Long-time drug trend researcher Dr. Andrew Golub has produced a report on marijuana use among young offenders that may be causing the study's sponsor, the US Department of Justice, to wonder whether it should be seeking a refund. Not that the science is bad -- Golub's methodology is strong and his findings unsurprising -- but if the government was looking for a rubber stamp of approval for the drug war, it was clearly disappointed.
Using statistics from the Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring (ADAM) program, the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, and the annual Monitoring the Future surveys of high school students, Golub and co-author Bruce D. Johnson found that the percentage of youth testing positive for marijuana when arrested increased rapidly in the early and mid-1990s before stabilizing at the new, higher levels in the latter part of the decade. In the early part of the decade, 25% of youthful arrestees had marijuana in systems, but by 1996 that figure had jumped to 57% and has hovered in that area ever since, the study reports. According to Golub and Johnson, this rise in marijuana-using young arrestees generally parallels the increase in smoking among teenagers widely reported in the 1990s, with two provisos: The increase in young offenders smoking marijuana predated the rise in teenage use by a year, and the increase in youthful offenders was greater than the increase among young marijuana smokers in general.
What the authors melodramatically refer to as "The New Marijuana Epidemic" among young people was evident nationwide by 1999, with 22% of high school seniors reporting past-month usage. While adherents of the gateway theory (that marijuana is a "gateway" to hard drug use) would predict a new hard drug epidemic in the near future, Golub and Johnson are not so sure.
"The start of this new epidemic coincides with the decline of the crack epidemic," they wrote. "This suggests that youthful subcultures may have shifted from the destructive nature of crack abuse to the use of less dangerous drugs. Marijuana appears to have become the drug of choice among youths coming of age in the 1990s who tend to get in trouble with the law in the same way that crack had been the drug of choice previously."
"I think the findings are powerfully significant," Golub, a senior researcher at the National Development and Research Institute, a New York-based private, nonprofit foundation, told reporters as he announced the study's findings. "Fifteen years ago, we documented that the use of cocaine, particularly crack cocaine, was rampant among arrestees. Five years ago, we documented that crack was declining. What we see today is that the drug of choice among arrestees is marijuana and that it is not serving as a gateway to something else," Golub said.
"Many of these individuals have seen the devastation resulting from crack and heroin use, and they blame their parents' experiences on their use of these drugs," he said. "And this explains why for many of these youths, use of marijuana is perceived as an act of resilience" that is celebrated in everything from clothing to music.
"This is a social phenomenon," Golub said. "These youths define marijuana as not a drug. The pattern seems to be indigenous to today's youth. In other words, the habit was not passed down to them. They chose it."
And hip-hop culture had something to do with it, Golub told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "The incubation phase [of a drug trend] typically grows out of a specific social context. For example, the heroin injection epidemic grew out of the jazz era and the crack epidemic started among inner-city drug dealers," said Golub. "There is evidence to suggest that the incubation phase of the new marijuana epidemic began with the youthful, inner-city, predominantly African-American, hip-hop movement."
In the study's conclusions, the authors note that, given marijuana's status as the most popular illicit drug, drug abuse control policies might logically focus on marijuana. That would be a mistake, they say. "[D]rug-using members of the New Marijuana Generation are damaging themselves less physically and socially than the preceding generation of crack smokers and heroin injectors. They are also causing much less harm to the broader population," wrote Golub and Johnson.
Noting that ethnographic studies of inner-city communities suggest a "dramatic shift in the subculture of drug use and that interactions have become more congenial and less violent," the authors call for a rethinking of marijuana enforcement policies. "Perhaps this is the time to deemphasize 'tough' drug enforcement policies in favor of indirect drug abuse control through the reduction of the economic, educational, and social barriers faced by many inner-city youth in establishing a healthy and mainstream lifestyle."
The National Institute of Justice Research Brief, "The Rise of Marijuana as the Drug of Choice Among Youthful Adult Arrestees," is available in either ASCII or Adobe Acrobat format at http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij/pubs-sum/187490.htm online.