|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
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?
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.