, who will roll over on all his contacts including my kid? Blow away the “friend” who sold my kid the stuff?

    Drugs are so illegal anything I do to help my kid will more than likely screw him over for the rest of his life.

  26. The War on Drugs is an abject failure and a total waste of money and resources. I am all for the total legalization of all drugs. Sell them over the counter, at bars, and resturants. Make them as available at school as condoms are. In a matter of a few years the problem solves itself. Those so inclined will eventually OD chasing that last greatest high and soon the market totally disappears as all the customers will be in the graveyard. End of problem!

  27. I experimented with chemical abuse in high school. We made nitrocellulose, black powder, nitrogen tri-iodide. But we stopped short of the hard stuff, like nitroglycerine.

  28. You wanna scare a kid away from doing heroin. Show them Trainspotting or Requim For a Dream. Those films nicely show the dangers (and describe the pleasures) of drug abuse, without being preachy.

  29. Fearless Freaks includes an anti-heroin message. Might be good to buy an extra fire extinguisher before letting your kid see it though.

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