Letter - Survey Finds Parents Unaware as More Teen-Agers Use Drugs

Letters to the Editor
The Oregonian
Portland, OR 97201

Feb. 21, 1996

To the Editor:

Your Feb. 20 article publicizing the latest misleading propaganda from the Partnership for a Drug-Free (sic) America is more interesting and informative for what it omits and downplays than for what the PDFA says its survey of 8,520 kids and 822 parents shows. ("Survey finds parents unaware as more teen-agers use drugs," p. A6)

First, to be fair, the article should have mentioned that the PDFA is funded not incidentally but primarily by pharmaceutical, tobacco and alcohol manufacturers, according to a March 9, 1992, article by Cynthia Cotts in The Nation magazine titled "The Partnership: Hard Sell in the Drug War - Condoning the legal stuff?" Cotts writes that:

...the Partnership's 1991 tax return revealed conspicuous support from the legal drug industry. [Whose products kill about 26,000 Americans a year, versus zero by marijuana. -- Phil Smith] From 1988 to 1991, pharmaceutical companies and their beneficiaries contributed as follows: Pharmaceuticals and their beneficiaries alone donated 54 percent of the $5.8 million the Partnership took from its top twenty-five contributors from 1988 to 1991. That 54 percent is conservative. It doesn't include donations under $90,000, and it doesn't include donations from the tobacco and alcohol kings: The Partnership has taken $150,000 each from Philip Morris, Anheuser-Busch and RJR Reynolds, plus $100,000 from American Brands (Jim Beam. Lucky Strike). Coincidence? Hardly. The war on drugs is a war on illegal drugs, and the partnership's benefactors have a huge stake in keeping it that way. They know that when schoolchildren learn that marijuana and crack are evil, they're also learning that alcohol, tobacco and pills are as American as apple pie.
This factor explains why the PDFA misleadingly spotlights marijuana to the exclusion of demonstrably more harmful drugs such as tobacco and alcohol, which do kill people, and are much more habit-forming and much more popular among teen-agers, and are just as illegal for teens as marijuana. By way of contrast, in 1991, about 30 percent of high school seniors reported having had five or more drinks in a row sometime in the previous two weeks. Your editors should learn that "studies" which focus on one drug exclusively are invariably biased and counterproductive to public understanding.

Despite the PDFA's pro-corporate mission, there is at least one business group that does not support the PDFA: the poultry industry. While the PDFA's infamous "This is your brain on drugs" ad didn't reduce teen drug consumption, it did precipitate a remarkable drop in consumption of eggs by frightened young children.

Second, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America has been caught repeatedly making flat-out lies. They simply have no credibility, and neither does The Oregonian when it uncritically publicizes PDFA propaganda. One famous example of the PDFA's fraudulence was reported circa Sept. 27, 1990 by The Hartford Courant in an article titled "Untruths, unreliable data create obstacles in war on drugs." The report states:

It is a stark message designed to persuade youths to stay away from marijuana.

And it is a lie.

The narrator tells television viewers they are watching the brain waves of a normal 14-year-old. As he speaks, squiggly lines with high peaks show an obviously active brain. The picture changes: The lines flatten. "These," the narrator says, "are the brain waves of a 14-year-old on marijuana."

The problem with this national television advertisement is that the flatter "brain waves" are not those of a teenager on dope; they are not brain waves at all. The electroencephalograph was not hooked up to anyone.

It is not just brain waves that are being manipulated in the war against drugs. Truth has been a casualty in other areas as well...

Theresa Grant, public information director for the nonprofit organization, said she doesn't see any problem with the ad.

"The marijuana brain-wave commercial was one of the ads that we used as a fact, rather than a fear-inducing ad," Grant said. Later, she acknowledged: "It was a simulation. They manipulated the machine. It was not attached to any person. It was not scientific. At the time we created it in 1987, we were told that it was an appropriate representation" by the government's National Institute on Drug Abuse ... She emphasized that the partnership has not conceded that the brain-wave representation was inaccurate ...

"It's a flat lie," said [Dr. Lester] Grinspoon [of Harvard Medical School]. "Marijuana has no clinically significant effect on the electroencephalograph." ... Citing a Harvard Medical School study, he said, "Nobody has been able to demonstrate one iota of brain damage from smoking marijuana."

As Cynthia Cotts' article in The Nation states, "Fact checking is a sensitive issue for the Partnership.... A 19 percent print-ad reels off marijuana slang terms and concludes, 'No matter what you call it, don't call it harmless!' The ad cites potential damage to the lungs and reproductive system. But calls to the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) didn't turn up any casualties, just a lot of inconclusive studies. ... In fact, the health issue is 'nebulous,' Grant concedes, so the Partnership is switching its tack on marijuana. Future ads won't tell you it's dangerous, just that it's uncool.'" But clearly the new report in The Oregonian shows the PDFA dwelling on marijuana's purported dangers again, without naming them. What are they?

Third, the article glossed over the fact that "Three out of every four parents interviewed said they would be upset if their children tried drugs, although 60 percent of the parents admitted that they had used marijuana themselves at some time in their lives." When 60 percent of adults have violated drug prohibition and 25 percent don't care if their teen-agers do, it ought to be clear to all that drug prohibition has failed miserably and has no chance of working. Drug prohibition may still enjoy majority support, but apparently most of those in the majority are hypocrites, meaning that prohibition will collapse whenever American voters might become more moral. Since most parents now were not inhibited by prohibition and misleading propaganda, how could the next generation be inhibited, especially now that the scientific evidence is clear that marijuana is not significantly harmful to health?

