Barely half of today's parents would be upset if they caught their teens experimenting with marijuana, according to an annual survey released Tuesday. That finding, along with others suggesting that personal experience of drugs among parents today trumps decades of anti-drug propaganda, is cause for concern for the study's sponsor, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.
While only 11% of parents reported being current pot smokers, 58% reported having used marijuana, a figure unsurprising in a generation that grew up dazed and confused in the 1970s and early 1980s, a time when reported teen drug use was at an all-time high. This cohort of parents, some 23 million strong, is slightly less likely to believe that experimentation with marijuana poses a "great risk" to teens (28%, compared to 29% six years ago). Nearly half of today's parents said that experimental marijuana use poses only a "slight risk or no risk," with 43% agreeing with that statement, up from 35% in 1998.
Parental estimates of risk of other drug use -- regular marijuana smoking, experimental cocaine use, regular cocaine use -- also declined in the survey compared to 1998. But in all of those categories, large majorities of parents continued to see those activities as highly risky. Nearly two-third of parents saw regular pot smoking among teens as highly risky, while 86% said the same about teens' regular cocaine use.
"While the vast majority of parents have left old habits behind, they're carrying old attitudes and beliefs forward," said Steve Pasierb, president and CEO of the Partnership. "If old habits die hard, the data suggests lax attitudes about drugs die even harder. "To be clear, parents don't want their kids using drugs -- any drugs," Pasierb said. "But the data tell us today's parents don't regard drug use as seriously as past generations of parents. Our challenge is getting parents to look at this issue anew, and in ways that penetrate their current beliefs and attitudes."
The Partnership was particularly perturbed by a finding that the number of parents who had never talked to their kids about drug abuse had doubled in six years, from 6% in 1998 to 12% this year. "Alcohol, tobacco, marijuana cocaine -- parents know these drugs," said Pasierb. "Today's teens, however, are exposed to new drugs of abuse -- Ecstasy, GHB, crystal meth, and increasingly, a wide variety of prescription and over-the-counter medications. In total, parents are seeing less risk in a variety of drugs and fewer parents are talking with kids just when teens are facing new drugs and new drug threats. All of this adds up to a potentially dangerous convergence in the trends -- one that we must interrupt."
What Pasierb does not mention is that while certain substances may be new, they fit well into existing drug typologies. Ecstasy, a mild psychedelic, has been popular for at least 20 years, GHB is a soporific, "crystal meth" (the Partnership's term for "ice" or smokeable methamphetamine) is a stimulant like other amphetamines, prescription drugs of abuse are typically sedatives or opiates. Today's parents, with their experience of drug use, may be more able to understand these "new" drugs than Pasierb is willing to allow.
But the Partnership is drawling a different lesson from the findings. It is using them to launch a "new, national communications effort designed to reach parents with new, compelling information about the evolving nature of the drug problem in America." The program, to be called Partnering With Families, is part of the Partnership's free contribution to the Office of National Drug Control Policy's National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign.