TOPICS > Health

Teen Drug Abuse

August 20, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Now, a Newsmaker interview with Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the director of the National Drug Control Policy Office. Welcome, General.

GEN. BARRY McCAFFREY, RET., Director, Drug Control Policy Office: Good to be here, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you explain this drug use among teenagers doubling in three years?

GEN. BARRY McCAFFREY: Well, Donna Shalala and I wanted to go to a Boys and Girls Clubs of America location to really make the statement that drug use among youngsters has doubled, and perhaps even more worrisome, it’s beginning at an earlier and earlier age. Sixth grade is the onset of exposure to drugs in America. Now the reasons for it are not clear but the University of Michigan’s viewpoint–I think it’s a sound one–essentially said we’d have generational forgetting, generational replacement. We’ve got a parent cohort now, many of whom, you know, if you’re white and you’re between 26 and 34, more than 60 percent of that age group have used illegal drugs. So they’re trying to sort out what do we say to our children, and that’s really the focus of the national drug strategy.

MARGARET WARNER: Are you suggesting that these kids today are the sons and daughters of baby boomers, many of whom use drugs, and that somehow it’s the atmosphere in the home, the attitude in the home.

GEN. BARRY McCAFFREY: Well, I think at the end of the day the most important source of information to young people are parents, you know, can be reinforced by consistency of the message from school teachers or from community coalitions, or, you know, public service announcements by Partnership for a Drug Free America. But parents are the ones who have the dominant voice, and they’ve got to talk to their kids about drug use.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you to look at the period when–I’m trying to figure out the cause–when drug use dramatically declined among teenagers. If you take from ’85 to ’92, in 1985, I think the figure was 16 percent … and it dropped to 5 percent in just seven years. What was government or what was anyone doing then to bring that down so dramatically that is not being done now?

GEN. BARRY McCAFFREY: I think the key year, if you look at the Survey Research Center, Dr. Lloyd Johnson today, it was 1990. That’s the year in which kids, the curve turned and kids no longer disapproved of drugs at the same rate. Then the next year, ’91, kids stopped fearing drugs at the same rate, and then in ’92, quite inexorably, the use rate started to go up. So the question is what happened. I think we took our eye off the ball. So from about 1985 on, when you look at drug use in 1979, it was double the rate today for adults. For children, it was just incredible, so as bad as it is today, it’s going to be twice as bad in another five years if we don’t get organized.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let’s try to understand the state of it today among kids because we’ve used a lot of these statistics. I know it gets confusing. The use has doubled, but most of that is driven really by marijuana use, is that right?

GEN. BARRY McCAFFREY: Absolutely. Around 10 percent of youngsters have–are using drugs on any regular basis. As a matter of fact, it’s good to remind ourselves that 80 percent of kids have never touched any illegal drugs. 10 percent are using. The majority are using marijuana. Now we’re still concerned enormously about it. Marijuana and cigarettes and alcohol abuse are gateway behaviors to a major addictive problem later on in life. You know, I tell people that a 12 year old that uses marijuana is 79 times more likely to have addictive problem. So it’s a tremendous challenge to us.

MARGARET WARNER: So both in terms of becoming really addicted to drugs and moving off to harder and harder drugs.


MARGARET WARNER: So right now among teenagers, though, what is the rate of use? How many teenagers, or what percentage of teen, actually use either cocaine or LSD or heroine?

GEN. BARRY McCAFFREY: Well, you get into–the use rate increases as you get older, so by senior year in high school, essentially a third of the adolescents are trying on any regular basis an illegal drug at most. And they’re trying a whole array of drugs, but, again, it’s extremely rare behavior. Heroine, cocaine use, we’re talking well under 1 percent, but still in numbers of children and the potential impact on their central nervous system and their social development, it’s a tremendously vulnerable age.

MARGARET WARNER: So what you’re saying is that when we are saying, gee, 10 percent of kids today say in the past month they tried drugs, you’re saying it’s really a lot higher if you’re talking about juniors and seniors in high school?

GEN. BARRY McCAFFREY: Yeah, I think so, yeah. And more to the point, if we look down the line– you know, the age ten and under, there’s 39 million of them. It’s the biggest bumper crop of children since the 1960s.

MARGARET WARNER: It’s the kids of the boomers, right, another boom?

GEN. BARRY McCAFFREY: The boomers. And if we don’t affect their viewpoints on this drugged, stoned behavior, we will then inexorably reap a harvest of violence and of AIDS and of teenage pregnancies. It just comes with the territory.

MARGARET WARNER: Now do you think Nancy Reagan had this very well publicized “Just Say No” campaign in the early- and mid-’80s? Do you think something like that had an effect?

GEN. BARRY McCAFFREY: Oh, of course. I think it was a wonderful campaign. It works on the kids who essentially have committed themselves to not use drugs, though, better than the ones who are at risk. So as we look out at the future, I would suggest that community coalitions and that things like these Boys and Girls Clubs and junior ROTC and other ways of having adults stay in contact which children.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now let me ask you about all the criticisms the Republicans make of this administration. As you know, they say this administration has had too casual an attitude about drugs. They point out that the President slashed his own drug office from 165 employees to 25, and until you came on several months ago, it was at bare bones. What do you make of that criticism? What do you respond to that criticism?

GEN. BARRY McCAFFREY: Well, I’ve been very fortunate to see an enormously bipartisan support. You know, Orrin Hatch, Joe Biden, Denny Hastert in the House, Charlie Rangel, Steny Hoyer, Bill Zeliff, Rob Portman — I have gotten basically from both Houses of Congress, both parties, a commitment to the strategy and to the budget. Now I would also–I’d be remiss in not saying that the President, the Vice President, Janet Reno, Donna Shalala, Dick Riley, Bob Rubin, I mean, we’ve got a pretty strong commitment.

MARGARET WARNER: But the period that is covered by the report today is the period before you came on board, and I’m asking you about that time period. I mean, Charlie Rangel, I don’t have the quote right here, but he said something like he’d never seen a President who paid less attention to the drug problem than Bill Clinton and he’s of his own party. I mean, is there something to that?

GEN. BARRY McCAFFREY: Well, my own view, you know, I’ve worked with this administration for three years and President Bush and his team prior to that. So personally I feel a tremendous sense of support on both of those teams I worked with to confront the issue.

MARGARET WARNER: But do you think it was there before you came on board?

GEN. BARRY McCAFFREY: Oh, sure. Remember, I was the commander-in-chief of Southern Command. I was doing drug interdiction for the country for the last three years.

MARGARET WARNER: And do you think–and that raises one other issue, which is, has the money been spent in the right place? I mean, a lot has been spent on drug interdiction, and yet, today drugs, I understand, are A.) cheaper and B.) more pure.

GEN. BARRY McCAFFREY: Yeah. Margaret, you make a good point. What I would suggest is we have made an inadequate case in America to responsible men and women in Congress on the absolute requirement for drug education prevention money and for drug treatment programs particularly for those involved in the criminal justice system. Though you had good men and women over in Congress that are not yet persuaded, we’re trying to support a $15 billion program that includes safe drug free schools money and treatment money both in the Veterans Administration and HHS. And we’ve got to make a better case to them.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thank you, General.