Former White House Office of Drug Control advisor Suzanne Miller, writing in Orange County's edition of the Los Angeles Times (5/3/95), emotionally recapped a "sun-kissed Southern California teenage couple" killed by crystal methedrine -- another tale in the government and media road show of the "rising adolescent drug crisis."
Even in crowded, sun-kissed dope-land, Miller had to scour hard to find a teenage drug death. In Southern California's eight-county, 20-million-person sprawl, only 12 teens aged 13-19 died from drug overdoses in the most recent year's figures (California Center for Health Statistics, 1995). For those who believe surveys, youth drug taking is far less common today than in the early `70s, when two-thirds of the Baby Boom kids were indulging bong, tab and pill (University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, 1995).
But a true picture is hazardous to official health. The bitter results of one of America's worst social policy disasters the decade old "War on Drugs," are ones that officials are loath to discuss -- and a submissive media is yet to report.
The fact is that teenagers, the eternal whipping-decoys trotted out by anti-drug forces, have not been a major part of the national drug problem for more than 15 years. In California and the U.S. as a whole, teens are the least likely of any age group except children to die from drug abuse.
But the never-modest drug war can take credit for the teen drug death decline, all of which occurred prior to its launching. In fact, since the drug war was declared by President Ronald Reagan in 1983 and revved up with billions of congressional funding in 1986, the teen drug toll has risen by 25 percent (though the numbers remain tiny -- around 100 deaths in 1983, 120 in 1993).
In 1983, the year the modern drug war began, 3,900 Americans died from drug overdoses (National Center for Health Statistics, Vital Statistics of the US) and 500 in drug-related murders (FBI Uniform Crime Reports). In 1995 after 10 million drug arrests and hundreds of billions spent on law enforcement, education, treatment, interdiction and increasingly harsh punishments 7,200 Americans died from drug over doses and 1,900 in drug-related murders -- the highest rates in this century and probably all time.
Overdose deaths and drug murder are not the totality of drug abuse, but they're good indices of where the most serious problems lie. The stark figure point to a tough, simple question the media should be asking: Given that the rationale for the drug war is to curb drug abuse and crime, how can officials claim success when drug abuse deaths have doubled and drug murders tripled?
Drug officials can be candid when asked. "Unless you're blind to this [[rising death], you can't help but be concerned about it," U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration spokesperson Roger Guevarra readily acknowledged when I asked why officials hype casual pot surveys but ignore real drug casualties (In These Times, 5/20/92). "It's almost like we're talking out of both sides of our mouths."
But the media don't ask. Government officials hired to produce ever-scarier "kids on drugs" headlines have diverted media attention to trivial matters with ease, convincing journalists to fixate on self-reported, occasional use of mild drugs by students.
In election-year 1988, for example, when proving "success" was the goal, smiling bureaucrats handed out press releases featuring University of Michigan surveys of declining adolescent dope-taking. The Reagan administration didn't mention the rising drug-related death and violence tolls, clearly evident in government reports, and won scores of laudatory press accounts.
"The message is out, and America's young people have heard it," Reagan beamed (L.A. Times, 1/17/88). Health Secretary Otis Bowen gave full credit to the "just say no" campaign (New York Times, 1/14/88). Other media ran similar stories of "winning" the school drug battle (States News Service, 1/18/88; United Press international, 1/25/88; MacNeii/Lehrer News Hour, 5/18/88).
However deceptive, the successful late-'80s government P.R. pales beside the crude falsehoods of the `90s. As political and media attention waned, anti-drug officials once again turned to exploiting adolescents to mask now-obvious calamities riddling national policy.
To any reporter who bothers to open a recent, easily available vital statistics report, the enormous and rising drug toll among middle-aged men stands out like the Grand Tetons on the Wyoming prairie. Teenagers am a barely discernable blip, accounting for fewer than 2 percent of all drug deaths.
Southern California's latest detailed figures are representative. In 1993, 10 children and 12 teens died from drug abuse compared to 1,996 adults aged 20 or over. Six in 10 drug deaths today involve men aged 30 to 50. And despite media and law enforcement furor over non-whites and "crack" cocaine, 55 percent of the men and 70 percent of the women claimed by drugs in California are non-latino whites -- and white deaths involve heroin, illicit medical drugs and cocaine (California Center for Health Statistics, 1995)
The gap is even more striking when one considers the inequities of the criminal justice system: In California, a white middle-aged adult is five times more likely to die from drug abuse than is black teenager, but is only one tenth as likely to be arrested for drugs (Crime & Delinquency in California, 1993).
