Few outlets dissent from the latest teen-drug hysterias
By Mike Males
The summer's teen-drug media frenzy couldn't decide whether the "dance club"
designer drug ecstasy (MDMA) or that old standard, heroin, was killing more
suburban kids. ABC News, partner in the Partnership for a Drug-Free America's anti-dope crusade, faithfully hyped every official scare: "Ecstasy
sweeping the country" (3/5/00); "Ecstasy use soars" (6/7/00); "Heroin
ravages younger users" (7/10/00, 7/12/00).
Officials pronounced the "epidemic" of teens and young adults downing
synthetic drugs at nightclubs and "rave" parties exceeded the crack cocaine
scourge. "Dozens of people are reported to have died," ABC (7/26/00)
breathed, failing to mention that the number bandied (100) was ecstasy's
estimated worldwide death toll over the last two decades.
Ecstasy, CBS's 60 Minutes II (4/27/00) quoted police, "is no different than
crack or heroin." But the latest federal Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN)
report reveals one big difference: In 1998, coroners implicated heroin in
4,300 deaths, cocaine in 4,500 and alcohol mixed with drugs in 3,600. The
entire family of "club drugs," from MDMA (ecstasy) to GHB, accounted for a total of 15 deaths. Further, none of these designer drugs' victims were children: Seven
were aged 18-34, eight over 35.
Ecstasy abuse can lead to emergency-room treatments for "dehydration,
anxiety and exhaustion," 60 Minutes added, citing DAWN figures. "In the last
few years, 1,100 hospital cases have been reported." 60 Minutes didn't
mention that in 1998 alone, the same DAWN reports showed overdoses of
Tylenol (a sponsor of CBS News' "Ecstasy Spreads" Web posting) contributed
to 20,000 hospital cases and 36 deaths among persons 25 and younger. That's
20 times more ER cases and five times more deaths than blamed on ecstasy.
For all designer drugs and ages, about 2,500 hospital ER cases were reported
to DAWN in 1998. Only one-tenth of these were youths, casting more doubt on
the avalanche of scare-stories about kids expiring at raves and White House
drug czar Barry McCaffrey's warning to parents that "their young people are
at risk in that environment" (ABC 3/5/00, CNN 8/2/00). Most of the media echoed official claims that at raves, "illegal drugs like ketamine, ecstasy,
LSD and other drugs are offered as innocently as hors d'oeuvres" (Dateline
The official and media hyperbole obscured ecstasy's actual dangers. Law
enforcement claims that ecstasy and GHB are "kill pills" are absurd; neither
causes serious reactions except when taken in large quantities (DRCNet,
9/2/00). Some researchers have raised important questions about MDMA's
long-term effect on brain functioning (ABC, 5/17/00), but the evidence is
not nearly as damning or conclusive as ABC, Dateline and CNN presented it. Most deaths and hospital cases blamed on ecstasy resulted from contaminated
drugs, prompting authorities in the United Kingdom, Switzerland and San
Francisco to promote public-health approaches (such as relaxed penalties and
providing free water at raves).
Fortunately, two big magazines refused to join the rave-panic stampede.
Time's cover story, "The Lure of Ecstasy" (6/5/00), pointed out the
club-drug wave washed Europe during the early 1990s, when millions of doses
were taken every weekend, but now "the drug's sexiness has worn off." Only 5
percent of young European adults surveyed had ever tried ecstasy, and "the
number of habitual users is small." Shockingly, most ravers go for the music
and dancing, not drugs, Time reported.
U.S. News & World Report (6/26/00) also lent perspective: "Kids are looking
to raves to find a 21st century community.... Indeed, every generation since
at least the 1920s has had its narcotic and the music scene that revolved
around it: The Jazz Age had liquor, the '60s its Grateful Dead shows,
marijuana and hallucinogens, and disco was fueled by cocaine."
And that about sums up the ecstasy panic: It's nothing new, it's nowhere
near as lethal as heroin, cocaine or alcohol, but taken to excess or when
adulterated, it can have damaging effects. Just like thousands of substances
American buy from legal dispensers--including Tylenol.
Three decades of junk journalism
1970: "Kids and Heroin: The Adolescent Epidemic," trumpeted Time (3/16/70).
"A terrifying wave of heroin use among youth...has caught up teenagers and
even pre-adolescent children from city ghettos to fashionable suburbs."
Quoting unnamed "experts," Time predicted the number of teenage heroin
addicts in New York "may mushroom fantastically to 100,000 this summer....
Disaster looms large."
Although exaggerated, 1970s fears had some foundation. Coroner reports
showed 125 teenagers died from heroin overdoses in New York City and 140 in
California that year. By the late 1970s, teenage heroin abuse subsided and
remains low to this day (the teenage heroin toll in 1998: two deaths in New
York City, nine in California). Press fear, however, escalated.
