Pubdate: Thu, 19 Nov 2020
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Naomi Schaefer Riley and John Walters


The U.S. election didn't produce a blue wave or a red wave, but some
are celebrating a green wave as voters in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey
and South Dakota approved the legalization of recreational marijuana.
Meanwhile, Oregonians decriminalized the possession of small amounts
of harder drugs, including cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines.
"Drugs, once thought to be the scourge of a healthy society, are
getting public recognition as a part of American life," the New York
Times gushed.

In reality, drugs are very much a scourge, particularly in the lives
of young children. In 2019 parental substance abuse was listed as a
cause for a child's removal to foster care 38% of the time, a share
that has risen steadily in the past decade. Experts suggest this is an
underestimate and the real number may be up to 80%.

Ms. Riley's interviews with foster parents suggest that there are very
few cases of children in the system that don't involve substance
abuse. And that doesn't include the hundreds of thousands of children
who are in the care of a single parent or other guardian because of a
mother or father's drug use. In a recent paper from the National
Bureau of Economic Research, three professors from Notre Dame
estimated that "if drug abuse had remained at 1996 levels, 1.5 million
fewer children aged 0-16 would have lived away from a parent in 2015."

Decriminalization efforts will likely exacerbate these problems. Such
measures lower the risk and the cost of doing business for drug
dealers and increase the supply of these drugs on streets across the
country. Drugs will be cheaper and easier to get for adults already
suffering from untreated mental illness, poverty or abuse. And the
effects will be felt most severely by children.

More drug availability means more drug use, which increases
interpersonal violence, including abuse and neglect of children.
Babies exposed to drugs in utero can experience severe withdrawal in
the near term and developmental delays in the long term. Children
going through withdrawal are extraordinarily difficult to care for,
and already overwhelmed parents may respond violently.

But the more common problem is that drug abuse leads to maltreatment
of children. As the Children's Bureau of the Department of Health and
Human Services reported in 2018, "Nationally, more than one quarter
(28.7%) of victims are younger than 3 years old. Victims younger than
1 year are 15.3 percent of all victims." Children under 3 made up more
than three-quarters of child-maltreatment fatalities in fiscal 2018.

Before their first birthday, children obviously require an enormous
amount of attention-constant feeding and changing, burping and
rocking. They can't do anything for themselves. Even a few hours of
parental inattention can have grave consequences. But then children
enter what one might call the "mobile but totally irrational stage."
They still need constant supervision to ensure they aren't touching a
hot stove, walking out a door accidentally left open, or left
unattended in a bathtub or near small, easy-to-swallow objects. It's
hard enough for a sober parent to monitor these situations.

The foster-care system is filled with kids whose parents use drugs,
get clean, then relapse again and again. Children spend years
shuttling from biological parents to foster homes to group homes and
back again, waiting for some kind of stability or permanence.

America seems to be accepting the ideas that drug use is an individual
choice and that addiction is an illness that should be treated instead
of punished. Yet as treatment services and overdose-reversal
medications expanded, overdose deaths skyrocketed, from fewer than
17,000 in 1999 to more than 67,000 in 2018. The odds of successful
long-term treatment are limited and addicts frequently relapse. In the
meantime the cost for infants and toddlers is unfathomable. Hard-line
drug policies might have lost their allure, but let's hope that
keeping children safe has not.

Ms. Riley is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Mr. Walters, chief operating officer of Hudson Institute, was director
of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy under
President George W. Bush.
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