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War is Unhealthy for Children and Other Living Things

By Kendra E. Wright, Director, Family Watch

I have two step-sons; Alex is 15, and Daniel is 10. They live with their mom in a nearby town and visit me and their father four days a week. Over dinner we regularly discuss life's activities during the one or two days since the last time we saw one another. So I wasn't surprised when we recently visited and they talked excitedly about school, friends and after-school activities.

However, I was stunned when they informed me that it is possible to "get high" by inhaling everyday household products. Even more unnerving was the source of their education­­the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy.

This wasn't the first time I questioned the effectiveness of our drug policies, but it was the first time I had direct personal experience with how the Drug War is bad for children. It drove me to learn the impact of drug policy on families, particularly children, and to communicate what I discovered to other concerned family members.

I found that in our well-intentioned zeal to keep drugs away from our children, we have pursued unproven methods that in some cases may do more harm than good. Current drug policy employs armed police officers as teachers in our children's classrooms; spends one billion tax dollars on anti-drug ads like that which taught my step-sons household products can be used as intoxicants; stigmatizes and ostracizes children in the name of Zero Tolerance school policies; and imprisons the parents of 2.4 million children in the United States alone.

Drug Education
The most widely publicized failure the Drug War has perpetrated on our children is DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education). This program was conceived by Darryl Gates, the former police chief of Los Angeles, California, who was made infamous in the Rodney King beating trial and was later forced to resign under charges that he fostered and led a corrupt and gang-like police force which regularly engaged in racist actions against detainees.

DARE is implemented by armed police officer­­'educators' in 70 percent of the United States' public schools. During the first day of DARE, children learn about the equipment their instructors carry on their belt-the revolver gets the most attention.

A dozen studies have found that students enrolled in DARE are no less likely to use drugs than those who are not enrolled in the program. In fact, a recent study conducted by Dr. Dennis Rosenbaum of the University of Illinois found that, "kids in the suburbs... who participated in DARE actually had significantly higher levels of drug use than suburban kids who did not get the DARE program." Despite these findings, the U.S. government spends millions of tax dollars on the DARE program each year. This generous subsidy ensures the implementation of DARE by local school districts regardless of the program's inability to teach kids to "resist drugs" and though the program may actually increase some children's drug use.

Billion Dollar Ad Campaign

To augment DARE, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America (PDFA) and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) have jointly embarked on a nearly $2 billion anti-drug ad campaign backed not only by good intentions and self-interested partisan politics, but also by flimsy research that would hardly justify launching a new stain remover, let alone a program meant to keep children sober and alive." (Brandweek, Vol. XXXIX No. 17 April 27, 1998).

The ad campaign began in January 1998 in 12 test cities and was expanded nationally in June 1998. The $2 billion campaign includes non-traditional advertising venues such as mall arcades, the Internet and movie theatres. The idea is to hammer kids over the head with a drug message everywhere they go. The ads are meant to drive home the message that drug use is not a common or popular activity and it has negative social consequences.

The ONDCP and PDFA justify their huge expenditure with three pieces of research-one from the Johns Hopkins University, the second from New York University and the last from the University of Michigan. However, Brandweek learned this research "hardly stands up to the slightest breeze of inquiry." The lead author of the Johns Hopkins study doubts her own research techniques stating, "I think [the respondents] were telling us what they thought we wanted to hear. You can't tell, based on the paper, that [the advertising] actually works." The NYU and University of Michigan studies had not yet achieved publication which usually requires peer-review and an analysis to determine the soundness of the research.

Thus, the campaign is at best of unproven value and at worst it may even be counterproductive. The campaign is modeled on PDFA's "this is your brain on drugs" ads which aired frequently during the 1980s. Adolescent drug use began to rise during the Bush Administration when the children who grew up viewing these ads reached junior and senior high school. Every successful corporation is aware that it is possible to sell products to a targeted audience, but an ad campaign that constantly puts images of drugs in the minds of young children begs the question, is it possible to "un-sell" products? By using attractive child-actors in these ads are the ONDCP and PDFA inadvertently glamorizing drug use?

The bottom-line is no one knows if these ads prevent adolescent drug use. No one is sure that they aren't counterproductive. Two billion dollars spent and we may buy ourselves more adolescent drug use.

