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The Reagans' War on Drugs

September 21, 1986

As a researcher on drug abuse, I was delighted with President and Nancy Reagan's address to the nation concerning drug abuse. Their hearts are in the right place. Rather than waging a "war" on drug abuse, however, I believe that they would be better off encouraging the nation to have a "love affair" with our children. A "love affair" with our children would produce such healthy, confident young adults that they would feel no need for drugs.

Many of us in the field of drug-abuse research have interviewed hundreds, sometimes thousands of addicts. The most common request we get from them is, "Doctor, how can I quit for good?" Again and again, the heroin addicts I talk to say that they would love to be able to kiss their dependency on heroin goodby forever, if only they had the knowledge, will or whatever was needed to kill their addiction. Why are they so helpless?

Most of the heroin addicts who came back from Vietnam were able to quit their habit for good upon reentry to U.S. society. They were not helpless. Our home-grown addicts, however, usually come from family backgrounds characterized by instability, lack of parenting and a lack of needed social services.

The poor quality of parenting and the lack in continuity of adult care provided to many U.S. children contribute to a passivity and a sense of helplessness that hobbles individuals for the remainder of their lives. Their unemployment, lack of education and inability to make necessary life-style changes such as quitting an addiction can be attributed, in large part, to the helplessness they learned from childhood.

When youths feel that they are masters of their fate, they tend not to want to throw that mastery away on drugs. If we as a people are generally interested in reducing the perceived attractiveness of psychoactive drugs to our children, then we have to make much larger investments than we have so far of time, money and other resources in providing the quality of care that will help every U.S. child grow to be self-confident and master of her/his fate.

Our infant mortality, our child abuse, our lack of day-care services, our high school dropout rates are all much much worse in this country than in most developed countries elsewhere. It's no accident that our drug-abuse problem is also much worse than in other developed countries.

As I see it, a "love affair" with our children would be reflected in better and more day-care facilities, in tax policies that more adequately assisted parents in coping with the financial burden of raising children, in nutritional programs that were made available to more children, in schools that had fewer students per teacher, in a huge increase in the accessibility of family planning services to teen-agers, and in stricter regulation of commercial messages extolling the benefits of using psychoactive drugs such as alcohol, tobacco and tranquilizers.


Los Angeles

McCarthy is an assistant research psychologist at the UCLA Department of Psychology.

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