It has been said that Washington DC is the birthplace of "spin". But whether or not the practice of creative, interpretive media interaction originated in our nation's capital, nowhere has it evolved more completely into an art form.

Take the release this week of the results of the National Household Survey on Substance Abuse, which show that teenage marijuana use is once again on the increase. To those who are unfamiliar with the "all news proves we're right" school of Washington thought, it might appear that whatever it is that we are doing to combat teen drug use is not working. In fact, the truth, as promulgated by Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey, (and we know that he tells the truth because, well, he's a federal official working for the taxpayers for goodness sake) is that the numbers indicate that we are on exactly the right track, and that things will be great as long as we keep doing the same things... only more so.

In a press release from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) this week, Barry McCaffrey told the nation's media:

"This excellent study confirms the significant threat from illegal drugs to our children. We must face this threat head-on, which we intend to do. We embrace today's findings as further proof of the need to fully fund the National Drug Control Strategy."

In this, the opening paragraph of the press release, McCaffrey makes at least three important points:

1. There are kids in America who are using drugs.

2. It is important to disregard the fact that we have been trying to stop kids from using drugs for the past three decades or more, and focus on what we intend to do. That is, we intend to "face the problem head-on," so you just wait for the results of that collision before you make any judgments about our progress. And,

3. The rising numbers of kids smoking pot proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that our plan must be fully funded by Congress. Trust us, we have over 80 years worth of experience with prohibitionist plans just like this one, and we know what we're talking about.

It is interesting to note that McCaffrey, upon finding out that teen marijuana use is rising, actually said that he "embraces" the findings of the survey, so thoroughly does it prove that he is right.

Flash back one year to 1997, when the Department of Health and Human Services released the results of the Household Survey measuring drug use for 1996. That survey showed teen marijuana use leveling off after several years of steady increase. Not surprisingly, the administration's take on those results had a familiar ring.

".drugs are a sustained threat to our young people," McCaffrey said in a press release issued by HHS in August of `97. "That is why the President's budget increases funding by 21% for the number one goal of the National Drug Control Strategy: to educate and enable America's youth to reject illegal drugs..."

In the real world, people analyze the results of a study or a survey in order to find out what they mean and, thereby, what actions ought to be taken. In Washington, however, people are paid big money to find ways to spin the results to justify whatever strategy has already been decided upon. And since most of the strategies that the government employs cost millions if not billions of dollars, and since there are always several interested parties, including the agency whose budget the money will flow through and the private sector interests that will be enriched in the end, there is always a demand for people who can "give good spin."

So, to recap: If teen drug use goes down, it is because the government is doing the right thing and it is imperative that we continue to fund their efforts at ever-increasing levels. If, on the other hand, teen drug use goes up, it means that (pay attention, this is the tricky part) it is imperative that we increase funding for their strategy, perhaps under a new and improved title or a "four year" or a "ten year" plan which, of course, cannot be blamed for the current crisis since it will only go into effect once the new funding comes through. Got it?

The facts though, show that in every city and town in the country (outside of the beltway, of course), drug use rates, and especially teen drug use rates, have run in cycles wholly independent of how much money the federal government appropriates to the issue. In fact, with the monster's share of drug war funding from all levels of government going to enforcement, and with record numbers of arrests for even the most non-violent of drug offenses (85% of the record 640,000 marijuana arrests in 1997 were for possession), if the results of the Household Survey show anything, it is that we cannot possibly arrest enough Americans to scare teens off of marijuana. And that under Prohibition, and the black market that it inevitably engenders, we cannot keep it out of their hands either.

Teen drug use surveys are notoriously unreliable in their findings, but they are also tremendously important to those whose budgets and careers depend upon the continued prosecution of the Drug War. It makes no difference whether the numbers show a marked increase in use, a marked decrease in use, or no change at all. Any result can be spun to argue for more of the same failed strategy, and for more money to carry it out. This is, after all, Washington DC. And in Washington, more than any other place on earth, to the spinners go the spoils.

Adam J. Smith
Associate Director

-- END --
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Issue #56, 8/28/98 Household Survey Reports: Teen Marijuana Use Up Again | Trial In Canada Brings Medical Marijuana To National Attention | Private Researcher Plants First Medical Marijuana Crop | Media Alert: DARE Criticized in Houston | News Briefs | New DRCNet Mailing Lists | Events | Editorial: Spin, You Win
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