HIGH ON LIES: THE PHONY "TEEN DRUG CRISIS"
By Mike Males, FAIR's
EXTRA!, September/October 1995
HIDES THE DEADLY TRUTHS OF THE "WAR ON DRUGS"
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
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
Partnership for Truth-Free America
But there is indeed a major, exploding drug problem in the
U.S. -- one inconvenient for anti-drug warriors. In the last
dozen years, drug deaths have risen 8 percent among adults,
primarily middle aged men of all races, and today stand at
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
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
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
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.
This is Your Brain on Baloney
As health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala and
Education Secretary Richard Riley proved yet again at the
December 1994 annual press splash, the media will hype "teen drug
crises blamed on druggie T-shirts, Dr. Dre and Black Crowes'
lyrics, "glorification of marijuana and other drug use by a
number of rock, grunge and rap groups, and other silliness --
while letting officials of the hook for the grim national drug
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
"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
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,
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
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
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 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
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.