Nov 1 2000

Raving Junk

Few outlets dissent from the latest teen-drug hysterias

1980: The Washington Post‘s front-page profile (9/28/80) of “Jimmy,” a black eight-year-old junkie, ignited pandemonium. Mayor Marion Barry ordered police and teachers to inspect children’s arms for needle holes. Despite a $10,000 reward and intensive searches, neither Jimmy nor any other child addict was found. “Jimmy” did not exist, Post reporter Janet Cooke later confessed.

1996: Trainspotting panic erupted. In a story that would shame the National Enquirer, USA Today (7/19/96) declared “smoking or snorting smack is as commonplace as beer for the younger generation.” Rolling Stone (5/30/96) branded Seattle “junkie town.” Citing anecdotes, the article blamed Seattle’s tripling in heroin deaths from 1986 to 1994 on “young people” from “white suburban backgrounds.”

In fact, nearly all of Seattle’s increase in heroin fatalities was among aging baby boomers, not kids. The average age of Seattle’s 500 heroin decedents from 1995 through 1999 was 40. Only 1 percent were teenagers (Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 7/21/00). Out of 2,500 Seattle residents treated for heroin overdoses ion 1999, DAWN reported, just seven were adolescents.

Reporters stampeded to Plano, Texas, spotlighting its 19 teenage and young-adults deaths from heroin overdoses in two years as the tip of a national youth smack epidemic (L.A. Times, 11/30/97). As it turned out, the Plano victims didn’t know the “chiva” they smoked contained heroin. More crucial, the national media herd never pondered why, if smack was sweeping the young, they had to journey to Plano to find a teen-heroin crisis.

Later, DAWN reports showed 1996’s teen-smack panic was another media chimera. Of 8,500 heroin deaths in 1996 and 1997, just 48 were teenagers–and one-fourth of these were Plano’s. Of 145,000 hospital treatments for heroin, fewer than 1,000 were youths.

2000: The suburban-teen-heroin hoax resurges, more fraudulent than ever. “Teen heroin use is taking place under their parent’s noses,” CNN blared (5/9/00). “The drug has moved into the middle-class suburbs with devastating effects.”

“Teenagers and young adults are finding the drug more attractive,” ABC News (7/10/00) declared, blaming the supposed outbreak on the War on Drugs’ two favorite scapegoats: suburban teens and minorities. ABC‘s follow-up concerned Native American heroin abuse in New Mexico (7/12/00).

The simple truth officials and the media refuse to discuss: Today’s chief abusers of heroin are not kids or minorities, but white middle-agers. DAWN’s latest reports show four-fifths of heroin’s overdose-death and hospital cases in 1999 were over age 30. Fewer than 1 percent were teenagers; just 5 percent were under age 25.

Since 1980, the number of Americans imprisoned for drug offenses has soared more than 10-fold, reaching 458,131 in 1997. In California (which now spends $1 billion per year to imprison drug offenders), young adults of color under age 30 are just one-sixth as likely to die from drug abuse as white middle-agers, but are twice as likely to be imprisoned for drug offenses (Justice Policy Institute, 8/00).

Why are so few teenagers dying from heroin? They’re not using it. The 1999 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse reported that of 25,000 12- to 17-year-olds surveyed, just 100 had ever used heroin; only 75 had tried it in the previous year.

Drug-reform groups join in

Both drug-war and drug-reform interests exploit the fiction of a rising teen-drug crisis in order to blame each other for it. McCaffrey and other drug warriors parade the image that “substance abuse among young people has grown” in their crusade to suppress all “material legitimizing drugs…in music, film, television, the Internet and mass market outlets” (L.A. Times, 1/2/97).

Groups seeking to reform drug policy counter-claim that “it is the drug war which [McCaffrey] so ardently supports that is solely responsible for the increase in heroin use among our youth” (Drug Sense Weekly, 5/12/00). The reformist Common Sense for Drug Policy ( even charges that McCaffrey “failed to mention…a continuing rise in hard-drug use by our youth,” and therefore understated “the dimensions of adolescent drug use”! A CSDP ad campaign, charting the sharp increases in drug imprisonments and overdose deaths from 1980 to 1996, declared, “The more we escalate the drug war, the more young people and others die.”

The true “dimensions of adolescent drug use” CSDP itself “failed to mention” consist of vanishingly low levels of teenage hard-drug use and casualties, and teenage overdose rates no higher today than in 1980; it’s middle-agers who suffer skyrocketing drug demise. Why are reformers silent on this damning reality while helping McCaffrey misrepresent young people as the nation’s big drug problem?

“With horrifyingly generic teen-pop acts blaring out from MTV day in and day out, it’s a wonder more kids haven’t turned to drugs to escape the awful racket,” Time‘s balanced story on ecstasy ended. The same amen could be applied to the horrifyingly generic racket about “teens and drugs” blaring from Washington, most of the press, and even drug-reform groups that should know better.

University of California, Santa Cruz, sociology instructor Mike Males’ newest book is “Kids & Guns”: How Politicians, Experts, and the Press Fabricate Fear of Youth (Common Courage Press).