The following letter was sent to the Dallas News over a story headlined "Heroin deaths just 1 symptom of youth epidemic Focus on exotic drugs masks toll of alcohol, pot, some say." The full text of the article follows the letter. It it is fascinating to read after considering the letter.
Editors, Dallas News:
The reason young people mix all drugs into one category and use them indiscriminately is that we, as a society, as a government, as a media, lie to them about marijuana. When we call marijuana a "hard" drug--addictive, dangerous, and deadly--the kids discover it just ain't so ('cause it ain't). After catching us in this lie (for a lie it is), why should young people believe us about other drugs, drugs that actually ARE dangerous? They don't, they get into trouble, and they have no one to turn to for help because, with marijuana, we proved our ignorance and deception about drugs.
The truth about marijuana? No one has ever died from an overdose or allergic reaction to marijuana. That cannot be said of any other recreational chemical, legal or illegal. It cannot even be said of table salt. Marijuana is safer and less addictive than caffeine ("Coke"), a drug no one seems to mind young people consuming by the gallon.
Fortunately, the truth will clear this whole mess up. All we have to do is tell young people: "Don't use any recreational chemicals until you're are an adult. But if you must take something, use marijuana only--no crack, no alcohol, no cigarettes, no cigars, no speed, no heroin, no coke, and no Coke. Play it safe, don't drive while high, and don't let others drive while high."
As the caretakers for these children, how painfully far from that truth we are. It is, however, the only truth that will work, because it's the only truth that there is. Yes, the Drug War emperor wears no clothes. The children see it clearly. Alas, the parents, government, and media deny it, refuse to study the science, refuse to discuss the issue rationally, and destroy millions of children in the process. The bitter irony is that this is all done "in the name of our children."
Here's the article that inspired the letter. The article it is a miracle of sloppy journalism. It's as though bombs, knives, razors, guns, flowers, grenades, and teargas are all part of the same category. As the test to break into the double-digit IQ range asks: "What item does not belong on this list?"
Heroin deaths just 1 symptom of youth epidemic
Focus on exotic drugs masks toll of alcohol, pot, some say
By Laurie Fox and Jacquielynn Floyd / The Dallas Morning News
In interviewing Dallas-area teenagers about their experiences with drugs, The Dallas Morning News agreed not to use their last names for this story. In some cases, entire names were withheld.
Somewhere along the line, 17-year-old Melanie was introduced to drugs.
She fell in love.
A waiflike girl with braces and a court-ordered electronic monitor strapped to one skinny ankle, Melanie is in treatment for substance abuse, but she still talks with sentimental fondness about scoring dope and getting high.
"It's everywhere," she said, recalling a string of misadventures with her old buddies, acid and coke, weed and "roofies" - Rohypnol, the so-called date-rape drug. If somebody offered, she said with a disconcerting note of pride, she rarely said no.
She has even danced with the Big Kahuna, the reigning heavyweight in the street drug galaxy - heroin.
"I only did it once," said the teen, who is on probation stemming from a juvenile drug charge. "I liked it so much it scared me. It was the best."
Melanie slipped into a parallel social universe where the tuner is set to all drugs, all the time. She did what any kid, from any neighborhood, in any family, can do with frightening ease. She ran with a crowd that has branches in nearly every high school, for whom drugs are the primary recreation, the chief unit of commerce and Topic A for conversation.
Heroin, which is getting a lot of attention since being repackaged as the suburban party drug "chiva," is a problem, say cops and counselors.
After all, it can kill you. But it's only one symptom of a raging epidemic, they say.
Parents ought to be less worried about any single drug, they say, than about the ruinous cumulative havoc that dope and booze can wreak on their families, neighborhoods and schools.
Conversations with kids suggest that the intense focus on exotic drugs such as heroin fosters a sense that alcohol and marijuana are harmless, so commonplace and available that some teenagers don't even think of them as drugs.
According to a 1995 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than half of the nation's high school students had used alcohol within 30 days of the survey, and nearly a third downed five or more drinks in a single binge. A quarter reported they had used marijuana in the previous 30 days.
"We have a world where both kids and parents don't see marijuana as a 'hard drug,' " said M. Yolanda Nolan, director of a Fair Park drug treatment center. "No one sees it as a drug, period. So why would these kids see 'chiva' as heroin?"
