The return of reefer madness.
Drug counselors, police and sheriff's deputies, and school officials throughout the United States have joined Shalala to proclaim a war on drugs in the schools - where they say kids are consuming drugs at younger and younger ages. Their typical estimates suggest that in any given Southern California high school, 50 to 80 percent of the students use marijuana, LSD, and/or crystal methamphetamine (speed). And many suggest that even cocaine, crack, and heroin are regularly consumed on school grounds.
But if literally hundreds of thousands of Los Angeles-area junior and senior high-school students take drugs on a regular basis at school, a major mystery is afoot: the case of the disappearing dope. Not only do the drugs fail to materialize in exhaustive undercover operations and searches, there is little evidence of any of the well-known consequences of drug abuse.
Toxicology reports of the Los Angeles County coroner reveal that in a metropolis of nine million, not a single teen, age thirteen through nineteen, died from a drug overdose during 1994. Of the 1,100 county deaths in 1994 considered drug-related - accidental overdoses, suicides, car wrecks, and other fatal mishaps in which drugs were found-only six involved teens.
Nor do Los Angeles hospitals find a serious drug problem among youth. Teenagers made up only 3 percent of 36,000 emergency-room treatments during 1993 for drug-related injuries. The drug discovered in the systems of most adolescents receiving emergency-room treatment was aspirin or an aspirin substitute, which accounted for four times more teen emergencies than all street drugs combined.
In fact, the "teenage drug crisis" is a politically manufactured hoax. Take the Vernonia, Oregon, school district. It held itself up as a national symbol of teenage drug peril: "Students in a state of rebellion" due to "startling and progressive" drug abuse, its lawyer, Timothy Volpert, declared. But Volpert admitted that when the school tested 500 athletes during a four-year period at a cost of $15,000, it turned up just three "positives." Even so, Vernonia prevailed in the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1995 upheld its effort to drug-test all student athletes.
Or take the Newport-Costa Mesa, California, school district, where officials also claimed extensive student drug activity. A series of unannounced sniff-searches by marijuana-trained sheriff's dogs throughout 1994 turned up zero evidence of drugs at the school. In a system with 7,700 junior and senior high-school students, dogs detected only ten lockers in which drugs might ever have been stored.
But mere facts have not slowed down the anti-teen-drug-use crusades. On December 7, 1995, just before Christmas vacation, fourteen-year-old Allison Smith (not her real name) was arrested at Redondo Union High School and charged with offering to sell marijuana to Los Angeles undercover sheriffs deputy Tim McCrillis, who had posed as a student. Smith was taken to the principal's office where investigators searched her for drugs. They found none. Then they handcuffed Smith to two other girls, and led her to a sheriff's van.
Outside the school, alerted reporters from major television and newspaper outlets had assembled, cameras and recorders whirring. School principal Robert Paulson and Redondo Beach police chief Mel Nichols had already set up a press conference. The next day, the local Daily Breeze banner-lined the arrest. The Los Angeles Times later ran a glowing story quoting only deputies.
Redondo Union High School's sprawling, park-like campus covers dozens of acres, commanding views of affluent oceanside houses and condominiums. Authorities singled the school out as a major center for student drug use. in a secret agreement with the school district, the Los Angeles County sheriff's department outfitted two young-looking undercover deputies as students in hallways and classes during fall term. After three months of daily full-time attendance and investigation at the 1,650-student school, police made seventeen arrests. Drug traffic at the school turned out to be "relatively light," deputies conceded, "I don't think it's an overwhelming problem," police chief Nichols admitted.
It was a problem for the arrested students. Upon recommendation of the Redondo/Manhattan school district, the school board summarily expelled all seventeen. including one special-education student, even though only two were found to have drugs in their possession.
Most of the arrests turned out not to have involved actual exchanges of drugs, but only disputed claims of who approached whom and exactly what transpired. No witnesses have appeared to corroborate the deputies' versions of the disputed incidents.
