Rethinking the Drug War: More People – and Pols – Now See Policy Flaws

By Bruce Mirken, San Francisco Bay Guardian, January 8, 1997

Maybe it’s just that the election campaign is over, but although the Dec. 19 release of a new survey showing a slight increase in teenage drug use produced the usual expressions of dismay, there was nothing like the clamor for new get-tough policies that dominated the public dialogue on drugs just a few months ago. And voices calling for a reappraisal of America’s war on drugs are increasingly making themselves heard.

The University of Michigan survey, which showed a sharp increase in marijuana use in some age groups but more mixed results for other drugs, “tells us that our ‘zero tolerance’ educational approach is not having the desired effect,” Adam Smith, assistant director of the Washington, D.C.-based Drug Policy Reform Network, said. “It’s telling us that making the largest number of drug arrests in our history is not having the desired effect.” Smith said that it’s time to rethink our criminal justice-based approach to drugs, as well as educational approaches that “rely on scare tactics, saying any use is abuse.”

Not everyone agrees with that assessment. Announcing the findings, Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala reemphasized the government’s traditional line, that “drugs are illegal, dangerous, and wrong.” Shalala-perhaps responding to California’s passage of Proposition 215, which legalizes medical use of marijuana-particularly emphasized that drug’s alleged dangers. But dissenting views are becoming increasingly prominent.

Former surgeon general Joycelyn Elders, who took considerable flak for suggesting that drug legalization be studied, argues: “We can’t build enough jails to get out of this problem,” adding that much in current antidrug efforts “makes no sense … We treat all drugs the same. We say that marijuana is the same as crack cocaine or heroin or whatever.”

Not only does that approach fly in the face of a considerable body of medical literature (last year the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet flatly stated that use of marijuana “is not harmful to health”), but also critics of current drug-education programs argue that taking such a dogmatic line is actually counterproductive: In a 1995 survey of California students and educators, Joel Brown, Ph.D., director of the Berkeley consulting firm Educational Research Consultants, found that students reacted to school antidrug programs with great skepticism. These programs-the most famous of which is DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), developed by the Los Angeles Police Department under the regime of former police chief Daryl Gates – strongly emphasize the harmful effects of drug use. Unfortunately, 40 percent of students interviewed said they were “not at all” influenced by the programs, whose all-use-is-abuse approach often doesn’t jibe with what they see in their daily lives. The rigid no-use doctrine and “scare tactics,” Brown told the Bay Guardian, “are what’s turning the kids off.”

The state Department of Education has not been enthusiastic about Brown’s work. Greg Wolfe of the department’s Healthy Kids program office calls it “not the most scientifically rigorous use of evaluation” and suggests that Brown used “leading questions” to get the results he wanted.

Meanwhile Brown is accusing the department of reneging on its promise to publish the report, while Wolfe denies that any such commitment was made. Brown bristles at Wolfe’s criticism, saying, “I adhere to the highest ethical standards in research. The research has been accepted in the most significant educational journal in the U.S.,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. “There is now overwhelming evidence to suggest these programs are not reaching 
young people,” he said. “In no way do I condone adolescent substance use, but we need to examine different ways of reaching our youth … Our kids have had more drug education than any other group in history and yet substance use is on the rise. More of the same isn’t going to work.”

Copyright 1998 The San Francisco Bay Guardian