DRCNet Interview: Youth Sociologist Mike Males 11/21/03

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University of California at Santa Cruz sociologist Mike Males (http://home.earthlink.net/~mmales/) has been casting a jaundiced eye on the national discourse on youth for years. In an era when children are alternately viewed as potential "superpredators" or moral imbeciles incapable of protecting themselves from potential danger, Males brings a refreshing and provocative voice to the table. A senior researcher at the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, Males is also author of such books as "The Scapegoat Generation: America's War on Adolescents" and "Framing Youth: 10 Myths About the Next Generation." DRCNet originally contacted Males for his insights on the South Carolina Stratford High School raid, and we found his comments so thought provoking that we came back this week for more.

Drug War Chronicle: You have written extensively about the scapegoating of youth. Generally, what do you mean by that? How is it manifested?

Professor Mike Males: Thirty years ago, Margaret Mead wrote that adults in societies experiencing rapid social change automatically fear youths as symbols of an alien, menacing future older age groups don't comprehend. While must cultures have taken steps to keep generations connected, Americans -- experiencing not just social, but racial evolution -- have let fear and hostility toward youth rage out of control. Today's American adults are irrationally afraid of youths and imagine that young people -- particularly in cities and states in which aging adults are white and youths are increasingly non-white -- harbor unheard of dangers and threats. Private industries have arisen to profit from grownup fright toward the young and advance their interests by inflaming them further. As a result, virtually every American social problem today -- drugs, drinking, smoking, violence, crime, guns, imprisonment, AIDS, obesity, poverty, anti-social behavior, bad moral values -- are quickly converted into epidemics caused by youths. Private and political interests across the spectrum push their own solutions to punish, manage and redirect the supposedly out-of-control young.

In reality, however, every standard measure shows that it is not teenagers but aging baby boomers who are causing today's most serious, fastest-growing problems with drug addiction, crime, imprisonment, AIDS, and family and community disarray. Because the older generation refuses to face its problems, it inflicts especially vicious stigmas and disinvestments on younger generations. As a result of rising adult paranoia that has no basis in reality, America is in a punishing, terrified rage against youths -- one, unfortunately, fed by interests from left to right across the spectrum. I spent a lot of time in "Scapegoat Generation" (1996) and "Framing Youth" (1999) showing that nearly all the imagined youth crises of today -- from guns to heroin to suicide -- are hallucinations. They simply do not exist, and the big problems are among the middle-agers. It is a disgraceful situation, and both the war on drugs and its reformist opponents advance their goals by deploying the worst disinformation about youth while ignoring the crisis of addiction, crime, and rigidly punishing moralism among older Americans that threaten young people far more than drugs ever did.

America's most catastrophic social crisis over the last 25 years has been the explosion in hard-drug abuse among aging baby boomers. More than 100,000 Americans over age 30 have died from overdoses of illegal drugs since 1980, and untold thousands more have died from illicit-drug effects, such as accidents and chronic abuse, and millions have been hospitalized in drug emergencies. Today the fastest growing population in terms of drug abuse, criminal arrest for violent, property, and drug offenses, and imprisonment is persons aged 35 to 59, mostly white. This middle-aged crisis underlies a parallel explosion in felony crime and imprisonment, family violence and community disruption, and drug-supply gangs whose conflicts have contributed to the murders of thousands of inner-city young men at the street level of drug distribution. The most recent federal Drug Abuse Warning Network figures, for 2001 and 2002, show drug abuse deaths and hospital emergencies are at record levels, worse than at any time in known history.

Yet no one -- certainly not the drug war, and bafflingly not reformers -- mentions this middle-aged drug crisis, which has skyrocketed every year as the drug war has escalated. Instead, drug reform groups have tamely gone along with the drug war's hysterical obsession with whether a few teens smoke pot, which is a non-issue. Teens comprise perhaps 2% of America's drug problem, but 90% of the raging controversy over drug use. That is scapegoating.

Chronicle: How does the war on drugs play into targeting young people?