Smith's expulsion hearing was held before the Redondo/manhattan school board on January 23. According to the transcript, Deputy McCrillis admitted the marijuana-sale charge against her was a "clerical error" and should have read (psilocybin) mushrooms. McCrillis stated he approached Smith "five or six" times during fall term and asked her to sell him drugs. He said that Smith, in an auto-shop class on November 16, 1995, finally accepted $20 and agreed to sell him hallucinogenic "shrooms." Later she told him the money had been "ripped off" by the supposed supplier and never provided any drugs.
The deputy testified that other students witnessed the transaction. But he refused re,quests from Smith's attorney to name them. No one was called to support his version, and even he agreed that Smith never provided him with the drugs.
Smith categorically denied McCrillis's story. She testified that McCrillis approached her for drugs on a daily basis over a two-month period, entreaties which she refused. She said he finally placed $20 on a classroom table in front of her and left the room, and she was unable to find him to return the money. Further, Smith denied ever using drugs at school. After her arrest, she was tested for drugs. The test came out negative.
Smith had trouble explaining why she had not informed the principal that another "student" was persistently attempting to buy drugs from her, or why she did not turn over the $20 he paid her to school officials.
But McCrillis turned out to have a worse credibility problem. He claimed to have personally witnessed Smith "pull out a small baggie of mushrooms and ingest those" in a school classroom. Yet he did not report it to school authorities at the time, even anonymously.
When the testimony was completed, the entire case revolved around the $20 bill McCrillis said he gave to Smith under circumstances she disputed and to which no witnesses testified. Plenty of reason for a school board to give a ninth-grader the benefit of the doubt. But after the hearing, the board voted to expel Smith.
Another arrestee, eighteen-year-old Ryan Adcock, admitted that he did sell marijuana to McCrillis. Ryan, a special-education student, said McCrillis had approached him for weeks. "nearly every day, over and over again. He harassed students on a daily basis."
Ryan said he obtained some marijuana from an off-campus source and gave it to McCrillis. "It was my first time selling," he says. A couple of months later he was arrested. Another fifteen-year-old who had recently transferred to the school told the board, "I am not a drug dealer," but said he complied with the undercover agent's repeated drug requests in order to make new friends in school."
Overzealous anti-drug warriors, or student junkies lying to save their hides? The media couldn't have cared less. Los Angeles Times reporter Eric Slater wrote a glowing news story praising a "well-managed narcotics operation" - a report cluttered with sarcasm about "hormone-addled sixteen-year-olds" and "later, dude" lingo. He based his story solely on the deputies' jocular anecdotes.
Three months after the arrests, parents say they know of only one student who has been criminally charged with selling drugs. Local police and the county sheriff's department, though eager to talk to the press at the time of the arrests in December, told us in March that they "didn't have time" to report how many students, if any, had been criminally charged.
Back in 1970, scores of L.A. teenagers died from drug overdoses. The city then accounted for one out of five teenage drug deaths in the United States. By the late 1970s. the L.A. teen drug carnage was over, and the city's youth drug toll has been very low ever since.
In June 1994, the federal Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) released its annual survey of coroners in four dozen major cities. It found a record-high 8,500 deaths resulted from drug overdoses, drug suicides, and drug-related accidents in 1993. But teenagers made up just 2 percent of these deaths.
DAWN's companion survey of hospital emergency departments found that teens comprised just 3 percent of the 200,000 admissions involving heroin, cocaine, or marijuana. People under age 21 comprised only one in ten admissions to drug-abuse treatment programs in 1993. down sharply from one in six in 1987.
Teens aren't dying from drugs. They aren't going to hospitals or treatment centers for drugs. Schools that claim a big student drug scene can't produce evidence with dogs, undercover agents, random tests, and surprise searches. Even among juvenile delinquents, the nation's highest-risk youth, a 1992 Bureau of Justice Statistics study found that young arrestees were the least likely of any age group to test positive for drugs.
