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PERSPECTIVE ON DRUGS

Stop Kidding About Drug-Free Kids

Teens have been educated and many have chosen to indulge. Marijuana is less harmful than alcohol.

January 03, 1997|ETHAN A. NADELMANN | Ethan A. Nadelmann is director of the Lindesmith Center, a drug policy research institute in New York

The latest survey of high school drug use is out. Marijuana use is up, for the fourth year in a row. Forty-five percent of high school seniors say they've tried marijuana, 63% say they've smoked a cigarette and 80% admit to having drunk alcohol.

The government's response was numbingly predictable: Increased drug use "is a wake-up call for America," drug czar Barry McCaffrey declared. "We must renew our commitment . . . that keeping our children drug-free is our No. 1 priority."

The latest data may constitute a wake-up call, but it's not for renewing our commitment to drug-free children. That sounds great--who wants kids using drugs?--but it's both pointless and counterproductive.

This generation of kids using marijuana is the same group of kids that was more exposed to anti-drug propaganda than any other generation of kids in history. The problem is not that we've let up in our campaign against marijuana and other drug use, but that we've pursued the wrong strategy, one that relies too heavily on "just say no" rhetoric, visions of a drug-free society and distortions of the scientific evidence.

Federally funded drug education programs in the United States today are virtually prohibited from teaching anything other than "just say no" approaches. Most Americans understand that sex education has to offer something other than "just say no." The same has to be true of drug education, given that most kids break the drug laws before they lose their virginity.

Of course it makes sense to delay the onset of drug use among kids. No one wants preteens using powerful psychoactive drugs, and we'd just as soon teens abstained as well (although it's worth observing that kids who learn to use drugs responsibly, often in religious contexts, when they're young--as many Jewish American kids do with wine, and many kids in indigenous societies do with hallucinogens--are among the least likely to abuse drugs as adults). Yet the fact is that most adolescents are using drugs, and our drug education programs fail to address that reality.

The drug warriors want to blame current and former drug users among today's parents for sending the wrong message to their kids. That finger-pointing seems wrongheaded on two counts: First, it makes one wonder who is to blame for the parents' teenage drug use, since few of today's grandparents smoked marijuana when they were young.

But second, and more important, we have every reason to believe that today's parents are no different from their parents in caring about the health and well-being of their kids. In fact, we may be more worried about our kids than our parents were about us: No more throwing the kids in the back of the station wagon, or letting them dash off on a bicycle without a helmet, or dismissing their flirtations with cigarette smoking.

When it comes to drugs, many pot-smoking parents are far more concerned about their teenagers smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol than they are about marijuana. And they know what they're talking about: They know that alcohol is far more associated than marijuana with rape and other violent behavior, dangerous driving and unprotected sex. And they know that their kids will find it harder to quit cigarettes than almost any other drug.

If we're going to tell the truth about drugs, we cannot pretend that all drug use is drug abuse. Just as we try to educate our kids about the differences between protected and unprotected sex, and between sex in a loving relationship and sex that is casual or exploitative, so our kids need to hear from us about the differences between responsible and irresponsible drug use.

When it comes to marijuana, we have good reason for concern when young kids start smoking, or when teenagers start to use it frequently. But reasons for concern are not reasons for panic or alarm, especially when kids are acting responsibly in other aspects of their lives.

Drug warriors frequently remind us that there are few cocaine or heroin addicts who did not smoke marijuana first. But they tend to skip over some other important facts: that the vast majority of the roughly 80 million Americans who have smoked marijuana never became drug addicts or marijuana abusers, and that most never have used other illicit drugs.

We count on our kids, for better and worse, to experiment, take risks and otherwise do all sorts of things that are part of growing up. Our obligations as parents are to love and support our kids, and to inculcate in them the values that will make of them good citizens and agood human beings. For many parents, pot smokers included, that includes honesty, trust, compassion, personal responsibility and respect for one's fellow human beings, including those who look, talk and act differently from ourselves. Neither abstinence from drugs nor blind adherence to unjust laws are necessarily consistent with those values.

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