Despite an abundance of drug awareness and education programs, the rehab business is thriving. In some households, battling drug use is an exhausting, never-ending war.
One reason is that some kids, the handful already well on the road toward addiction, just like to get wasted, damn the consequences, Ms. Nolan said.
"By and large, adolescent kids are into getting high," she said. "They want that altered state."
And there's the adolescent bonding - the tepid cliche is "peer pressure" - a titanic force that can override logic, self-interest and common sense.
"It's lame to 'Just Say No,' " one teenager impatiently told a panel of adults during a regional drug summit held last year in Irving. The comment was included in a report summing up the threat of social exclusion that adolescents fear the most.
"When you quit using," Melanie said forlornly, "you don't have any friends."
There's a tough crowd that sometimes congregates under the oak trees surrounding Harry Stone Recreation Center near Bryan Adams High School in East Dallas. One of the boys was expelled from school earlier this year; another reports indifferently that he is awaiting trial on an arson charge.
The kids jostle, talk tough, discuss their weekend plans: "smoke up a butt" - marijuana - "and get drunk." It's as if they were talking about pizza and a movie. No one is overtly using drugs ("Too many cops around, man"), but they slyly show off the paraphernalia in their pockets: rolling papers, pipes, little cigars with all the tobacco picked out.
They're all maybe 15 or 16, but they laughed uproariously when asked about drug enforcement and alcohol regulation.
"I could buy at every single liquor store around here," one kid bragged. "I can fire it up" - smoke weed - "anytime I want."
Like other kids in less-affluent neighborhoods, they are prickly about the public attention that about a dozen heroin deaths has wrought in upscale Plano.
"They're making a big deal out of one drug that's killed a few people," one boy said. "They don't make a big deal about the dope fiends around here."
Another kid bitterly pointed out that sudden death in his neighborhood is a lot more likely to be the result of violence than of drugs. Just a few weeks ago, a boy many of them knew was shot to death on a nearby street corner.
"Last time the cops stopped me, they didn't even search my pockets," he said, oddly petulant at the omission. "They just felt around my waist, looking for a gun."
Teenagers swarming into a recent outdoor Arlington concert first had to squeeze past a base camp of cops and state alcohol-enforcement agents under a tent. By early afternoon, the law had a growing trophy collection of beer confiscated from underage drinkers and illicit weed in sandwich bags.
Some in the crowd scoffed at the idea of booze and marijuana as "gateway drugs" to the hard stuff.
Bryan, a 19-year-old from Richland Hills, waited in line with four pals, all of whom took a no-big-deal view of beer and weed.
"I don't feel any sympathy for those who use heroin," Bryan said. "That's one hell of a game of Russian roulette."
Kit, an 18-year-old Irving high school graduate, said drug prevention programs too often assume there aren't any teenagers out there with any sense.
"It's easy to avoid drugs," he said. "Once you get started, you can't go back. More kids realize that than adults give us credit for."
Gayle Jensen-Savoie, who runs the only nonprofit adolescent drug rehabilitation unit in Plano, said she admires the community's willingness to talk openly about drug problems. It's especially gutsy, she said, because part of what they got for their trouble was the unwanted designation of national poster child for suburban dysfunction.
Talking is hard, she said, but fixing the problem is going to be a lot harder. A lot of people who are appropriately horrified by the city's painfully well-publicized heroin deaths still don't grasp the scope of the substance-abuse problems she sees.
"The problems are starting when they're 11 or 12," Ms. Jensen-Savoie said, and that's a hard one for parents to swallow. "And alcohol is always the first problem. Marijuana, Number 2. Number 3 is a tie between heroin, cocaine and LSD."
Baby-boomer parents can be too inclined to judge the potency and availability of drugs and alcohol by their own teenage experience, experts said.
"There's a lot more out there, and the drugs are a lot more potent now," Ms. Jensen-Savoie said. And the social lines that separate Those Who Do from Those Who Don't are fuzzier.
"We see very good athletes, we see kids attending very good private schools," she said. "Someone gives them heroin or cocaine at a party, and shazam! They like how it feels."
Maybe the most sobering lesson Plano offers is that flight to the suburbs - or anywhere else, for that matter - doesn't guarantee protection.
