America's youth are rushing headlong toward a plague which threatens lives and destroys families. California's teen are not immune; in fact, many have already fallen prey. The plague is drug and alcohol use, and it is on the rise.
My office, assisted by several state agencies, recently released the sixth biennial survey of drug and alcohol use among California students. The results mirror the national report announced last month: California is witnessing a disturbing trend of growing drug use among students.
Although alcohol consumption remains relatively stable—but still dangerously high—drug use among students has taken a turn for the worse. In the late 1980s, drug use by California students decreased, reaching an all-time low in the early 1990s. Over the past four years, however, we have witnessed a dramatic increase in drug use among students, rising to levels that challenge peaks set ten years ago.
In just four years, drug use has increased by 30-50 percent among all grade levels. Now, more than one out of every four 7th graders has experimented with drugs, more than 40 percent of 9th grade students and almost half of 11th grade students have experimented with drugs, all in the past six months. Those are shocking statistics.
Particularly troubling, marijuana use has increased sharply among California's students—more than one-third of 9th grades and over 40 percent of 11th graders have used marijuana in the past six months. Weekly marijuana use by students in all grades is at the highest level ever reported.
For those who continue to throw out the canard that marijuana use is not a problem among young people, that we can be cavalier in our attitudes toward marijuana use, that now is the time to legalize marijuana use for certain purposes, this ought to sound a piercing alarm. Young people are beginning to use marijuana at levels not reported since we began taking these statistics a decade ago.
Four years ago, 3 percent of students reported using amphetamines. That number has jumped to more than 10 percent.
Hallucinogenic drug use has also increased dramatically, with 10 percent of 9th graders and 11 percent of 11th graders reporting that they have tried LSD in the past six months. High school students are using both heroin and cocaine at higher levels as well.
Teenagers continue to drink alcohol at about the same high rate, yet far too many admit drinking to the point of severe inebriation or sickness; attending school drunk or stoned; or being arrested as a result of their drinking.
We must address this problem now, and we should start by looking into the mirror. To be blunt, we as a culture have been moving in precisely the wrong direction. Too often, drugs are glamorized on television, in movies and in popular music. A daily check of the box scores in the sports pages has been augmented to include a glance at the crime and drugs update, so we know which of our role-model athletes has been snared by the police, or by a league drug test.
A trading card company will soon be offering a second edition of their pro-marijuana trading cards. The first edition was sold at convenience stores and trading card stores beside the football and baseball cards. Now children will be able to trade their favorite Cal Ripken card for a marijuana trading card. The message sent to our youth is that marijuana is fun and harmless.
The fashion industry has apparently started a trend known as the heroin chic look. Companies such as Gucci and Versace use emaciated, pale models with dark circles under their eyes to advertise and sell clothing. One company goes so far as to have a model roll up his sleeves, as if he is getting ready to shoot up. One model, now recovered from a three-year heroin habit, is quoted in Newsweek as saying, "They wanted models that look like junkies. The more skinny and f---ed up you look, the more everybody thinks you're fabulous."
We must stop this madness. We, as adults, must remember our failed national drug experiment in the 1960s and '70s. Members of that generation can tell countless stories of friends who died due to drug use or who never fully recovered from their drug experimentation. We need to return to the power of that truth. And the truth is that drugs don't help you, they defeat you, the kill you, they ruin lives. We cannot let this happen again to our children.
While we know what went wrong in the past, we also know what went right. Our national commitment in the 1980s to a cultural discouragement of drugs with its emphasis on youth prevention and zero tolerance worked.
Too many with the responsibility to lead have abandoned those messages, and we cannot ignore the reality of those consequences any longer—particularly with a looming surge in our juvenile population right around the corner.
There is hope. We know what worked for nearly a decade. We also know that certain prevention and intervention programs worked. But unless and until our culture returns to a message that discourages drugs, that talks about the devastation caused by drugs, that stops taking drugs lightly, we're not going to solve this problem. If we're going to save our kids—and our future—we'd better start working at it right now.