Why more young people are using drugs

Why more young people are using drugs

Richette L. Haywood

Our children are in trouble. Serious trouble.

Young people’s experimentation with drugs is on the rise. The critical question is, Why? What’s behind the rise in the number of teenagers using drugs?

According to a study recently released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, use of illicit drugs, primarily marijuana, among teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17 years old has more than doubled since 1992, after years of decline.

New York Congressman Charles Rangel, chair of the Congressional Narcotics Abuse and Control Caucus, believes many youths’ despair and sense of hopelessness cause them to turn to drugs.

“I don’t think they have direction, and really it doesn’t appear that there is a downside to doing drugs,” he tells JET. “(Particularly) in poorer communities where the kids don’t have any job or any hope for the future, they have nothing to lose (by doing drugs).”

Derrick Crim, a certified youth assessment/intervention specialist at Minneapolis’ African-American Family Services, agrees.

“Often young people turn to drugs as a means of coping. I see increases in drug use (among teens) basically because of newfound stresses in their communities and sometimes right in their own families. These young people are just not able to get better coping skills to deal with the stresses, and drugs often become a quick remedy,” says Crim, who has been working with the organization’s drug treatment program for nearly a decade.

“When I ask the question, ‘Why are you smoking marijuana?’ They say that they need to chill,” Crim adds.

Many experts believe the rise of drug use among teens–particularly marijuana–is a reflection of pop culture’s glamorization of drug use.

“It’s in the movies. It’s in a lot of urban hip hop music…Some of the music videos really are about getting high,” says public health expert Linda Bass, who is currently the project manager for the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention’s (CSAP) marijuana public education campaign called Reality Check.

Her agency is working with people in the entertainment industry to portray a more realistic view of the effects of drugs.

“We’re not interested in trying to bash anybody or trying to say they shouldn’t make money. But we think there is a real opportunity to be clear on the influence that music has on these kids,” she adds.

That influence, contend many experts, is tremendous. Reginald Broddie, executive director of a Washington, D.C., area youth group, says: “It’s becoming increasingly difficult to administer our preventive drug programs because the youth culture has changed in a manner that a lot of more popular music idolizes the use of marijuana and hallucinogens and that has a profound effect on young people.”

Unfortunately, Dr. Elaine M. Johnson, director of the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, concurs. “Our pop culture is sending a lot of pro-drug messages. If you look at some of the tee-shirts, there are pro-drug messages on those. I saw a compact disc that was in the shape of a marijuana leaf, and I hadn’t seen that since the 1960s or 1970s.

“Some of the lyrics you hear in music contain pro-drug messages. Even when you turn on the internet, you can get pro-use information about the legalization of marijuana.”

Teens analyze the positive/negative messages they get about drugs, says intervention specialist Crim, and believe that drugs such as marijuana are harmless when compared to harder drugs such as crack cocaine. Those perceptions, he says, are sometimes re-enforced by adults, whom he calls “enablers.” “They say,’Oh, there’s nothing wrong with a little reefer. I smoked it when I was young. It’s not like he’s doing the hard stuff like cocaine.’ These kinds of messages get learned by children, and it’s like it’s okay to do drugs.”

Broddie adds, “We’ve worked with kids who have said using marijuana is a form of survival because if you’re not doing what the group is doing, you’re an outcast. Drugs are part of how they function. We’ve even had some kids tell us, ‘you’re acting like we’re smoking cigarettes.’ In other words, they don’t see smoking marijuana as being as bad as smoking cigarettes. Now that’s deep.”

The Health and Human Services survey polled almost 18,000 people over the age of 12 and showed that illicit drug use among adolescents rose from a low of 5.3 percent in 1992 to 10.9 percent in 1995.

The figure includes increases in cocaine use and hallucinogen use during the past year and puts drug use among Black and Hispanic teens at the same level as White teens, which is a disturbing new trend for minority youth.

“Some years back that wasn’t the case, especially for young African-American males,” says Dr. Johnson. In the past, drug use among Black teens was measurably lower than White teens. “But, now there are no significant differences among the various racial groups,” she relates.

“That is of great concern for us because in many instances we don’t have the support systems that help young people to grow up healthy and productive. So, that means we have to increase our efforts,” Johnson says.

Bass, who worked on the Urban Youth Campaign to dispel the myth that the drug problem was a Black problem, adds, “Drugs are a problem across the board in all ethnic groups, in all income levels, in the inner city, rural areas, and in suburbia too. Drugs are a problem everywhere.”

However, what surveys also have shown is that where there is social acceptance of a drug, there is high usage.

“In the surveys that we’ve done in the past 25 years,” points out Johnson, “what we see is when there is a perception that the drug is harmful (such as heroin), then we see lower use, and when we have social approval (such as with marijuana), we see an increase in use. Our young people feel that if other people are doing it, it’s okay to do.”

But, the problem, say experts, is much too complex to be boiled down to any one reason for resurgence of teen drug use. However, if the rise in teen drug use is to be turned around, parents, private grassroots prevention programs and the U.S. government have to join forces to launch a war on drugs.

That is something that has yet to have taken place, says New York Congressman Rangel, who admits he is not surprised at the statistics and questions the sincerity of past federal efforts to stop drug use.

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala said when her department released the National Household Survey, “Whether they are tender young pre-schoolers walking into a classroom for the first time or college students standing at the threshold of adulthood, and yes, a real job, these students are the real hope and promise of America.”

She went on to say: “But for young people to achieve the hope and promise of the future, they must avoid getting tangled in the deadly web of drugs…We must let them know in the clearest possible terms that using drugs is like skydiving without the parachute–that there is no soft landing in the end.”

COPYRIGHT 1996 Johnson Publishing Co.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group