SANTA CRUZ, CALIF. -- Remarks by retiring drug czar Barry McCaffrey and
accolades for the Steven Soderbergh film "Traffic" by drug-policy reform
groups frame a vigorous drug-war debate--circa 1970. Thirty years ago,
McCaffrey's goal to save our children from their own drug use might have
been relevant.

So, too, "Traffic" 's scenes of the daughter of the film's drug czar
sampling heroin in response to the hypocrisies of liquor-swilling and
pill-popping grown-ups.

But these vintage baby-boom notions have little to do with today's drug
realities.

On one side, the rhetorical distortions and misdirected policies of the
Office of National Drug Control Policy squandered billions of dollars and
locked up millions of drug users -- and the United States is enduring the
worst drug-abuse crisis in its history.

As McCaffrey leaves office, the federal Drug Abuse Warning Network reports
that drug abuse soared to record peaks in 1999: An estimated 555,000
Americans were treated in hospitals for drug-related visits; at least
11,600 died from overdoses. On the other side, reformers seeking to
decriminalize marijuana and relax drug policies perpetrate so many drug-war
myths that they reinforce hard-line attitudes even as they win minor
improvements.

The chief drug-war myth is the "demographic scapegoat." Wars against drugs
( including Prohibition ) always seek to link feared drugs to feared
populations: the Chinese and opium; Mexicans and marijuana; black musicians
and cocaine; and Catholic immigrants and alcohol.

Today's war on drugs sustains itself by depicting white suburban teenagers
menaced by inner-city youths' habits.

No matter who peddles it, this image is unreal.

In truth, the drug-abuse crisis chiefly concerns aging baby boomers, mostly
whites.

A high schooler is five times more likely to have heroin-, cocaine-or
methamphetamine-addicted parents than the other way around; far more senior
citizens than teenagers die from illegal drugs.

Accordingly, a "war on drugs" that truly cared about protecting children
would make treating parents' addictions its top priority.

The "teenage heroin resurgence" repeatedly trumpeted in headlines and
drug-war alarms is fabricated; it shows up nowhere in death, hospital,
treatment or survey records.

The Drug Abuse Warning Network's most recent hospital survey reports 84,500
treatments for heroin abuse nationwide in 1999; just 700 of these were for
adolescents. Of 4,800 Americans who died from heroin abuse, only 33 were
under 18 years old. Press panics over supposed teenage heroin outbreaks in
Portland and Seattle last summer collapsed when the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention reported the average overdoser was 40 years old.

Teenage "heroin epidemics" breathlessly clarioned in some California cities
are refuted by hospital records that show just nine of San Francisco's
3,100 emergency treatments for heroin overdoses in 1999 were teenagers, as
were 17 of San Diego's 1,100 and two of Los Angeles's 2,950. Why aren't
there more teen heroin casualties? Few use it. The National Household
Survey on Drug Abuse, released in September 2000, showed that .2% of 12- to
17-year-olds had used heroin at any time in the previous year. Nor are the
few heroin initiators getting younger ( most remain over 21 ).

There are preppie kids who smoke heroin, as "Traffic" depicts, but their
numbers pale beside the tens of thousands of baby boomers whose addictions
are rooted in the Vietnam era. Four-fifths of California's heroin decedents
over the age of 30, and three-fourths of them are white, a quintessentially
mainstream demographic neither drug warrior nor drug reformer wishes to target.

Thus, policy debate and cinematic representations promote a comfortable
myth: Baby-boom drug days are behind us.

Similarly, drug-reform publications such as DrugSense Weekly allege an
"increase in heroin use among our youth" to indict the drug war. Mike Gray,
author of "Drug Crazy," and other reformers claim decriminalizing and
regulating marijuana for adults would make it harder for teenagers to get.
Ridiculous. The 1999 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse reports 12- to
17-year-olds use legal, adult-regulated cigarettes and alcohol 100 times
more than they use heroin; two to three times more teens drink or smoke
than use the most popular illicit, marijuana.

Teenagers can get alcohol and drugs whenever they want them, yet suffer
very low casualties. Drug reformers' own research gospel, the Lindesmith
Center's exhaustive "Marijuana Myths, Marijuana Facts," finds no scientific
reason why teenagers should be banned from using marijuana that would not
also apply to adults.