Males: The drug war has prospered -- despite its massive failure to stem drug abuse after spending hundreds of billions of dollars and arresting 13 million people over the past 20 years -- by constantly whipping up fears of adolescents. Nearly every ONDCP, Partnership for a Drug-Free America, and CASA press release today claims a massive, conveniently hidden teenage drug crisis -- the crisis rotates from coke to pot to heroin to meth to ecstasy to Oxycontin, etc. -- terrible scourges they claim parents would be terrified of if they knew about them.

The teen drug crisis does not exist. I've investigated nearly every one of them. There is no evidence of teenage deaths, hospital ER cases, or even addiction-related crime by youths that would be obvious if any real youth drug abuse epidemic existed. Rather, it is fear of some imagined youth crisis that drives the war on drugs. Today's San Francisco Chronicle reports John Walters was in San Francisco campaigning against medical marijuana because he says it makes pot sound harmless, leading many youths to smoke it when many are supposedly in treatment for pot abuse. Another article says an Oakland youth center has to move because medical marijuana clubs in Oaksterdam are a bad influence on kids. And on and on. It's easy to refute Walters' hysteria; the vast majority of youths forced into treatment for pot are there not for dependency, but for "non-dependent abuse," which mainly means just "use."

But the larger point is Walters' and drug warriors' relentless campaign to tie marijuana and other drugs to teenagers. Why do they do this? We spend a lot of time refuting wild exaggerations of the health dangers of pot or ecstasy, which is fine. But what we have to recognize is that a drug isn't illegal because of its potential for damage -- or else hard liquor and tobacco would be outlawed -- but because of who is perceived as using the drug. Teenagers are an unpopular, feared, even hated minority in the US that is falsely depicted as causing terrible social problems. In fact, teens use pot as responsibly as adults do, and they aren't causing terrible problems -- but the fearsome image created by the drug war is one of a massive, frightening youth crisis.

Unfortunately, several drug policy reform groups have issued public statements reinforcing the drug war's distorted claim that teens are suffering some kind of drug abuse crisis and agreeing that stopping teens from using any drug should be our drug policy's overriding goal. This is not simply dishonest, it's a politically insane strategy for reformers to pursue. What they are saying is that marijuana is so dangerous to teens that we should marshal the drug war to enforce absolute teen prohibition. Bizarrely, they somehow think this tactic will build support for their nonsensical claim that legalizing marijuana for adults will stop teens from getting it.

These groups comb dozens of surveys (including ones such as CASA's and PRIDE's that are completely biased and unreliable) that measure use of dozens of drugs across multiple adolescent groups and drug-use categories such as lifetime, monthly, etc. -- hundreds of numbers each year, which always show some drugs are being used a bit more and some a bit less -- in order to selectively ferret out any increase in teen use, no matter how insignificant. They then issue alarmist press releases alleging huge increases in this or that category of teenage coke or heroin or pot use and blaming the drug war for failing to "protect our children." Those kind of emotional, prohibitionist scare tactics are exactly what we condemn drug warriors for exploiting.

Meanwhile, 200 separate surveys by more reliable entities such as Monitoring the Future and the National Household Survey show without exception that teens find legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco far easier to get, and use them far more, than illegal drugs. The best information is that if we legalize marijuana, a few more teens and adults will use it, and that is no cause for panic. Surveys clearly show strong correlations between adult drinking, smoking, and marijuana use -- where adults use a lot, so do teens.

Crazier still, a few reform lobbies have even supported plans to continue arresting, even imprisoning, persons under 21 for even the smallest marijuana infraction as a ploy to win greater support for legalizing marijuana for use by adults. That is not reform; it just reinforces the drug war's traditional repressions aimed at younger, feared groups. Other, more responsible drug reform groups issue meaningless statements that pretend we can devise some "realistic" anti-drug education scheme aimed at teens that will lead to a society in which adults can party but teens will abstain. It can't be done and shouldn't be tried because it represents a fundamentally misplaced priority.

