Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#72, February 1, 2000


by Marylaine Block

I wonder why drugs obsess us so. If it's because we're afraid they're mind-altering, we're right. They DO alter minds: they make us stupid.

They make us ask the wrong questions for instance. We ask what George W. DID when he was young and irresponsible and how much and how often Al Gore enjoyed his tokes, when we should be asking why they did it, what they learned, and how they want the criminal justice system to handle kids who make the same mistakes today.

Drugs scare us so much that in the name of drug prevention we've instituted mandatory minimum sentences for offenders, and zero tolerance policies for schools. Those phrases have a real ring to them; they sound strong, tough.

What they mean in practice, though, is that principals and judges can no longer take into account the intent or character or previous behavior of drug offenders. A girl who gives a friend an aspirin can be expelled for a drug violation, because the law requires the principal to be stupid.

Nor does it matter that, as George W. says, when we're young and irresponsible, we're young and irresponsible. Because of mandatory minimums, nearly half of all federal drug arrests are for marijuana. We're not talking about dealers here; more than 80 percent of these arrests are just for possession. And since 54 percent of high school seniors admitted using illegal drugs at least once, that means an awful lot of kids with otherwise blameless lives could be thrown in jail for years.

When unlikely bedfellow like the libertarian Cato Institute and the ACLU join hands and say this policy is stupid, that's a pretty fair sign this policy is stupid.

But since mandatory minimums are less a solution than a symbol of how tough we are on crime, we can't rethink the policy in light of its costs: ruined lives, the wholesale incarceration of young black men, the exploding costs of prisons (which in many states cost more than schools and universities). That would be backing away from a war. Offering treatment instead, even if it IS more effective, would be so, well, wussy.

Instead we try to scare kids with anti-drug ads. Oh, please.

These ads are, as my son says, "really sucky." Kids think they're a joke, as overstated and high camp as the government movie Reefer Madness. Have you seen one of their favorite T-shirts that shows a plate of fried eggs and bacon, and reads: "This is your brain on drugs with an order of bacon"?

Grownups who do these ads forget that teenagers think they're immortal. Kids LIKE taking risks and doing dumb things. When adults make this much fuss about something, of course they're going to try it, just to find out what the big deal is.

If we were thinking rationally about keeping kids away from drugs, we'd find out what they care about first, and exploit that.

We'd play on their passionate need to be cool, for instance. Show Heather Locklear saying "Ew, gross!" when a spaced-out dude offers her a toke, or Leonardo di Caprio looking disgustedly at a drunken girl collapsed in a pool of vomit, and I guarantee you, most kids wouldn't go near the stuff. People were outraged at White-House approved anti-drug messages in TV shows, but the idea made sense: if the only kids doing drugs in shows like Beverly Hills 90210 were complete rejects, kids wouldn't find drugs all that attractive.

We'd also appeal to teenagers' cynical certainty that everybody's trying to sell them something. The most effective anti-smoking ad (yanked from the airwaves when tobacco companies protested) showed tobacco executives chortling as they plotted to hook kids and make them permanent customers.

If we were thinking clearly, we'd worry about alcohol as much as drugs -- after all, between drunk driving and alcohol poisoning, lots more kids die from it. We'd worry about kids who go to parties planning to get as drunk as they can as fast as they can, and wonder what it is they need such urgent escape from. We might even -- gasp! -- talk to our kids.

We probably won't, though. Like I said, drugs make us stupid.

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