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Teenage Heroin Use? Real Drug Crisis Is Those Over 30

LA Times
February 23, 1997
Michael A. Males

IRVINE--As White House drug czar Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey and assorted drug-war-nurtured interests step up their exaggerated talk about teenagers and heroin use, and youth and marijuana use, America's true drug crisis has erupted--among adults in their 30s and 40s, the age group parenting teens.

More serious by far than the increase in teenage marijuana use--and ignored by drug-war officials--is the explosion in middle-aged hard-drug abuse. In 1980, 260 Californians age 30-49 died of drug overdoses; in 1995, 1,400 died. Emergency hospital treatments of middle-aged people for drug overdoses quadrupled over the last decade, the largest increase of any age group. Today, drugs send 400,000 middle-agers to emergency care and half a million to addiction treatment annually.

The 1995 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse studied this "aging cohort," which now accounts for most drug abuse, hospital emergencies and deaths: "In 1979, 12% of patients with cocaine episodes were age 35 and older," it reported. "By 1985, that proportion was 19%; and by 1995, it was 43%." Equally ominous, 15 million Americans over age 35 reported regular "binge" drinking of alcohol in 1995, 4 million more than in 1992.

Along with this explosion in drug abuse has come rising household violence. From 1980 to 1995, the per-capita rate of felony violent-crime arrests among 30- to 49-year-olds rose by 76%, faster than among teens (61%). The most recent National Household Survey, hospital and coroner reports compiled by the federal Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), and the FBI show that, according to their own figures, the line that drug officials are handing the public is malarkey.

Unfortunately, the public is buying it. Last year, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America and the major media focused on a "crisis" of "teenage heroin smoking." Ads and news stories defamed the typical eighth-grader as a smack junkie. But the teen-heroin scare campaign was not backed by any solid data. DAWN surveys showed that teens comprised just 150 of the nation's 38,000 hospital emergency-room treatments for heroin abuse in the first half of 1995. The household survey found that only two in every 1,000 12- to 17-year-olds use heroin. In fact, the only age group to show a significant increase in smoking heroin was "adults age 35 and older."

More disinformation is on the way. In November, anti-drug chief McCaffrey unveiled his plan to paint Arizona and California as living hells because voters legalized marijuana use for medical purposes. McCaffrey made no pretense of objectivity. He intends to discover "increased drug abuse in every category" to blame on the new laws, a standard he never applied to the drug-abuse surge accompanying his own war on drugs. McCaffrey trivializes the national emergency with crowd-pleasing tactics: lecturing Hollywood about drugs on the big screen and endlessly scolding adolescents en masse because one-tenth of their number defy his reefer-madness crusade.

Drug-war luminaries can sidestep the mushrooming crises of adult drug abuse and violence that menace young people in their homes, but youths enjoy no such luxury. Consistent research finds that a large majority of child-abuse-and-neglect cases relate to parents' drug and alcohol addiction. Yet, a 1996 federal report showing that serious child abuse has quadrupled since 1986 drew no comment from President Bill Clinton or other "family-values" champions ever ready to berate "kids and marijuana" and "youth violence."

Drug-war stalwarts such as Joseph A. Califano Jr. of Columbia University defend the official silence on grown-up drug woes, and the obsession with teens and pot, because adult drug abusers begin "using drugs before they are 21" and marijuana is the "steppingstone to more serious problems." Teens who use marijuana are 85 times more likely to try cocaine, Califano argues. According to drug-war doctrine, America's entire drug malaise would fade away if no adolescent ever lighted a joint.

Aside from effectively excusing adult drug abuse and ignoring that parents' habits are a major influence on youths, such ideology is backward reasoning. Certainly, the small fraction that tries cocaine or heroin would not be above sampling marijuana along the way. But, more to the point, the household survey shows that 65 million Americans have smoked pot. Today, around 3 million Americans are regular users of harder drugs such as cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine. Assuming every hard-drug user once smoked a joint, 95% of marijuana users do not become habitues of hard drugs; 85% don't even continue using pot. The drug war's pot-equals-heroin logic makes as much sense as arguing that because some church bingo players become compulsive gamblers, we should ignore addictive gambling and instead criminalize church bingo.