Zero Tolerance School Policies

Like the well intentioned but flawed drug education programs we offer our children, Zero Tolerance school drug policies are misguided and counter-productive when over-zealously enforced. For example, in 1998 a 12-year-old Virginia student was suspended for bringing two Advil pills to school. Not only was this youngster excluded from five days of education, she and her parents were forced to participate in a 'drug use prevention follow-up activity' and her record will permanently reflect, for college admissions officials and others to contemplate, that she violated the school drug policy (which, by the way, also prohibits vitamins and Clearasil).

Unfortunately, the Virginia case is not an isolated event. A Michigan honor roll high school student who collected unusual pens was suspended for 45 days for using a pen that had sterile (and legal) hemp seeds encased in it. The student received zeros for every day of school she was forced to miss and was not permitted to make up the missed work. Her perfect school record, morale and possibly college career have been marred forever. Even more alarming, undercover police officers have been placed in schools posing as students. These officers befriend students and then use these friendships to encourage unsuspecting students to help them obtain drugs. In Minnesota, one such undercover agent is said to have drunk alcohol with underage students, driven a car while intoxicated and convinced a minor to help him obtain 2.3 grams of marijuana which could bring the student $500 to $25,000 in fines and up to three years in prison. (The Drug Policy Letter, summer 1996, number 30.)

All of these children were caught up in policies intended to prevent adolescent drug abuse, yet none of these children had serious substance abuse problems. Even if they had, would these policies be the most effective at solving them? Should a student who is involved in drug abuse be ostracized, excluded from school, left unsupervised during school hours, abandoned and shunned? Will this treatment teach the child a lesson from which he can choose to leave behind drug abuse all on his own? Or will it build more obstacles between him and the adults who can help him? Will it give him more reasons to recoil from society and escape into addiction?

Imprisoning Parents

As Zero Tolerance school policies withhold education from children in the name of protecting them and other children from drugs, our criminal justice system also 'cuts off its nose to spite its face.' In its effort to protect children from drugs, the United States system of justice imprisons parents convicted of nonviolent drug offenses.

According to the Justice Policy Institute, 84% of the increase in state and federal prison admissions since 1980 consists of nonviolent offenders. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University estimates that 1.4 million of the nation's 1.7 million inmates either committed crimes related to drugs and alcohol or have a history of substance abuse. These 1.4 million inmates are estimated to have 2.4 million children, many of whom are currently minors.

It has been proven that youths who live in families where a parent is absent are twice as likely to be incarcerated sometime during their lives as compared to their peers who live in intact families. Thus our drug policy is creating a generational cycle of incarceration and dooming our children and through them, our nation's future.

The Drug War's Track Record

After two decades of fighting the Drug War, we have results. Drug trafficking is profitable. It is a $400 billion per year industry, equaling eight percent of the world's trade (greater than the exports of the automobile industry, worldwide). Drugs are less expensive, more pure and more available than ever before.

Fifty percent of all high school graduates report trying an illegal drug before they graduate. Teenagers find illegal marijuana easier to obtain than legally regulated beer. And after seven years of increased adolescent use of illegal drugs, 1998 brought a .5% drop in marijuana use with an ugly trade-off of increased use of crack, heroin and other harsher drugs by both high school seniors and 8th graders. More than two million children have one or both parents in prison for a drug offense.

Unfortunately, these somber results have not warned policymakers to evaluate current programs and invest limited drug abuse prevention dollars in programs which have been proven to work. Instead, those implementing drug policy have dug in their heels and claim more money and more of the same policies will garner different results. DARE is being expanded to include more children for longer periods of time. Zero tolerance school policies now include unwarranted searches of students with drug-sniffing dogs, drug testing for those who want to participate in extracurricular activities, financial incentives paid to youngsters who snitch on their fellow students and in-school exams of stripped naked children. Policymakers are calling for harsher punishments for drug offenders including the death penalty and prosecuting juvenile drug offenders as adults.

In the name of protecting children, our drug policy: implements exorbitantly expensive drug education methods which may increase some children's drug use; encourages Zero Tolerance school drug policies which stigmatize children, limit adolescent's future opportunities and abandon youngsters most in need of help; and, imprison the parents of 2.4 million children in the United States alone. When do we cross the line from protecting children to endangering them?

The Drug War is indeed a war with real costs to human life. And just like any war, the Drug War is not healthy for children or other living things.

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