Fourth, the PDFA survey ignores many obvious and important factors. For example, given the PDFA's anti-marijuana focus, why does it not compare American statistics with those resulting from "harm reduction" policies in Holland, where decriminalizing adults' consumption of marijuana has caused marijuana use among teens to decline to rates far below American teens' rates? As a recent editorial in the peer-reviewed British Medical Journal found, "...the 1976 changes in the Netherlands seem to have been followed by a fall in use of cannabis: from 13 % of those aged 17-18 in 1976 to 6% in 1985. Monthly prevalence of cannabis use among Dutch high school students is around 5.4% compared with 29% in the United States. Forbidden fruit may, indeed, be sweetest." ("The war on drugs Prohibition isn't working - some legalisation will help," Volume 311, 23-30 December 1995)

One also wonders how the PDFA would explain the graph accompanying the Oregonian article, which shows that teen marijuana use steadily declined for 13 years beginning in 1979, seven years before the advent of the PDFA in 1986, two years before the Reagan administration in 1981 and four years before revelations that the country was being run by astrologers led Nancy Reagan to rescue her public image by launching her "Just Say No" campaign in 1983.

Other curious omissions include the article's failure to note that, according to the U.S. Drug Czar's office, kids make up only 5 percent of the illegal-drug market. Most glaringly, the article ignores the possible role of adult pot prohibition in exacerbating teens' illegal-drug use. To put the question in a less theoretical context: why is there no alcohol- or tobacco-dealing in our high schools, and no youth gangs involved in the distribution of alcohol or tobacco?

Another question should be apparent in light of the PDFA's assertion that its new survey "attributed [the alleged rise in teen pot use] in part to a glamorization of drugs in pop music, movies and television shows ...." That is, why has drug use been increasing precisely among the generation of young people who have been plied since infancy more than any other in history with anti-drug messages from cartoons, teachers, messages on video-game screens and yes, pop musicians, sports stars, movie and television stars, and countless shows in which armies of cops assault a never-ending stream of dumb, ugly and mean drug traffickers? How could such a small minority of programs allegedly dedicated to the "glamorization of drugs" be so much more effective than a lifetime of "educational" messages?

Curious too is the PDFA's failure to note how rising teen usage rates have correlated since 1992 with sharply increasing arrests and incarcerations for illegal drugs. How is locking up people for smoking pot while setting free burglars, car thieves and wife-beaters supposed to engender respect for the drug laws?

Another important question is how harmful to society a slight increase in teens' use of marijuana might really be. Why do the Dutch subsidize teen clubs where pot smoking is tolerated? Let me provide just one clue, a New York Times article from June 17, 1992, titled, "Economic Scene; Less Marijuana, More Alcohol?" by Peter Passell. This article reports on research "supported by the Rand Corporation and the National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse" which shows "a strong substitution effect between marijuana and alcohol suggests that the full court press against the weed is partly responsible for stubbornly high levels of binge drinking by teen-agers." (The research also showed that teens find it easier to obtain pot than alcohol.) Similarly, another study for the National Bureau of Economic Research by Karen Model, a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard, examined the impact of marijuana decriminalization on hospital emergency room admissions for drug abuse reported to the Federal Drug Abuse Warning Network in the mid-1970s. And as the substitution hypothesis would suggest, Model found that emergency room episodes related to drugs other than marijuana were 12 percent lower in the states that had decriminalized the weed. Lowering the effective "price" of marijuana, she concluded, reduced the abuse of other substances.

A final important question ignored by The Oregonian article is whether mass-media campaigns of the sort sponsored by the PDFA actually increase kids' demand for illegal drugs. The Dutch explicitly believe such mass media campaigns in fact increase the demand. For example, the official "Drug Policy in the Netherlands," issued in February 1994 by the Dutch Ministry of Welfare, Health and Cultural Affairs (http://hyperreal.com/drugs/politics/netherlands/94.fact.sheet), states:

"The basic premise of information/education is that information on the risks of drug use and on the risks attaching to the use of alcohol and tobacco should be presented together. .... Secondary school pupils are also encouraged to act responsibly in this respect. The significance of information as a means of preventing drug (and alcohol) abuse should not be overestimated, however. Various studies have shown that publicity is ineffective in preventing the problem of drug abuse, particularly where it seeks to emphasize the dangers involved by presenting warning, deterring or sensational facts. Publicity of this kind, which is likely to be one-sided and often counter-productive, is therefore rejected by the Dutch government which is likewise disinclined to conduct mass media campaigns on the subject, which are unavoidably untargeted. Since the level of drug consumption in the Netherlands is rather low the message would mainly reach those who are not inclined to use drugs."
The Oregonian continues to make matters worse by pandering to the fears of its readers and promoting misunderstanding of the most basic facts pertaining to drugs and drug policy.

The president who brought pot prohibition to the United States, FDR, once remarked that "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." Drugs and drug policy are complex subjects, but we know a great deal more than The Oregonian has reported. What we do know is easily ignored and distorted by those with vested interests in promoting fear and misunderstanding. The Oregonian should resolve to cover this issue more objectively and in more depth so that misrepresentations such as the PDFA's are more widely recognized as the counterproductive trash they are.

Phil Smith
Northeast Portland



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