Youths have already demonstrated that they know the difference between hard and soft drugs. The vast majority of teen drug use today consists of (a) beer, (b) social, that is, weekend or occasional, cigarette smoking, (c) marijuana, and (d) ecstasy. They use softer drugs in more moderate quantities than adults do. That is why so few teens are dying from drugs or getting addicted. It is a major irony that today's adolescents already follow the very model of "harm reduction" that drug reform groups want to see society as a whole adopt, and yet we insist on depicting the teens as in some kind of terrible danger.

Trying to scare the public about teens is not just useless. The whole scheme of focusing on teenage drug use is just plain crazy for drug reformers. This country will never legalize pot as long as it remains so frightened of its youth and ready to believe any terrible thing any self-interest group says. In fact, teenage drug use is the least of our problems. We need to turn down the heat on this issue. Drug reform groups need to go back to basic honesty -- drug abuse (not use) is the problem, older (not younger) groups are suffering from addiction crises, the drug war's diversionary distortions about teens and its punitive policies have only made these worse, and it's time to spell out why America is caught up in its worst drug abuse crisis in history right now -- record peaks in hospitalizations and deaths from illegal drugs, as well as drug-related imprisonments, in 2001 and 2002. The worst crisis is a very real, gigantic increase in drug abuse by hundreds of thousands of older-agers -- mostly white folks -- that no one will talk about precisely because our real drug abusers are higher status, mainstream populations.

The Netherlands has done many fine things with drug policy, and its first step to reform was to change the public image of who abuses drugs from relatively harmless use of soft drugs by young people to the reality of hard-drug abuse by aging addicts. Unfortunately, the Dutch do a terrible job of surveys. You can find a Dutch survey to document anything you want about drug use. The only long-term ones, by the Trimbos Institute, indicate marijuana use was rare among Dutch teens 20 years ago but has since risen to levels comparable with the US. Clearly, the Dutch don't care much about whether 5% or 10% of their teens smoke pot in a given month, and we shouldn't either. It's irrelevant. The real victory is that the Netherlands brought down its heroin death rate by 50% over the past 20 years while heroin deaths in the US quadrupled.

Chronicle: Are you saying that teen drug use is less than it's cracked up to be?

Males: Teen drug use goes up and down, but teen drug abuse (in terms of overdose deaths) is far rarer today than it was 30 years ago, and far lower than middle-aged drug abuse today. Drug reform groups should stop trying to exploit fear of teenagers and just state the facts: Teens are not the drug problem, teenage use of marijuana is not a serious issue, and teens are far more endangered by the drug war's dereliction in preventing manifest drug abuse among their parents and other adults than they are by their own adolescent drug experimentation. Meredith Maran's new book, "Dirty," is fine when it sticks to profiles of individual teen drug abusers, but it is a disaster when it claims a massive teenage drug epidemic and evades the far worse drug abuse in her own baby boom generation.

Chronicle: What should be done about teen drug use?

Males: Let them handle it -- we have no choice in any case. We should have confidence in teens' judgment and learn from them. Teens are using milder drugs (beer, marijuana, ecstasy) in safer settings than adults, which is why teens suffer so few overdoses and deaths today. Of 20,000 drug overdose deaths in 2000, just 475 were under age 20 -- 16,000 were over age 30. Leave teens alone. Look instead at drug abuse by their parents, whose bad example of heroin, cocaine, meth, mixed-drug, and alcohol combined with drug abuse is the best (and most painful) education of the younger generation against hard drug abuse ever.

Chronicle: You talk about teens being scapegoated, but what about the issue of teen safety being used as a wedge for restricting the freedom of adults? And are reformers falling into this trap?

Males: Exactly -- hysteria that a teen might blaze up if pot were legalized is the central fear the drug war exploits to keep pot illegal. It's a phony fear -- neither criminalization nor legalization has anything to do with teen pot use. The Netherlands decriminalized pot and allowed its sale in coffee shops, and Dutch teenage marijuana use tripled during the 1980s and 1990s. The US arrested millions of people (half under age 21) for marijuana use in the 1980s and 1990s, and teenage marijuana use rose rapidly here as well. As of today, it's a wash -- Dutch teens are no more likely to use marijuana than US teens. Both drug warriors and drug reformers have lied shamelessly about whether Dutch-style legalization or US-style punitive prohibition better deters teens from smoking pot. In fact, neither approach has any relevance. Teens smoke pot in accordance with the adult customs of their respective countries, and the legal regime makes no difference.