In short, teenagers are not the issue.

Drug policy will change only when compelling new information is introduced.
That means discarding first-wave baby-boomer drug images and moving toward
second-generation realities.

Throughout the Western world, young people are reacting against their
parents' hard-drug abuse by patronizing softer drugs such as beer and
marijuana.

It's understandable that baby boomers would indulge moral panic over any
drug use by kids while denying their own middle-aged drug woes, but these
illusions should not govern 2000-era drug policy.

The Netherlands' 1976 Dutch Opium Act reforms recognized that modern
soft-drug use by young people is separate from the midlife hard-drug
crisis. Dutch studies showed that marijuana and hashish use was unrelated
to hard-drug abuse, except among a small fraction already inclined to
addiction. These conclusions were confirmed by the National Household
Survey on Drug Abuse analysts and long-term studies by University of
California researchers. True, most drug abusers first tried drugs in their
youth, as did most non-abusers. But 90% of the 160 million American adults
who used marijuana or alcohol during adolescence did not find them
"gateways" to later addiction.

The Netherlands' reforms stressing public-health strategies to contain
hard-drug abuse, coupled with tolerance for marijuana use by adults and
teenagers, has produced a spectacular benefit: a 65% decline in heroin
deaths since 1980 ( while U.S. heroin death rates doubled ).

Whether or not Dutch-style reforms are feasible here, the U.S. will not
reduce its worst-ever drug-abuse crisis until politicians radically revamp
the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the facile demographic
scapegoating of young people.

Yet, because drug reformers, copying drug-war hard-liners, increasingly
promote their agendas by exploiting youth as fear-invoking symbols in
today's anachronistic "debate," genuine reform seems remote.

*********************************************
SAMPLE LETTER

To the editor

Mike Males raises some interesting points ("Fighting a War Armed With
Baby-Boomer Myths" Feb 4, 2001) then misses the target. The war on drugs is
about symbolism, not logic. True, it has been fueled from its inception by the
scapegoating of minorities, but it has always used "saving our children" as the
moral engine.

The drug warriors tell us that prohibition reduces availability and that an
alternative regulatory model of government control and taxation would cause
availability to skyrocket. Males seems to go along with this even though there
is a mountain of evidence to the contrary.

We're now in the midst of the most costly prohibition campaign in history,
yet eight out of ten high school seniors consistently say they find marijuana
"fairly easy" or "very easy" to get - - in fact, easier to get than alcohol - -
which is not surprising since the sale of alcohol is controlled by the
state and
the sale of marijuana is controlled by nobody.

On the other hand there is plenty of evidence that regulation and taxation
might help. When the Netherlands decriminalized adult use of marijuana in 1976,
the prohibitionists warned of disaster but twenty years later use of the drug
among Dutch teenagers and adults is half that of the United States.

Regulation of the drug trade will not end drug abuse any more than
regulation of alcohol ended alcoholism. But it will clear the decks of the
wreckage of prohibition and let us focus on alcoholics and addicts as human
beings with a medical problem instead of fodder for the prison-industrial
complex.

Mike Gray, author, "Drug Crazy"

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Mark Greer
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MGreer@mapinc.org

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US CA: OPED: Fighting A War Armed With Baby-Boomer Myths
URL: http://www.mapinc.org/drugnews/v01/n213/a06.html
Pubdate: Sun, 04 Feb 2001
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2001 Los Angeles Times
Contact: letters@latimes.com
Address: Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053
Fax: (213) 237-7679
Feedback: http://www.latimes.com/siteservices/talk_contacts.htm
Website: http://www.latimes.com/
Forum: http://www.latimes.com/discuss/
Author: Mike Males
Note: Mike Males, Justice Policy Institute Senior Researcher and UC Santa
Cruz Sociology Instructor, Is the Author of "Kids and Guns: How
Politicians, Experts, and the Press Fabricate Fear of Youth."
Cited: DrugSense Weekly http://www.drugsense.org/current.htm
Drug Crazy http://www.drugsense.org/crazy.htm
TLC-DPF http://www.drugpolicy.org/