In fact, three decades of drug-fatality statistics show that youths have not played a serious part in the nation's drug-abuse problem for twenty years. In Los Angeles County, teenage drug deaths declined by a staggering 90 percent from 1970 to 1994. Nationally, youth drug fatalities and injuries plummeted from 1970 to 1983 and have remained low ever since.
What, then, accounts for the incessant hype about a teenage drug crisis" in news stories, documentaries, and official press releases for the last two years?
What has become an annual media circus surrounding the release of the University of Michigan's "Monitoring the Future" survey of 50,000 junior and senior high-school students turns out to be governmental hyperventilation over increases in occasional use of marijuana. It's the return of Reefer Madness.
The unreported findings of the Michigan survey were much less inflammatory than the headlines. Two in three high-school seniors, and seven in eight eighth-graders, had not smoked pot during the entire year preceding the survey. Only 2 percent of the seniors had used crystal methamphetamine, 4 percent had used cocaine, and fewer than 1 percent had used heroin during the previous twelve months. And despite the usual press splashes over glue-sniffing, Wite-out, and other supposed "new epidemics," surveys indicate that use of inhalants has been at fairly steady, low levels for the past two decades - 2 to 3 percent of high-school seniors said they had used inhalants within the previous month, for example.
The usual orgy of political maneuvering followed the study's release. Shalala and White House drug-policy chief Lee Brown - who launched a personal "crusade" in 1995 to depict marijuana as an "addictive killer" - denounced proposed GOP cuts in the drug-war budget as 6'playing politics with the lives of America's children." Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch went one step further. announcing hearings on the Clinton Administration's "ineffectual leadership" on youth drug use. The Clinton Administration parried by calling a national conference of community leaders to discuss teenagers and drugs.
For an Administration that initially promised to concentrate on treating hard-core addicts and targetting big-time drug sellers, the obsession (one Shalala in particular is in the grips of) now is to punish occasional. single-time marijuana use by primarily nonwhite teenagers. Whereas the Drug War of the mid-1980s focused of drug sellers and interdiction, the new Drug War of the 1990s increasingly bust casual drug use and drug possession. In 1994, three-fourths of the nation's record 1.4 million drug arrests were for simple possession, four in ten drug busts involve marijuana, and a record 312,000 were of teenagers-up 50 percent since 1990.
Black youths have been particularly hard hit by the Clinton drug war. A black teenager is one-fifth as likely to die from drug abuse, but is ten times more likely to be arrested and dozens of times more likely to be imprisoned, than is a white middle-aged adult. A 1995 study by The Sentencing Project found that even though whites comprise the large majority of drug users, 90 percent of those imprisoned for drug possession were black or Latino. No change in policy is evident. Clinton's newly appointed drug czar. Barry McCafrey, announced in March that he will target the bulk of the quarter billion dollar shifted to his office from the Pentagon budget at more law enforcement.
Clinton himself, illustrating what The New York Times called "another setpiece in his effort to showcase a `values agenda,'" carried the anti-drug "personal statement" to a suburban Greenbelt, Maryland, high school in March. Teenagers in the 1960s. he declared, "didn't really believe drugs were dangerous until it nearly destroyed a generation." But in nearby Baltimore, the coroner's report showed that while drug-abuse-deaths had skyrocketed in the last four years, teenagers comprised none of the city's 458 drug-related deaths in 1994. Clinton is carrying his anti-drug message to the wrong audience: The worst drug abuse of his 1950s and 1960s generation is going on right now.
There is indeed a large and growing drug-abuse crisis in the United States, also found most starkly in Los Angeles. It doesn't happen to be one health and drug officials want to elucidate, for obvious reasons: Its key elements are not pot, teens, and marijuana-leaf T-shirts, but hard drugs, middle-aged men, and Vietnam.