Such thinking was codified by former drug czar William J. Bennett, whose 1989 National Drug Control Strategy downplayed measures focused on treating drug addiction. Rather, it proclaimed the "essence" of the drug problem was "use itself," especially "casual use, experimentation," because the very lack of suffering among casual users makes "their kind of drug use . . . most contagious." In contrast, addicts should be benignly neglected because they are "a mess" and "represent the worst possible advertisement for new drug use. "

This logic serves official self-interest by denying that today's drug abusers are mostly aging baby boomers who never shook multidrug habits rooted in misused prescription drugs (particularly barbiturates), heroin (especially among Vietnam veterans) and alcohol. In contrast, mellowing '60s pot dabblers suffer few drug problems today. Long-term studies by Berkeley and UCLA psychologists of hundreds of youths and young adults found that those who occasionally used marijuana seldom developed drug problems in adulthood; in fact, psychological measures found them better adjusted than those who abstained. Similarly, the 1995 household survey reported that "occasional users" and "those who use only marijuana" are very unlikely to display severe problems.

Despite the uproar over today's more potent marijuana, it is remarkable how little documented damage marijuana causes, especially among youths. No marijuana-overdose deaths have been recorded in California in years. Of the 10 million emergency hospital visits among teens nationwide in 1994, only 6,400 (including overdoses, car wrecks, accidents and suicide attempts) involved marijuana. Of that 6,400, four-fifths involved marijuana in combination with harder drugs, "particularly alcohol and cocaine," DAWN reported. Thus, only 1,300 teen cases involved marijuana or hashish alone--about the same number attributed to the allergy medication, Benadryl. By contrast, 25,000 teens wound up in emergency rooms after using aspirin or aspirin substitutes.

Current drug policy ignores the lessons of the 1960s: Moderate drug, particularly marijuana, experimentation is normal and widespread among the young--and will abate without frantic suppression measures. However, the smaller number of habitual users of harder drugs and multiple drugs require urgent and focused attention regardless of their ages.

We now suffer the calamitous results of a decade of backward drug doctrine. After spending hundreds of millions and arresting millions to fight drugs, America now faces its worst drug crisis. Instead of accepting accountability for policy disaster, drug-war strategists indulge in scapegoating and evasion: Media campaigns vilify teenagers as dopers defying grown-up "family values;" blame is placed on rock and rap lyrics, pot-leaf T-shirts and medical marijuana conspirators.

If the past is prologue, the future is bleak. California's '60s barbiturate crisis, which cost more than 10,000 lives, showed how quickly drug-abuse habits can spread from parent to youth generations. In the early '60s, barbiturate abuse was confined to those over age 30; by 1970, one-third of the toll from these addictive, deadly prescription sedatives was under 25. Kids raised in drug-abusing families are far more likely to abuse drugs themselves.

Ironically, the brightest spot in today's escalating drug malaise is teenagers. Teenage drug-death rates plummeted in the late 1970s and have remained low ever since. In 1970, 134 California teens died from drug overdoses, falling to 26 in 1981 and 21 in 1995. Today, just 5% of California's 2,000 annual drug deaths are under age 25. Surveys show fewer than 1% of teens use heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine, which is why (unlike today's middle-agers) they aren't landing in emergency rooms or morgues.

But, given the growing drug abuse and violence in American households and official indifference, will adolescents' good behavior last? That will depend on the ability of young people to resist the growing drug habituation, absolutist moralisms and hypocritical "values" of an aging America whose officials treat young people as little more than an easily exploited political commodity.

Michael A. Males Is the Author of "The Scapegoat Generation:
America's War on Adolescents" (Common Courage Press)