Drug czar John Walters and a clique of co-conspirators joined University of Michigan researcher Lloyd Johnston at the National Press Club in downtown Washington, DC, Tuesday to tout the rather ho-hum results of Johnson's annual Monitoring the Future survey of drug use among 8th, 10th, and 12th grade students. Walters and company got to spin the study's numbers for the first half of the press conference, but the room temperature began to rise when young members of some drug reform groups posing as reporters began to ask the questions.
Walters, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov), trumpeted the findings as evidence that the Bush administration's teen anti-drug policies are working. "There are now 600,000 fewer teens using drugs than there were in 2001," said Walters. "This is real progress. We know that if we can prevent kids from trying drugs in their teenage years, we dramatically reduce the likelihood that they will go on to have problems later in life. The results released today are good news for American parents and teens, and great news for our country."
But on closer examination, those results are not as rosy as Walters suggested. While the numbers are indeed trending down, they are well within the ranges historically reported by MTF, which has conducted the survey each year since 1979, and well above rates reported in the early 1990s during the presidency of George Herbert Walker Bush.
Marijuana, the drug czar's public enemy number one, saw a slight, "not statistically significant" decline in use across all three grades, MTF reported. On the other hand, the use of inhalants is up among all grades, but especially among 8th graders, who may find them attractive because of their low cost and easy access. More than 17% of 8th graders reported lifetime use, compared to 12% of 10th graders and a bit under 11% of seniors. These results leave unanswered the question of whether a policy that decreases pot smoking but increases glue sniffing can be called a success. Also up were rates of alcohol and Oxycontin use, with 5% of 12th graders reporting using the potent pain reliever this year.
MTF's Johnson hinted that teen anti-drug priorities may need to be shifted. "The turnaround in the use of inhalants continues to suggest the need for greater attention to the dangers of inhalant abuse in our media messages and in-school programs," he said. After statements from Johnson, Walters, National Institute of Drug Abuse director Nora Volkow, who emceed the show, and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Adminstration (SAMHSA) administrator Charles Curie (DEA administrator Karen Tandy was a no-show), the panel opened the floor for press questions.
First up was none other than Students for Sensible Drug Policy (http://www.ssdp.org) media director Tom Angell, who zeroed in Walters' and the Bush administration's support for the random, suspicionless drug testing of students. Identifying himself as representing Drug War Chronicle, Angell asked: "Mr. Walters, you frequently tout random student drug testing as a 'silver bullet' solution to our nation's drug problems. But Dr. Johnston and the rest of the Monitoring the Future research team released the largest-ever study on the topic last year, which found that 'school drug testing was not associated with either the prevalence or frequency of student marijuana use, or of other illicit drug use.' Are you prepared to tell Dr. Johnston that his study was methodologically flawed?"
According to C-Span video of the event, MTF's Johnston, who was seated just feet from Walters, laughed out loud. But Walters was not so amused.
The bushwhacked drug czar spent several minutes attempting to explain that the MTF study didn't really measure the impact of random drug testing because not enough schools conducted random drug tests. Along the way, he also admitted that he had no statistics to support the efficacy of testing. "The survey looked at both random and for cause testing -- testing when the student has provided reason to suspect he is using drugs -- but we're talking about random testing, and to know if that works, we need a large pool of schools," Walters said. "We don't have detailed pre- and post-random testing data."
Then it was Johnston's turn, and the veteran scientist stood by his findings. "We looked at schools doing any kind of testing, mostly for cause, and didn't find any statistically significant differences in drug use rates between schools that tested and those that didn't," he said. "We also looked at schools that did random tests of student athletes, which was allowed by the Supreme Court in 1995, and again there were no significant differences in the rates of marijuana use or illicit drug use in general."
Trying to soften the blow to his fellow panelist, Johnston held out the possibility that drug testing could, just maybe, work. "This is not to say it couldn't have an effect," he conceded. But there was just no evidence for that, he said next. "But drug testing as practiced up to the present doesn't seem to have been effective."
Walters received several other skeptical or challenging questions, including one about the DEA's prosecutions of pain management doctors, with the questioner pointedly noting Tandy's absence (see story this issue). Walters responded that diversion was a serious problem and none of the cases prosecuted were even a "close call."
Another questioner challenged the panel on why the federal government did not support needle exchange programs, which have been shown to be effective in reducing the rate of HIV and Hepatitis C infection in injection drug users. NIDA's Nora Volkow intervened to warn that "it's not so straightforward," positing that providing clean needles outside the context of a strong treatment and prevention regime could actually increase disease. Still, Volkow had to grudgingly concede that needle exchanges "can be an adjunct for decreasing HIV."
But even that concession was too much for Walters, who dismissed needle exchanges as "a divisive issue" when "consensus" is needed. "Nothing reduces the transmission of HIV and Hepatitis C as much as getting people into treatment and recovery. We all agree that treatment works," he asserted.
The last question of the evening came from another young drug policy activist turned journalist-for-a-day, Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform (http://www.raiseyourvoice.com) outreach coordinator Brian Dolber. Clearly working the group's key issue -- repeal of the HEA anti-drug provision, which bars students convicted of drug offenses from gaining federal financial aid -- Dolber mentioned the more than 157,000 students affected by the provision, noted that it is up for reauthorization this year, and asked, "Do you believe that denying access to education is a just and effective way to deal with the nation's drug problems?"
"People who have active involvement in drug trafficking and drug problems should not be subsidized by public funding," Walters ventured, ignoring the fact that the anti-drug provision punishes student pot-smokers and scholarship-seeking cocaine kingpins alike. "We need to draw a distinction between victimizers and those who are in need of rehabilitation," he added, also ignoring the possibility that many drug users fall into neither category.
Still, obliquely alluding to the campaign led by CHEAR and SSDP to repeal the anti-drug provision, Walters conceded that "the current law has been a source of debate." He claimed he was looking at the HEA anti-drug provision and "trying to work with people on both sides of the issue."
"Funny," Dolber told DRCNet later that day. "I don't remember the drug czar ever calling SSDP or CHEAR to see how they can help us scale back the drug provision."
All in all, Tuesday's Monitoring the Future press conference, which was designed to let the federal drug warriors trumpet their latest alleged successes, instead put the drug czar and his crew on notice that their party line is not going to go unchallenged.
Read the Monitoring the Future
study online at:
To watch the press conference online in its entirety, visit http://www.c-span.org and do a video search on "John Walters".