This week, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, in conjunction with the Partnership for a Drug Free America, launched a $2 Billion anti-drug media campaign. Advertise-ments will run nationwide, on television, radio and the Internet. The ads will warn, threaten, cajole and plead with kids to stay away from the illicit drugs that we, after nearly eighty years of drug prohibition, have been unable to keep out of their reach.
The ads, insofar as they are truthful, will probably do no harm, though there is scant evidence that they will do much good, other than to convince American parents that their government is at least doing something. But the very presence of the ads begs the larger and more important question: Why are these dangerous substances so far outside of the control of responsible society that we cannot keep them out of the hands of kids? The answer is that drug prohibition, like alcohol prohibition before it, has failed our children, and failed them spectacularly.
We have been here before. On February 9, 1925, nearly halfway through America's disastrous national experiment in alcohol prohibition, Colonel William L. Barker, Northern Division, Salvation Army, was asked by a Minnesota newspaper reporter about the impact of Prohibition. Col. Barker's response, which speaks to a vastly increased level of access by children to prohibited substances, is as relevant to the parents of today as it was to the parents of the time. "Prohibition has diverted the energies of the Salvation Army from the drunkard in the gutter to the boys and girls in their teens," he said. "The work of the Army has completely changed in the past five years... Prohibition has so materially affected society that we have girls in our rescue homes who are 14 and 15 years old, while 10 years ago the youngest was in the early twenties."
Today, we are faced with the shocking reality of twelve and thirteen year-olds using heroin, methamphetamine and LSD. And despite ever-increasing efforts to enforce prohibition, Michigan University's Monitoring The Future Survey shows that over the past twenty years, while America's incarce-rated population has grown nearly ten-fold, access by kids to these substances has either risen almost across the board. As for marijuana, the Michigan study shows that nearly 90% of twelfth graders say it is "easy" or "fairly easy" to obtain. And a survey, released in 1997 by the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, found that when asked which is easier to buy, nearly four times as many 12-17 year-olds answered 'marijuana' as 'beer'.
Drug prohibition, far from a form of "drug control", is in reality the surrendering of control over dangerous and addictive substances into the hands of criminals. Envision a system under which licensed and highly regulated professionals (such as pharmacists) sell well-labeled and reliably pure substances at small profit margins from limited numbers of outlets to adults with valid proof of age under penalty of losing their livelihood. Now consider the reality of our current prohibition, a system under which unknown numbers of individuals, cloaked in secrecy, realize obscene profits by selling unlabeled substances of unknown purity in school yards and on street corners to anyone, of any age who can be convinced to buy them. And kids, young kids, are advantageous customers as they are very unlikely to be either cops or informants.
In testimony on Capitol Hill last month, Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey bemoaned the presence of an insidious "elitist group" and their "devious" attempts to reform our nation's drug policy. He spoke of the "horrifying" prospect of "legalization", including "heroin being sold at the corner store to children with false identifications." But when was the last time that a child in this country, attempting to buy heroin, was asked for identification, false or otherwise, under the present system?
In the face of McCaffrey's blatant mischaracterization, there are a growing number of responsible Americans, people like Mayor Kurt Schmoke of Baltimore, Ronald Reagan's former Secretary of State George Schultz, journalistic icon Walter Cronkite, and millions of American parents, doctors, educators and others who are calling for a re-examination of the very premise of prohibition. These dissenters are neither "devious" nor motivated by some desire to see the drug problem in this country get worse, especially as it relates to children. They simply understand that drug prohibition has not protected our kids any better than alcohol prohibition protected the youngsters of the nineteen twenties.
At the ceremony heralding the launch of the media campaign in Atlanta, President Clinton told students, "These ads are designed to knock America upside its head and get America's attention." But "knocking Americans upside the head" is exactly what the drug war has done for decades, with disastrous consequences. What is needed is rationality and a strategy that emphasizes taking control, not more violence, psychological or otherwise. And who decided that kids, at whom the ads are primarily targeted, will respond to being "knocked upside the head" by their elders? Better we should take the drugs off the streets and concentrate as a society on providing kids with meaningful opportunities to become engaged, to connect with their communities and with people worth emulating. Has Bill Clinton, baby-boomer darling, forgotten how powerful is the pull of youth to ignore or even actively oppose the threats and the moralizing of ones' parents' generation? Or is Clinton, together with the rest of the Drug War establishment, buried so deep in their own bullshit that they are unable or unwilling to recognize the blatant hypocrisy in the rhetoric they trumpet as gospel?
While it is certainly important to provide kids with information and warnings about the potential dangers of drug use, especially use at an early age, it is unlikely that the campaign will have much impact in an era of Prohibition. It is feel-good spending and election-year politics, diverting the public's attention from a record of failure that should shame even the most shameless politician. In the face of very real threats to the safety of our kids, such tactics ought to be repaid in spades on election night. If this is the best that our leaders can do, while junior high school students purchase heroin from the people to whom we have ceded the trade, then it is time for new leadership.
This week, politicians from across the political spectrum will cheer the launch of the government's newest and most sophisticated anti-drug media campaign. But as you watch those spiffy new Partnership ads, ask yourself why our leaders insist on clinging to a system which abandons our children to an uncontrollable black market. And why we, the adults, have been reduced to begging them to just say no.
Adam J. Smith
|Issue #49, 7/10/98 Government Kicks Off Billion Dollar Anti-Drug Ad Campaign | Feds File Motion Allowing Marshals to Shut Down Medical Marijuana Dispensaries | Oakland City Council Adopts Liberal Medical Marijuana Guidelines | Reports: Correlation Between Alcohol and Crime Much Stronger than Correlation Between Illicit Drugs and Crime | Federal Study Suggests Marijuana May Prevent Brain Damage in Stroke Victims | Anti-Needle Exchange H.R. 3717 Moves to Senate | Michigan Legislature Reforms "650 Lifer" Law | Heicklen Arrested at Start of 30 Hour Protest at Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts | Special Report: Drug Policy Down Under | Editorial: Running Ads vs. Protecting Kids||
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