The Coastal Post - July, 1997

Is America Risking Its Youth?


You would have to live under a rock to miss all the anti-tobacco rhetoric in America today. But are we as serious about keeping our kids drug- and alcohol-free as we are about tobacco?

When Illegal drugs, alcohol and tobacco are used by young people, bad things happen, not only to the young person, but to our whole society.

Recently, I spoke to a group of California teenagers who came to Sacramento for a youth leadership conference. Californians For a Drug-Free Youth sponsored the event, which featured youths who have stepped forward as positive examples for their peers by refusing to use drugs and alcohol. These young men and women brought a clarity of purpose to the issue that is too often lacking in their adult counterparts.

As I told these young people, we've been both smart and stupid as a nation. We realized in the mid-'80s, after a long national experiment with so-called recreational drug use, that young people are pretty smart about the signals we send them. And we realized that for about two whole decades, we sent a consistent message through our culture that drugs weren't so bad, that they were kind of funny and harmless.

It was an attitude reflected in our laws, certainly, but it was even more evident in our cultural response to those who used drugs. As a nation, we simply laughed it off.

When we finally realized the devastation that drug and alcohol abuse had wrought, we changed course, adopting a strong cultural commitment to promoting healthy, drug-free lives. We committed to a zero-tolerance approach for both adults and our youth-and it worked.

In the late '80s, drug use steadily declined. In 1979, 24 million Americans used drugs. By 1992, we had cut the number in half, to about 11 million-still too high, but real progress to be sure.

Despite this progress, many today are calling for surrender against drugs. How can we let this happen? When we know that there is a sure link between drug use and violent crime, how can we give up? A 1995 National Institute of Justice survey found that 37 percent of juvenile males arrested for violent offenses in three Los Angeles County facilities tested positive for drugs. In San Diego, 48 percent of juvenile males arrested for violent offenses tested positive for drugs-45 percent of the time that drug was marijuana.

Attitudes matter. Cultural messages matter. When we strongly discourage drug use, fewer kids try drugs. But are we as a society-as a nation but especially here in California-doing absolutely everything we can to discourage drug use by kids? No way.

I would move heaven and earth to have the same commitment to fighting drug use by our kids as we have made to discouraging tobacco smoking. I don't like tobacco smoking. I've never smoked, and I hate to be around it. When I was in Congress, I voted to end federal price supports for the tobacco industry, and I voted to increase so-called "sin taxes" on tobacco to help pay for smokers' health care costs. But let's be perfectly honest with ourselves. While we have come a long, long way in taking on tobacco for its deleterious health effects, we have dropped the ball when it comes to fighting illegal drugs.

It may be unpopular to say this, but it's true: A kid who gets behind the wheel of a car is impaired and dangerous to himself and to others on the road if he's been smoking a joint or snorting crank or drinking beer. Yet you would think from our priorities that the most dangerous driver is one who smokes a cigarette!

We need to make the image of using drugs equally as repugnant as smoking a cigarette. We need to do as good a job of deglamorizing-some would say "demonizing"-drug use as we have with tobacco. San Francisco is the toughest anti-tobacco city in California. But it also has the most lax attitude toward illegal drugs. Is there a price to pay for that contradiction? The state Department of Health Services recently reported that San Francisco leads the state in drug-related deaths. Its drug-related death rate was 20.4 people per 100,000-almost three times the statewide average. It is the drug-death capital of California.

What if San Francisco was the automobile death capital of California? Or the lung cancer capital? Wouldn't you expect to hear all about their wrong-headed policies on traffic and smoking? But when it comes to drugs, there is virtual silence. These are not coincidences, they are consequences. These are the results of permissive attitudes, lack of personal responsibility and failure of leadership.

Fortunately, there are more and more young people willing to stand up to drugs and alcohol. Many community-based, youth drug prevention programs are trying to take up the slack and refocus our nation's attention on fighting drug use. Those who would give up cannot beat the energy of young people determined to change their world. Isn't it time we adults gave them a hand?