The war on drugs may be actually increasing, not decreasing, teen drug use. Or it could be having no impact at all. Such are the responses provoked by a study released this month. The European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD) survey, comparing drug use between American teenagers and European teenagers, found that a much higher percentage of American teenagers consume illicit drugs than do their European counterparts.
The study, which was released last month at a meeting of the World Health Organization in Stockholm, was conducted by questioning tenth graders from nationally representative samples. 110,000 teens from Europe and the US participated in the questionnaire.
One of the ironies of the drug war is that where it was been waged most loudly and enthusiastically is precisely the place where teen drug use is now most entrenched. Conversely where drug war rhetoric is comparatively mute, teen usage of illicit drugs is much lower. In the Netherlands, for example, which has the most liberal drug policy in Europe and where marijuana is effectively legal, marijuana use among teens is actually lower than in the United States. The survey found 28% of Dutch teens smoked marijuana as compared with 41% of American teens, and 23% of American teens had experimented with other illicit drugs as compared with only 6% of European teens.
But when it comes to legal drugs, such as cigarettes and alcohol, teen usage is much higher in Europe. Thirty-seven percent of European teens had smoked cigarettes in the past month as compared with only 26% of Americans. Sixty-one percent of European teens had consumed alcohol as compared with only 40% of Americans.
When asked about the disparity, Kevin Zeese of Common Sense for Drug Policy pointed to the lure of the forbidden as a major factor. "It is worth pointing out that the Dutch, when they made marijuana available for purchase, said one reason they were doing so was to 'make marijuana boring,'" Zeese told DRCNet.
"Our approach, making marijuana a forbidden fruit where the primary educators on the topic are DARE police officers, has the opposite effect. We make marijuana a magnet for the natural rebellious period of the teen years," Zeese explained. "The laws are easy to break, highlighted in ads and schools, the schools lie about the dangers of marijuana and police are the messengers -- that all adds up to a recipe for encouraging, rather than discouraging teen use. Then, our failure to separate the marijuana market from other illegal drug markets makes it natural to purchase other drugs from the high school dealer."
But one drug policy analyst, Peter Cohen, a professor at the University of Amsterdam, disagrees. He told DRCNet that the study simply shows the drug policy has no effect on drug use. "All modern studies, if done in a way that allows some comparison at least, do not show a very convincing effect of drug policies at all. Determinants of drug use are complex and multiple, like fashions, cultural basics, economic and social situations, etc," Cohen argued.
"Drug policy -- a set of formal rules and laws -- does not seem to play an important role here. Drug policy is much more a tool for value communication and symbolic suppression of perceived deviance, than for real impact on drug use levels," said Cohen.
Cohen said that even though a report he conducted comparing San Francisco with Amsterdam showed drug use much higher in the context of San Francisco's comparatively draconian drug policies, he did not believe liberalizing drug policies in the US would in fact lessen the amount of drug use among US teenagers. "Drug policies (liberal or suppressive) are not much of a tool to impact drug use levels," the policy analyst told DRCNet. "One could easily speak here of the 'irrelevance of drug policy'." Cohen went as far as to say it is a waste of time for governments even to develop a drug policy. He said he could find no evidence of drug policy impacting drug use.
The ESPAD numbers bolster Cohen's argument. They found teenage drug use rising across the continent despite widely varying approaches to the phenomenon. British teenagers, who live under one of the continent's most heavy-handed drug regimes, remain Europe's most prolific teen drug users, with 36% having smoked marijuana -- more than in the Netherlands, with its famously lax laws.
While conceding Cohen's point, Zeese hammered away at the counterproductive nature of US drug laws. "We tend to give too much credit to laws," Zeese agreed. "Laws are not really the primary method of controlling behavior -- societal norms are more important."
But Zeese said he believes that current policies might very well have a paradoxical effect on teen usage. "Sometimes making something illegal undermines societal norms," resulting in the counterintuitive situation where drug prohibition can actually serve as an incentive for teen drug use.
And, Zeese added, there is another problem with relying on a prohibition regime to suppress teen drug use. "Relying on laws also results in parents feeling like they have less responsibility because the law has taken care of it," he pointed out, "so parents become less involved."