1980: The Washington Post's front-page profile (9/28/80) of "Jimmy," a black
eight-year-old junkie, ignited pandemonium. Mayor Marion Barry ordered
police and teachers to inspect children's arms for needle holes. Despite a
$10,000 reward and intensive searches, neither Jimmy nor any other child
addict was found. "Jimmy" did not exist, Post reporter Janet Cooke later
1996: Trainspotting panic erupted. In a story that would shame the National
Enquirer, USA Today (7/19/96) declared "smoking or snorting smack is as
commonplace as beer for the younger generation." Rolling Stone (5/30/96)
branded Seattle "junkie town." Citing anecdotes, the article blamed
Seattle's tripling in heroin deaths from 1986 to 1994 on "young people" from
"white suburban backgrounds." In fact, DAWN reports showed, nearly all of
Seattle's increase in heroin fatalities was among aging baby boomers, not
kids. The average age of Seattle's 500 heroin decedents from 1995 through
1999 was 40. Only 1 percent were teenagers (Morbidity and Mortality Weekly
Report, 7/21/00). DAWN reported that, of 2,500 Seattle residents treated for heroin overdoses in 1999, just seven were adolescents.
Reporters stampeded to Plano, Texas, spotlighting its 19 teenage and
young-adults deaths from heroin overdoses in two years as the tip of a
national youth smack epidemic (L.A. Times, 11/30/97). As it turned out, the
Plano victims didn't know the "chiva" they smoked contained heroin. More
crucial, the national media herd never pondered why, if smack was sweeping
the young, they had to journey to Plano to find a teen-heroin crisis.
Later, DAWN reports showed 1996's teen-smack panic was another media
chimera. Of 8,500 heroin deaths in 1996 and 1997, just 48 were
teenagers--and one-fourth of these were Plano's. Of 145,000 hospital
treatments for heroin, fewer than 1,000 were youths.
2000: The suburban-teen-heroin hoax resurges, more fraudulent than ever.
"Teen heroin use is taking place under their parent's noses," CNN blared
(5/9/00, see also identical story 9/21/00). "The drug has moved into the middle-class suburbs with devastating effects."
"Teenagers and young adults are finding the drug more attractive," ABC News
(7/10/00) declared, blaming the supposed outbreak on the War on Drugs' two
favorite scapegoats: suburban teens and minorities. ABC's follow-up
concerned Native American heroin abuse in New Mexico (7/12/00).
The simple truth officials and the media refuse to discuss: Today's chief
abusers of heroin are not kids or minorities, but white middle-agers. DAWN's
latest reports show four-fifths of heroin's overdose-death and hospital
cases in 1999 were over age 30. Fewer than 1 percent were
teenagers; just 5 percent were under age 25.
Since 1980, the number of Americans imprisoned for drug offenses has soared more than 10-fold, reaching 458,131 in 1997. In California (which now spends $1 billion per year to imprison drug offenders), young adults of color under age 30 are just one-sixth as likely to die from drug abuse, but are twice as likely to be imprisoned for drug offenses, than are white middle-agers (Justice Policy Institute 8/00, www.cjcj.org/drug).
Why are so few teenagers dying from heroin? They're not using it. The 1999
National Household Survey on Drug Abuse reported that of 25,000 12- to
17-year-olds surveyed, just 100 had ever used heroin; only 75 had tried it
in the previous year.
Drug-reform groups join in
Both drug-war and drug-reform interests exploit the fiction of a rising
teen-drug crisis in order to blame each other for it. McCaffrey and other
drug warriors parade the image that "substance abuse among young people has
grown" in their crusade to suppress all "material legitimizing drugs...in
music, film, television, the Internet and mass market outlets" (L.A. Times,
Groups seeking to reform drug policy counter-claim that "it is the drug war
which McCaffrey so ardently supports that is solely responsible for the
increase in heroin use among our youth" (Drug Sense Weekly, 5/12/00). The
reformist Common Sense for Drug Policy (www.csdp.org) even charges that
McCaffrey "failed to mention...a continuing rise in hard-drug use by our
youth," and therefore understated "the dimensions of adolescent drug use"! A
CSDP ad campaign, charting the sharp increases in drug imprisonments and
overdose deaths from 1980 to 1996, declared, "The more we escalate the drug
war, the more young people and others die."
The true "dimensions of adolescent drug use" CSDP itself "failed to mention"
consist of vanishingly low levels of teenage hard-drug use and casualties,
and teenage overdose rates no higher today than in 1980; it's middle-agers
who suffer skyrocketing drug demise. Why are reformers silent on this
damning reality while helping McCaffrey misrepresent young people as the
nation's big drug problem?
"With horrifyingly generic teen-pop acts blaring out from MTV day in and day
out, it's a wonder more kids haven't turned to drugs to escape the awful
racket," Time's balanced story on ecstasy ended. The same amen could be
applied to the horrifyingly generic racket about "teens and drugs" blaring
from Washington, most of the press, and even drug-reform groups that should