Interestingly, surveys indicate that in years in which US teen pot-smoking is more prevalent, such as the late 1970s and mid-1990s, teenage death rates from drug overdoses of all kinds (already very low) go lower still. When fewer teens use pot, harder drug fatalities rise. It is time to get the calamitous, 125-year US drug war off dead center. Exploiting fear of drug use by unpopular, feared populations -- whether Chinese and opium, blacks and cocaine, Mexicans and marijuana, or teens and any drug -- just feeds the irrational panic that drives the drug war. America's drug abuse crisis is mainstream -- middle-American, middle-aged, and white. We should say that directly.

Chronicle: How do we remove the drug issue from the arsenal of those who would use it to oppress teens and adults alike?

Males: There is only one way to end a drug war -- to change the public perception of who uses illegal drugs, and to reduce fear of the feared population being used as a scapegoat. The reason the drug war fights medical marijuana so fanatically is that it changes the image of who smokes pot from rebellious teens to respectable, suffering old folks. What drug is stigmatized depends entirely on who is depicted as using the drug. That is why a reformer policy of hyping fear of adolescents is so completely self-defeating.

Chronicle: How do we try to address the broader issue of targeting teens?

Males: In two words: Stop lying. Teens are not the drug problem; not even a small fraction of the drug problem. If we legalize marijuana, and we should for all ages, teen use will probably rise by a small amount. It did in the Netherlands. They didn't panic over that, and we shouldn't either.

Chronicle: And how do we ultimately address the drug issue? Are you a legalizer? Regulator? Decriminalizer?

Males: I'm a legalizer for adolescents and adults alike. I would apply essentially the same standards to soft drugs that Italy or Greece apply to alcohol use. For harder drugs, we have to understand how baby boomers came to suffer such high abuse rates in order to establish regulations to make these drugs legal. Legalizing implies an active government role in preventing and treating drug abuse. Modern teens are the third generation exposed to hard drugs. They've shown they can handle drug availability without the high death rate that plagued baby boomers (the first group exposed to widespread hard drugs). That is a very hopeful sign; we should be publicizing it to reduce fear of adolescents.

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Issue #312, 11/21/03 Editorial: One Step Too Far | Harsh New Drug Bill About to Be Introduced in House | Jamaica: Ganja Decrim is Moving Again | Incident at Goose Creek: Fallout Continues in Aftermath of High School Drug Raid | DRCNet Interview: Youth Sociologist Mike Males | Call Campaign Targets Congressmen Voting Against Medical Marijuana | Newsbrief: Methamphetamine Labs Are Not Weapons of Mass Destruction, North Carolina Judge Rules | Newsbrief: California Judge to Run for Senate on Legalization Platform, Libertarian Ticket | Newsbrief: Mexico City's Top Prosecutor Goes Off the Reservation -- Talks Legalization While Fox Government Vows Loyalty to Drug War | Newsbrief: California to Quit Sending Parolees Back to Prison Over Drug Tests | Newsbrief: Arkansas Attorney General Rejects Medical Marijuana Initiative -- Again | Newsbrief: Filipino Senator Calls for Firing Squads in Continuing Escalation of Drug War Rhetoric | Newsbrief: Reform Judaism National Body Endorses Medical Marijuana | Media Scan: Jack Cole of LEAP on Cultural Baggage Radio Show Next Week | DRCNet Temporarily Suspending Our Web-Based Write-to-Congress Service Due to Funding Shortfalls -- Your Help Can Bring It Back -- Keep Contacting Congress in the Meantime | Perry Fund Accepting Applications for 2003-2004 and 2004-2005 School Years, Providing Scholarships for Students Losing Aid Because of Drug Convictions | The Reformer's Calendar

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