While the teenage drug problem has diminished, the adult drug-fatality rate has been skyrocketing. In 1994, 554 Los Angeles adults died of drug overdoses, and an equal number were the victims of drug-related suicides and accidents. The new drug crisis couldn't be more inconvenient for drug-war officials. Not only is it erupting among the wrong age groups and for the wrong reasons, its timing is terrible.
What occurred during the decade-long period when drug overdoses were doubling and drug-related murders quadrupling? The multi-hundred-billion-dollar War on Drugs was inaugurated in 1983, escalated in 1986, and justified throughout with official promises that the crusade was vital to a reduction in drug abuse and crime.
Nationwide, in 1983, 2,700 Americans died from drug overdoses, a number that had been declining for the previous decade. In 1994, that number nearly tripled to 8,000.
In 1983, about 500 Americans died in murders attributed by the FBI to narcotics. In 1994, 1,800.
Since 1983, the rate of drug-abuse deaths among American adults has risen 120 percent. Exploding rates have occurred not among teens but among middle-aged men nationwide.
In 1980, about 400 American men, age thirty-five to fifty-four, died from drug overdoses. In 1994, a projected 3,500 to 4,000. Drug-related suicides doubled. The big killers: heroin, cocaine, pharmaceutical drugs, and alcohol mixed with drugs.
Drug death rates are now so high among middle-aged men that they dwarf all other classes. Middle-agers are now twenty times more likely to die from drugs than are teenagers, and middle-agers account for half of all drug deaths. Hospital statistics show that death is just the tip of an iceberg of drug abuse in this age group.
What could be causing this huge surplus of middle-aged drug abuse?
A big part of the answer may be Vietnam. An ongoing project of the Centers for Disease Control, one not publicly advertised during the drug hoopla of the last seven years, was to monitor mortality among returning Vietnam veterans. The results of this study were grim. The project found greatly elevated rates of suicide, homicide, and fatal accidents among Vietnam veterans for the first five years after their return. statistics that hold true for previous wars as well.
Most of the heightened death toll apart from drug-related deaths subsided by the late 1970s. But researchers reported that drug-related deaths were proving a major exception. The level of drug-abuse fatality among Vietnam veterans was much higher than that of the rest of the population and had continued to rise through 1988, the date of the latest report.
But the government doesn't want to face up to the drug legacy of the Vietnam War. It would rather concoct a crisis around a 3-percentage-point increase in self-reported, occasional marijuana smoking by high-school students. And it has downplayed studies by the psychology departments at the University of California at Los Angeles and at Berkeley that suggest that moderate pot smoking has no long-term effects and does not correlate with personality problems in teenagers.
A further. tragic irony is that growing drug abuse among middle-aged Americans has real-life impacts on the very youths federal policymakers say they are concerned about. A 1992 Boston juvenile-court study found that of 200 children and youths removed from their homes after suffering severe physical and sexual abuse, two-thirds had parents who abused drugs or alcohol. Our own interviews with teenage mothers and alternative high-school students turned up incident after incident of drug-addicted parents, household violence. children and teenagers forced to stay home from school to take care of younger siblings. and parents so debilitated by drugs that they could not care for their families.
Clearly, an undercover operation like the one at Redondo Union High School could be inflicted on any group in society. Given plenty of money, sufficient time, and aggressive sting operations, any institution - high schools, universities, Congress, the White House staff, the Los Angeles Times, police and sheriff's agencies - could be relentlessly targeted, and a few arrests would result. But why target teens? They are not the ones who use drugs the most, yet today's anti-drug warriors aim to inflict harsher punishments on adolescents than on groups that display more serious drug problems.
Today, Allison Smith's only contact with school has been one hour per week, during which she picks up her independent-study assignments and returns home to complete them. She admits enjoying the arrangement a bit - studying in front of the TV, on her own time, no hassle. She's puzzled at the logic, though.
"If I was truly a drug dealer, I'd have a lot of time to deal now," she joked. "I would have thought they'd want to keep us in school."
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|Title Annotation:||exaggerated reports of teenage drug use|
|Date:||May 1, 1996|
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