Thus 93 percent of the nation's illicit drug death toll are adults (not teens) two thirds are whites (not minorities) and moi-e than half involve medical (no street) drugs. Does this reality in any way resemble the officially propagated image of the nation's "drug crisis" as faithfully reflected in the media?
Of course not, and for obvious reasons: openly discussing the rising record adult drug carnage would require serious scrutiny of the failure of anti-drug policies and other misplaced social priorities. In contrast, teens are a guaranteed easy media snowjob requiring little more than theatricality.
U.S. News & World Report's account (12/26/94) was typical of the take-a-memo repetition of official lines: "The "Just Say No" campaigns of the 1980s worked: Most teens concluded that drugs were for losers." But given today's "caps and shirts adorned with the marijuana leaf" which "are fashionable main-stays ill schools across the land," and the truism that teenagers slavishly emulate rock stars (except all the musicians telling them not to use drugs), it "should come as no surprise" that "now the glamour is back," U.S. News declared, Gannett News Service (12/13/94) blamed "ominous" and "dangerous marijuana trends on "cultural messages." ABC News reporter Carole Simpson (12/12/94) united with authorities in "an urgent call" for teenagers to "stop using drugs."
"Nearly 50 percent of 12th graders linked to drug use," the L.A. Times announced (12/13/94) -- referring mainly to the kind of casual experimenting that failed to wreck the careers of Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Newt Gingrich and Clarence Thomas, whose highs and non-inhalings went on back when many kids really did die from dope.
The media have unquestioningly accepted the official line that the "casual marijuana use, single-time marijuana use" that Shalala lambasted is more crucial than thousands of adult corpses from medical drug, heroin and cocaine overdose. Reporters highlighted anti-drug crusader Joseph Califano's claim that student pot smokers are "85 times likelier to use cocaine" than abstainers (CNN, 12, 12/94), but failed to report that the survey itself showed six out of seven high-school seniors who smoked pot had never used cocaine, and 97 percent had not done so in more than a year.
When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 26 that, in effect, simply being an adolescent is reason enough for school authorities to suspect a drug habit and demand urine samples, this brought another round of media regurgitation of claims that officials were "winning the war against drugs among young people in the `80s, but that now a new "crisis had erupted (L.A. Times, 6/27/95; New York Times, 6/27/95). Media report: didn't mention that the Oregon school district involved in the case spent $15,000 in four years drug-testing 500 students and only 12 tested positive (Vernonia School District v. Acton, 94-590, 1995).
If media factually reported the deadly legacy of the War on Drugs -- 25,000 more Americans dead from drug-related violence and overdoses over the past decade than pre-war drug death rates would have predicted -- then teenager's and the adult public could reasonably discuss whether there is more to fear from anti-drug hysteria than there ever was from drug use itself. But no honest discussion is taking place, and too-tame media are to blame.
The issue is no longer one of the news media publicizing a few harmless fibs to bolster a well-meaning, bipartisan government morality crusade. Rather, it is whether there are any limits to how much and how long the media will consort with a corrupted drug policy founded in deadly distortions and carnival diversions.
Ironically, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's recent Viet-Nam memoir, In Retrospect, warned of the price of press complicity with popular wars. One journalist has already spotted the link.
The better newspapers are portraying the drug quagmire the way they once portrayed the quagmire in Viet-nam," former New York Times editor Max Frankel wrote in the Times' Sunday magazine (12/18/94): "The brass that's bragging about progress and calling for still more troops, weapons, prisoners and money"; the media "too generous with pictures of prosecutors and politicians" touting "meaningless" drug arrests and drug seizures much like the Vietnam body count."
"Not until we in the media do a better job of reporting the horrendous costs of this unwinnable war will the public consider alternative policies," Frankel wrote. The major media must come to believe "that the country is ready to hear unvarnished truth, like Walter Cronkite's passionate declaration in 1968 that it was time to get out of Vietnam."
But today's "unvarnished truth" is that ill-motivated
authorities are waging open war against youths and minorities and
compliant media are leading the cheers. With Cronkite himself as
a full-fledged spokesperson for the drug war, narrating emotional
ads about "kids and crack," there is no light at the end of the
Mike Males is a writer and doctoral student at the University of California at Irvine. His report on rising drag deaths (In These Times, 5/20/92, was named as one of the Top Ten Censored News Stories of 1992 by Project Censored.