“Our children” are routinely trotted out (sometimes with sincerity) as public relations tools to sell various agendas politicians and interest groups push. Nothing brings out transparent exploitation like drugs. The semi-legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington spawned moralizing by both sides so cynical it bordered on callous.
Attorney General Eric Holder’s memo listed the administration’s first concern as the prevention of marijuana’s availability and appeal to youth. What charlatanism. An administration truly concerned about drug policies’ effects on youths would be urgently reassessing its own War on Drugs.
The Drug War’s mass arrest and imprisonment regime has been accompanied by unprecedented explosions in drug abuse, violence, and crime—the predictable result of the National Drug Control Strategy’s emphasis on punishing users while neglecting addiction. Illicit-drug abuse deaths now top 40,000 per year, led by middle-agers (2,000 among ages 40-64 in 1980; 21,500 in 2010). Teens show fewer but also increased drug fatalities (250 in 1980, 900 in 2010).
The official response to the rising tens of thousands of dead parents, grownups, and youths under their failed policies? Mainly, another frivolously dishonest campaign by the White House, Partnership at Drugfree.org, and obsequious reporters to blame kids stealing medications for an opiate-death epidemic the Centers for Disease Control admits is inconveniently centered in white middle-agers.
Rhetoric by marijuana legalization advocates also has been bizarrely exploitative. The NAACP’s Benjamin Jealous recited a common myth concocted by legalizers: if marijuana is regulated “like beer,” teens will find marijuana “harder to get.”
That’s both immaterial and false. Surveys for 40 years consistently show teens find legal drugs easier to get and actually use than illicit drugs. The 2013 Monitoring the Future survey is typical: 39% of 8th graders find marijuana “easy or very easy to get,” compared to 56% for alcohol; nearly twice as many drink alcohol as smoke pot.
American alcohol regulation is a deadly disaster, not a model. Federal fatality data show that every year, drunken, over-21 adults kill 800 teenagers and children and injure 80,000 more in a quarter-million traffic crashes. Adults’ drinking is the fifth leading cause of death to teens.
Perpetuating America’s tradition of leniency toward privileged groups and their drugs, Washington’s initiative allows adults to drive with marijuana levels more than twice the recognized safety limit. Washington’s first year of legalization brought increased marijuana-related traffic crashes, led by a 48-year-old driver who admitted to “smoking a bowl” before killing a pedestrian.
Both sides, deploying expedient non-science, ignore and rationalize adult excesses while dispensing useless propaganda haranguing teens to abstain. Strangely, they omit the best strategy: adults (especially parents) pushing teenage abstinence should abstain from drinking and drugs themselves, which sharply reduces the odds of their teens indulging. We grownups don’t care that much.
Meanwhile, draconian underage drinking laws arrest 300,000 teens every year. Marijuana legalizers rightly lament the harsh effects marijuana arrests inflict on young people. Then, their “reforms” continue to harshly criminalize marijuana use by those under 21, half of all marijuana possession arrestees. If marijuana is legalized for adults like alcohol, one in four total arrests of Americans under age 21 will be simply for possessing otherwise legal substances.
American drug policy largely consists of cyclical crusades demonizing whatever out-group—Chinese, Catholic immigrants, Mexicans, urban minorities, gay men, African Americans, teenagers—is most feared and safest to attack at any moment. Children and teens have always been pawns to subsidize drug-war interests on one side and adult partying on the other. The young are being forced to pay an unacceptable price for grownups’ selfish indulgences.
Decades of planned failure underlie Americans’ singular inability to handle drugs whatever their status—legal (alcohol), semi-legal (pharmaceuticals), or illegal (street drugs). World Health Organization tabulations indicate Americans’ rate of drug and alcohol overdose fatality is six times higher than other Western nations’. Our drug crises create global perils.
Obscured by all the bad policy schemes is California’s distinctly constructive 2011 reform reducing marijuana use by all ages to a rarely enforced infraction. Did teens afforded de facto legal marijuana go crazy? Hardly. Crime, hard drug arrests, school dropout rates, and related ills plunged to record lows among California youth in 2011 and 2012.
America can build on California’s success. Drug policy should focus on promoting responsibility toward alcohol and marijuana for adults and teenagers alike, not criminalizing mere use. That’s how to “care about children.”