Kathleen McClymonds, a 1998 graduate of Highland Park High School, wouldn't touch drugs on a bet, she said. But she knows where the kids who would go to find them.
"There's a street where everybody goes to smoke on the other side. We call it Freak Street," she said. "But if you consider alcohol a drug, it's everywhere in high school. That's probably been the big concern."
In Aledo, a semirural town west of Fort Worth, there's not much of a drug problem, teenagers said.
"Out here in the country, it's just beer and dip," said Josh Casburn, an 18-year-old who also just graduated. But anybody with a few bucks and a ride can drive to town to score drugs, he said, and some do. And alcohol is inescapable.
"Right before prom, we had a big assembly," said Josh, who said he's never tried drugs or alcohol. "They really drilled it into our heads: Don't come to prom drunk."
Pam Slater is no longer surprised by the damage teenagers can inflict on themselves in the quest to get high. She has one patient, an 18-year-old from Plano, who was so sick from an overdose that he was pronounced dead in the emergency room before persistent doctors managed to revive him.
"He has a lot of motivation for treatment," Ms. Slater said dryly. As an adolescent therapist at Dallas' Timberlawn Hospital, she works on the front lines.
"A lot of these kids don't care that these drugs are dangerous," she said. "They're doing whatever makes them feel good."
Timberlawn psychiatrist Neil Jacobson said the highest-risk kids are those detached from their families, who don't view their homes as sheltering retreats from the turmoil of adolescence.
"A lot of these kids do drugs because they're hurting about something, and it's extremely easy for them to self-medicate," he said.
Therapy can do a lot. At a treatment center run by the Dallas County Juvenile Probation Department, kids usually drop what director Lynda Williams calls their "crappy attitudes" within a few days.
These are kids who have been ordered into treatment by the courts. Many have been arrested for dealing as well as using drugs. Some have overdosed. Some have been shot and stabbed in drug-related disputes.
"If I screw up any more, I'm not going to have nothing in my life," said Pete, a 17-year-old Rockwall youth. "I'm going to wreck my future."
The therapy part is easy, compared with life back home and its attendant temptations. During treatment, Ms. Williams has the kids write up lists - Top 10 Ways I Hurt My Family, Strategies for Staying Clean - to carry with them as talismans after they leave.
Pete, who said he once earned hundreds of dollars a week selling dope, is a few days from completing his court-ordered treatment. He said he plans to stay out of trouble by working double shifts at his summer job.
"I work at Taco Bell," he said with sweet, shy pride. "I make $6.25 an hour."
Slowly, schools and communities are starting to add teeth to their awareness-and-education formulas. Arlington schools drew a no-retreat line in the sand last year by requiring promgoers to submit to blood-alcohol tests to get in. They quietly repeated the procedure this year, to a lot less media attention and fanfare.
Arlington police, who station an officer in most of the city's secondary schools, will keep those officers on youth duty over the summer break, working the grapevine to keep track of parties that might involve drugs.
"We'll just call the kid and tell him he can count on extra visitors at his party," said Sgt. Lisa Womack, who supervises the school resource officers. "We'll also call their parents."
But parents aren't uniformly pleased with proposed drug-eradication plans. Grapevine-Colleyville schools are considering a mandatory drug-testing program, but court rulings have held that only kids involved in voluntary extracurricular activities can be required to submit. At least one area school district, Azle, already has such testing in place.
Hunting for crackheads on the debate team may seem like a fruitless pursuit, school authorities said, but it's all they can legally do. If nothing else, they said, it may serve as a cautionary example to student bodies as a whole.
More than a few parents have responded with hostility, arguing that the schools are targeting the least likely suspects for testing.
But one parent brought a recent meeting on the issue at Colleyville Heritage High School to an awkward standstill.
"I have a son who's 19, and he's a drug addict," she said, anger apparent in her voice. "There's a drug problem out there, and we'd better wake up."
Ms. Williams, the juvenile-substance-abuse counselor, thinks it will take a revival of small-town sensibilities, where everybody knows everybody else, where nosy neighbors spy on each others' kids and report all infractions.
"The communities can't wait for law enforcement to take care of this," she said. "Maybe we all need to be busybodies."