Editorial: The drug warriors claim they are "Protecting our children"? 12/20/97

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On December 20, the University of Michigan released its annual "Household Survey" on teenage drug use and attitudes. True to recent trends, the numbers reveal, at best, no significant decline in teen drug use, along with a continued decline in age of onset. In other words, teens have begun drug-using behavior at younger ages than ever before. In addition, the study shows that once again, nearly 90% of teens will report that drugs are either "easy" or "fairly easy" to obtain.

Government officials, from the President, to his "Drug Czar" Barry McCaffrey, to his Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, will decry the statistics. They'll talk about the need for family involvement and mentoring, which is good, they'll talk about their upcoming anti-drug ad campaign, which is probably harmless, they'll talk about a nation's commitment to it's children, which is politically savvy, but once again, they'll fail to address the major problem: The Drug War, justified in the names of "68 million young Americans" is a sham. Far from protecting children, it is putting them in harm's way.

The numbers show, for instance, that a small but not insignificant number of American eighth graders have used heroin in the past year. From our knowledge of kids and the drug scene we can deduce that probably ten times that number were offered the drug during that time. Why are ten to fifteen percent of our 13 year-olds being offered heroin? Perhaps it is because someone has an economic interest in selling it to them. Rather than a system under which these substances are sold by licensed and strictly regulated outlets (clinics, staffed by medical professionals or pharmacologists for instance) and under which we can set strict guidelines as to the age of buyers and the potency and purity of the product, we have a system under which there are virtually no controls. The stuff is sold everywhere, by anyone, usually by people desperate for the money for their own fix. The purity of the substances, and the adulterants used in them (two of the prime causes of accidental overdoses, especially among young, inexperienced users,) is anyone's guess. Children, who are far less likely to turn out to be undercover cops, are among the most desirable of clients.

Then there are the kids who get lured into the drug trade. Whether it's the easy money, the sought-after acceptance of older toughs whom Prohibition has turned into modern-day "gangstas" and folk heroes, or to gain entry into a gang which the child feels is imperative to his own safety on the streets (another situation largely attributable to Prohibition), our children are finding employment in the black market. And even those not lured by these siren songs are forced to live in a "culture of Prohibition" in which violence is an accepted norm, the police are seen as an invading (and increasingly violent and corrupt) army, respect for the law is nearly non-existent, and drugs are "easy" to get.

Why is a system, the results of which are diametrically opposed to its stated purpose (the protection of children), allowed to continue? Why are our children being used to justify their own endangerment? Why is anyone with the temerity to question the status quo called "pro-drug" and worse by the Drug War's staunchest proponents? In a word, the answer is money. All of those billions of dollars being spent to "protect our children" are going somewhere, and mostly they are going into the hands of a small but influential group of industries who are profiting mightily on the status quo. Construction companies scurrying to keep up with the demand for new prisons, corrections companies getting rich off of the privatization of incarceration, defense contractors supplying arms to American and foreign military and police forces for counter-narcotics operations, private drug treatment companies whose rolls are full of court-mandated clients, and on and on.

These industries, and the people who profit from them, put plenty of money into the coffers of political parties and their candidates. (In 1996, for example, the largest single contributor to statewide election campaigns in California, a state with a shockingly high incarceration rate, was the California Prison Guards Association.) The politicians, in turn, demand that America "protect its children" by the perpetuation and expansion of the very system which has given our eighth graders easy access to heroin.

The War on Drugs as a measure of protection for children? This is The Big Lie written large across the landscape of American politics. Currently, one in three African American males between 18 and 29 are under the "supervision" of the criminal justice system, many, if not most, for drug-related offenses. What of their children? What of the neighborhood kids who look up to them? What of the children of the women who make up the enormous recent increase in female inmate populations, often, as FAMM reports, due to mandatory minimum sentences and only the most peripheral connection to the activities of a drug-dealing boyfriend or spouse? What of the seventeen year-old boy, the captain of his high school soccer team, who was shot by federal agents in Queens last month for having the misfortune to have been carrying a candy bar in a shiny, metallic wrapper, through his own neighborhood, which had been declared a "high intensity drug trafficking area"? And what of every other child who lives in such an area? And why have we let the drug trade loose, unregulated and out of control, on their streets in the first place? To protect them?

If 90% of the nation's teenagers find it "easy" to obtain illegal drugs, it is likely that they have GREATER access to these substances than anyone else. The fact is that if the parents of America's teens wanted to buy drugs, the vast majority would have to ask their own kids to "cop" for them. Perversely, it would be difficult to envision a system under which teens could more easily obtain dangerous and addictive substances. We have put temptation directly in front of them, and have given economic incentive to their tempters.

The War on Drugs is worse than ineffective in the battle to protect America's children. It is counter-productive. It is harmful. And, insofar as Prohibition and its defenders are driven by enormous profits and political contributions, it is evil and sick. Remember that this week when the President starts talking.

Adam J. Smith
Associate Director, DRCNet

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Issue #23, 12/20/97 California's Prison Population Expected to Increase Dramatically | California Court Rules Cannabis Buyers' Clubs Not Caregivers Under 215 | Report on Institute of Medicine's First Public Hearing on Medicinal Marijuana | Cannabis Decriminalization Conference in the UK | Health Canada Set to Approve Medical Marijuana on a Case-by-Case Basis | Media Alert from Families Against Mandatory Minimums | November Coalition Spearheads National Show of Protest | Editorial: The drug warriors claim they are "Protecting our children?" | How to Donate to DRCNet
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