Lloyd Johnston, a research scientist at the University of Michigan, has for the last quarter-century headed the federally funded Monitoring the Future study of drug use and other behaviors among American students and young adults (http://www.monitoringthefuture.org). The study's longitudinal surveys of drug use patterns among the young have long been critical ammunition in the nation's ongoing debate over drug policy. Johnston was interviewed by the Detroit News last week. Below are excerpts from that interview.
On the War on Drugs:
"The metaphor of a war on drugs has always been the wrong one because it is good for mobilizing a country, which is what Richard Nixon did when he introduced the metaphor. But it is not good for sustaining the effort because a war implies that somehow there is going to be a winner and a loser, and there's an end. This is an ongoing problem that is chronic. We will never win it. What we do is contain it and reduce it.
"If you want to think of it in those terms, there is a battlefield of supply reduction and a battlefield of demand reduction. We've not been terribly successful on the supply reduction battlefield. That's often where a sense of futility derives. The fundamental reason is there is an endless supply of suppliers. Whenever we dry up one source country or one intermediary like Manuel Noriega (in Panama), there is always a replacement."
On drug policy reform:
"One thing we have been moving toward, I'm glad to see, is the increasing access to treatment and, in particular, introducing treatment in prisons. We need to have better prevention programs in the schools than we have."
"I'm opposed to legalization because it is likely to increase the proportion of our population, in particular, our young people, using drugs. The drugs that are by far the most widely used are alcohol and tobacco. It is not a coincidence that those are legal drugs. I don't think any of us really want our kids to be high a lot of the time. It is also a policy which is a one-way ratchet. If you legalize, it's very hard to go back. The best illustration of that happened during Prohibition. [People] thought it was their right to have alcohol, and any attempt to remove that 'right' was seen as illegitimate."
"That doesn't necessarily mean I'm in favor of Draconian laws. We can have much milder responses to users as opposed to dealers. In the war on drugs, the enemy are our own kids. It doesn't make a lot of sense [to punish users]. Extreme punishment clearly hasn't worked. What has generally happened is that the stamping has occurred on the little guys, and the big guys still get away. Even some of the conservatives in Michigan who favored minimum mandatory sentencing and so forth want it undone because they basically see it as a failed policy. It filled prisons with people who shouldn't be there."
On long-term trends in drug use:
"This illicit drug epidemic really started in the mid-to late 1960s. The counterculture took some drugs at least as symbolic of its defiance of societal norms, particularly marijuana and LSD. That legitimated drug use for broad sectors of society, particularly youth. We've never really gotten back to before that era in drug use, and we may not for a long time. The thing coasted to a peak in 1978-79, when we saw the highest proportion of Americans using illicit drugs. After that, there was a 13-year period of almost continuous drop in drug use. The major exception was cocaine coming along in the early '80s and establishing itself until 1986. Then, cocaine came to be seen as a very dangerous drug, and its use dropped dramatically.
"In the first half of the '90s, we saw a resurgence of the epidemic until about 1996, '97. But it was specific to adolescence. It was not observed among young or older adults. Marijuana and cigarettes were making a comeback. Then, in the late '90s, there was a turnaround and some reduction in drug use by older teens and more reduction among the younger teens. This is probably the most good news for the future, because they will become the older teens."
On race, ethnicity, and drug use patterns:
"We have known for quite sometime, for example, that African-American kids have never been very interested in inhalants. Similarly, hallucinogens have not caught on among African-American kids. That seems so far to include ecstasy. The African-American kids, especially as they get into their later teens, tend to be lower on all drugs, licit and illicit. There's also now a huge difference in the cigarette smoking rates. Cigarette smoking has clearly lost cachet among black adolescents and is seen as white behavior."
"Unfortunately, we don't have large enough samples to characterize some of the smaller ethnic groups, like Native Americans or Orientals, on an annual basis. But we do look at them periodically. In general, Native Americans tend to have the highest illicit drug use rate among any ethnic group, quite devastating actually. Among the three large ethnic groups -- Hispanics, blacks and whites -- whites generally have the highest rate in the middle and late teen years in the school samples. But when we look at the eighth graders, when virtually no dropping out has yet occurred, Hispanics come out high on a number of things. Blacks, on average, have the lowest use rate. And if Orientals were included, they would be lower still."
"DARE is not considered an effective drug prevention program by anybody in the drug use field except DARE. There is an effort to reformulate what DARE is, to change the content and so forth. All that is fine. Individual school districts decide what they are going to have in their curriculum, so they can choose. It seems to me that when there are programs out there that are proven effective, it doesn't make much sense to pick up one that isn't proven effective. One of the fundamental problems with DARE is that it's premised on the notion that a police officer is the best change agent in dealing with kids on this subject. A police officer is an authority figure. These kids are at an age when they are anti-authority. That may be the Achilles heel."