Another Teen Heroin Hoax
Mike Males
c Youth Today, September 2000

Honest: I’d planned to shift gears, write a happy column on wonderful programs that do kids good without terrifying the public. But, unfortunately, the scaremongers are up to shenanigans again. This summer, it’s the “suburban teen heroin crisis” -- the dozenth hoax in a long line.

1970: Time magazine and “experts” clarion 100,000 teenage heroin abusers in New York. Never existed.

1980: The Washington Post profiles eight-year-old junk addict, igniting official pandemonium. Total fabrication.

1996: Mass media, “experts” scream every Los Angeles 8th grader smokes smack, heroin’s more popular than beer! Complete crock.

2000: “Heroin’s back!” killing white suburban kids, “even girls!”

Not even. The latest facts: of 4,300 heroin deaths in 1998 and 38,000 hospital emergency cases in the first half of 1999 reported by the Drug Abuse Warning Network, fewer than 1% were teens. Of 200,000 admittees to heroin treatment, 3% were under age 20 (and that includes inappropriate commitments). Of 6,800 youths age 12-17 surveyed by the 1998 National Household Survey, 20 used heroin in the past year (two-tenths of 1%). Among the 4,000 high-risk teenage arrestees drug-tested in 1998, fewer than 1% tested positive.

The evidence is overwhelming: there’s no appreciable teenage heroin problem. If there were, reporters would’ve been covering their own cities’ crises, not flocking thousands of miles to Plano, Texas, in 1997 to hype the sad fates of two dozen kids unaware the supposedly harmless “chiva” they smoked contained pure heroin.

There’s a huge, white, middle-aged heroin epidemic, but no one talks about that. Instead, this summer’s press splashes in Portland and Seattle followed standard teen-hoax procedure usable in any town:

-- Human interest: Clean-cut, white junkie kid implicates legions of privileged classmates as dragon-chasers with clueless parents. Remember journalists’ teen-alarm ethics: one case equals “terrifying epidemic.”

-- Twisted statistics: Last year, 221 people died from heroin in Portland and Seattle. Lying “experts” insinuated they were young. (The truth: none were youths; four-fifths were over age 30).

-- Color: Excitable treatment folks bewail, “more kids get addicted younger every year!” (Treatment folks ALWAYS say that). As a journalist, I visited clinics first-hand and found the “teen scourge” wildly exaggerated. “Scores of new teenage heroin addicts!” on “News At 11” turned out to be two or three in reality, plus a dozen in for beer or pot, a dozen more coping with addicted parents, several dozen more “youngsters” over 35 years old, the rest just made up. Treatment records heroin admittees getting older -- averaging 40 today.

-- Dire “experts:” Quote the Drug Enforcement Administration’s George Foster or Phoenix House’s Terry Horton that young people shoot up because of “generational amnesia” (unlike Baby Boomers, kids today just don’t know heroin’s evils). What mean-spirited malarkey. Today’s kids, as dozens of kids in Chicago’s juvenile jail emphatically informed me, shun cocaine and heroin because they see thousands of adults around them strung out, dying or dead -- a reality experts can’t face.

Drug-war and drug-reform groups squabble over the “messages” that movies, music, abstinence education, Partnership ads, “heroin chic” fashion, and decriminalization proposals send kids. They needn’t fret. Across Western nations, youths are ignoring popular and official exhortations and creating their own low-risk drug policy. Teenagers in the pot-tolerant Netherlands and zero-tolerance U.S. display virtually the same behaviors: weekend beer or wine drinking, some cigarette smoking, occasional marijuana use, almost no hard drugs.

Current teenage styles are much healthier than Baby Boomers’, which is why modern kids aren’t dying from drugs like their parents did and do. They predict low rates of future drug abuse, which has powerful implications for prevention and policy. But major drug-war interests, treatment industries, academic sycophants, and the press remain addicted to whipping up baseless scare campaigns for politics and profit.

Imagine an America where young people and supportive adults understand the middle ground between “zero-no-nothing-never” and “party, puke, and die.” You’re not the only one.

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