Fighting a War Armed With Baby-Boomer Myths

Mike Males, Justice Policy Institute senior researcher and UC Santa Cruz sociology instructor, is the author of "Kids and Guns: How Politicians, Experts, and the Press Fabricate Fear of Youth."

Remarks by retiring drug czar Barry McCaffrey and accolades for the Steven Soderbergh film “Traffic” by drug-policy reform groups frame a vigorous drug-war debate--circa 1970. Thirty years ago, McCaffrey’s goal to save our children from their own drug use might have been relevant. So, too, “Traffic” ’s scenes of the daughter of the film’s drug czar sampling heroin in response to the hypocrisies of liquor-swilling and pill-popping grown-ups.

But these vintage baby-boom notions have little to do with today’s drug realities. On one side, the rhetorical distortions and misdirected policies of the Office of National Drug Control Policy squandered billions of dollars and locked up millions of drug users--and the United States is enduring the worst drug-abuse crisis in its history. As McCaffrey leaves office, the federal Drug Abuse Warning Network reports that drug abuse soared to record peaks in 1999: An estimated 555,000 Americans were treated in hospitals for drug-related visits; at least 11,600 died from overdoses. On the other side, reformers seeking to decriminalize marijuana and relax drug policies perpetrate so many drug-war myths that they reinforce hard-line attitudes even as they win minor improvements.

The chief drug-war myth is the “demographic scapegoat.” Wars against drugs (including Prohibition) always seek to link feared drugs to feared populations: the Chinese and opium; Mexicans and marijuana; black musicians and cocaine; and Catholic immigrants and alcohol. Today’s war on drugs sustains itself by depicting white suburban teenagers menaced by inner-city youths’ habits.


No matter who peddles it, this image is unreal. In truth, the drug-abuse crisis chiefly concerns aging baby boomers, mostly whites. A high schooler is five times more likely to have heroin-, cocaine- or methamphetamine-addicted parents than the other way around; far more senior citizens than teenagers die from illegal drugs. Accordingly, a “war on drugs” that truly cared about protecting children would make treating parents’ addictions its top priority.

The “teenage heroin resurgence” repeatedly trumpeted in headlines and drug-war alarms is fabricated; it shows up nowhere in death, hospital, treatment or survey records. The Drug Abuse Warning Network’s most recent hospital survey reports 84,500 treatments for heroin abuse nationwide in 1999; just 700 of these were for adolescents. Of 4,800 Americans who died from heroin abuse, only 33 were under 18 years old. Press panics over supposed teenage heroin outbreaks in Portland and Seattle last summer collapsed when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the average overdoser was 40 years old.

Teenage “heroin epidemics” breathlessly clarioned in some California cities are refuted by hospital records that show just nine of San Francisco’s 3,100 emergency treatments for heroin overdoses in 1999 were teenagers, as were 17 of San Diego’s 1,100 and two of Los Angeles’s 2,950. Why aren’t there more teen heroin casualties? Few use it. The National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, released in September 2000, showed that .2% of 12- to 17-year-olds had used heroin at any time in the previous year. Nor are the few heroin initiators getting younger (most remain over 21).

There are preppie kids who smoke heroin, as “Traffic” depicts, but their numbers pale beside the tens of thousands of baby boomers whose addictions are rooted in the Vietnam era. Four-fifths of California’s heroin decedents over the age of 30, and three-fourths of them are white, a quintessentially mainstream demographic neither drug warrior nor drug reformer wishes to target. Thus, policy debate and cinematic representations promote a comfortable myth: Baby-boom drug days are behind us.

Similarly, drug-reform publications such as DrugSense Weekly allege an “increase in heroin use among our youth” to indict the drug war. Mike Gray, author of “Drug Crazy,” and other reformers claim decriminalizing and regulating marijuana for adults would make it harder for teenagers to get. Ridiculous. The 1999 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse reports 12- to 17-year-olds use legal, adult-regulated cigarettes and alcohol 100 times more than they use heroin; two to three times more teens drink or smoke than use the most popular illicit, marijuana. Teenagers can get alcohol and drugs whenever they want them, yet suffer very low casualties. Drug reformers’ own research gospel, the Lindesmith Center’s exhaustive “Marijuana Myths, Marijuana Facts,” finds no scientific reason why teenagers should be banned from using marijuana that would not also apply to adults. In short, teenagers are not the issue.

Drug policy will change only when compelling new information is introduced. That means discarding first-wave baby-boomer drug images and moving toward second-generation realities. Throughout the Western world, young people are reacting against their parents’ hard-drug abuse by patronizing softer drugs such as beer and marijuana. It’s understandable that baby boomers would indulge moral panic over any drug use by kids while denying their own middle-aged drug woes, but these illusions should not govern 2000-era drug policy.


The Netherlands’ 1976 Dutch Opium Act reforms recognized that modern soft-drug use by young people is separate from the midlife hard-drug crisis. Dutch studies showed that marijuana and hashish use was unrelated to hard-drug abuse, except among a small fraction already inclined to addiction. These conclusions were confirmed by the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse analysts and long-term studies by University of California researchers. True, most drug abusers first tried drugs in their youth, as did most non-abusers. But 90% of the 160 million American adults who used marijuana or alcohol during adolescence did not find them “gateways” to later addiction.

The Netherlands’ reforms stressing public-health strategies to contain hard-drug abuse, coupled with tolerance for marijuana use by adults and teenagers, has produced a spectacular benefit: a 65% decline in heroin deaths since 1980 (while U.S. heroin death rates doubled).

Whether or not Dutch-style reforms are feasible here, the U.S. will not reduce its worst-ever drug-abuse crisis until politicians radically revamp the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the facile demographic scapegoating of young people. Yet, because drug reformers, copying drug-war hard-liners, increasingly promote their agendas by exploiting youth as fear-invoking symbols in today’s anachronistic “debate,” genuine reform seems remote. *