Pubdate: Wed, 17 Feb 1999
Source: Newsday (NY)
Copyright: 1999, Newsday Inc.
Page: A37
Contact:  (516) 843-2986
Author: Marsha Rosenbaum
Note: Marsha Rosenbaum is the director of the Lindesmith Center West, a
drug policy institute in San Francisco. She is the author of "Women on
Heroin" and "Pregnant Women on Drugs" (with Sheila Murphy). 


THE CLINTON administration has just unveiled a major plan to reduce drug
use by half by the year 2007. It calls for more drug education for children
and tighter security at our borders to stem the supply of drugs. Indeed, as
part of that effort, Bill Clinton seems all but certain to certify Mexico's
continuing cooperation to curb the export of drugs into this county.

Clinton's call to arms is a natural response to our country's ongoing
struggle with drug use. The problem is that we're already trying this - and
look at the results.

The federal drug-control budget exceeds $17 billion per year. Add state and
local budgets to fight drugs, and the figure may be nearly five times
larger. Two-thirds of this money is used for interdiction, stopping drugs
from entering the country, and enforcement - arresting, trying and
imprisoning users. So far (perhaps because the black market generates $64
billion per year), this effort has been a dismal failure.

In fact, since President Ronald Reagan began escalating the "war on drugs,"
worldwide production of opium has expanded. The price of heroin has dropped
and its purity has increased steadily. We cannot seem to make a dent in the
supply, hence availability, of heroin.

Our efforts to reduce the demand for drugs have fared no better than our
efforts to reduce drug supplies. Today's young adults were in grade school
when Nancy Reagan began telling them to "just say no." Over and over, in
the schools and on television, they have been warned about drugs' dangers.
Yet for nearly a decade now, drug use among adolescents has been rising.
According to government statistics, less than 1 percent have ever tried
heroin, but those federal researchers familiar with drug-use patterns
believe its use among young people is increasing.

More drug education, of the sort existing already, cannot be expected to
reverse these trends. Indeed, study after study shows that current drug
education programs have no effect on drug use whatsoever. Quite simply,
they lack credibility. Much of their focus is on marijuana, which they
overly demonize, hoping it will frighten young people away from
experimentation. Half of American teenagers try marijuana anyway, and once
they learn the dire warnings are not true, they begin to mistrust
everything about drugs that adults tell them.

And why shouldn't they? Why should they listen at all if they can't believe
that what we tell them is true?

The truth about heroin is that it is much more dangerous than marijuana.
Anyone who injects heroin with a needle that was used previously by others
risks contracting a deadly infection such as hepatitis or HIV.

Anyone who uses heroin steadily for several weeks running, whether it is
injected, smoked or snorted, will begin developing physical dependence and
face withdrawal symptoms if he stops using it. People who use heroin
occasionally do not become addicted. But, compared to the heroin addict,
the occasional heroin user has not developed tolerance to the drug. He is
at much greater risk of experiencing a fatal overdose. Still, because
heroin is illegal, unregulated and uncontrolled, even the most experienced
user cannot know the potency contained in a batch of unlabeled white powder.

These are the kinds of warnings we should be giving young people about
heroin. But first we have to get them to listen by convincing them they can
trust us to tell the truth. They must also trust that they can come to us
in an emergency.

"Zero tolerance" is another method for deterring young people from
experimentation. But it has meant that too many have died because their
friends were afraid of calling parents or other authorities for help.
Terrified of being detected themselves, teenagers in Plano, Texas, for
example, fled the scene, leaving one boy to choke on his own vomit and die.

Like it or not, we cannot seal our borders or completely eliminate demand
for drugs, no matter how much money the government is willing to spend.
Moral indignation will not change that reality. A more pragmatic approach
would be to learn to live with drugs, as we do with alcohol, and to focus
on the reduction of drug-related harm.

Our first priority ought to be gaining the trust of young people. We ought
to offer thorough, scientifically grounded education that allows them to
learn all they can about drugs, alcohol and any other substances they
ingest. Young people will ultimately make their own decisions about drug
use, and when they do, they ought to have enough accurate information -
from sources they trust - to insure their own safety and the safety of
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