TOPICS > Health

Teen Drug Abuse

August 20, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


MS. FARNSWORTH: Now the view from the trenches in the war against drugs. Sue Rusche is co-founder and executive director of National Families in Action, an organization that works with families to prevent drug abuse. Dr. Mitchell Rosenthal is head of Phoenix House Foundation, a private non-profit substance abuse services agency with treatment facilities in New York, New Jersey, California, and Texas. Thank you both for being with us. Sue Rusche, let me begin with you. Is in your experience and the people that your programs are working with, is drug abuse up significantly among teenagers?

SUE RUSCHE, National Families in Action: (Atlanta) It sure is. And I think that, Margaret (Elizabeth), you are looking for answers. We know what to do because we did it once. Umm, between 1979 and 1992 we reduced regular use of drugs by adolescents and young adults by 2/3, and we did that with a grassroots-based parent movement, community group movement. We’ve lost that now. We don’t all sing with the same voice. We don’t have a common voice anymore.

And we are slipping into what we fought in the 70’s, and that is teaching kids to use drugs responsibly. That’s been replaced by harm reduction. Umm, and there’s an awful lot of talk now about the fact that the drug war has “failed,” and people are asking us to legalize drugs. And that influences children. Use drugs messages are in films and songs that influence children, and they didn’t used to be there. So I think we need to know what to do. We need to come together and institutionalize this prevention effort, and bring everybody into it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. I want to come back to some of these things you talked about in just a minute.


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But first, Dr. Rosenthal, are you finding the same thing that the study found, that drug use is up significantly?

MITCHELL ROSENTHAL, Phoenix House Foundation: Yes, Margaret (Elizabeth).

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Actually, it’s Elizabeth here, just for both of you. I know you can’t see me.

MS. RUSCHE: Thank you.


DR. ROSENTHAL: Uh, yes, we find that we have more youngsters coming for admission. There’s a more troubling trend than that which is as these youngsters come, they don’t see themselves as having a problem. They don’t define themselves–and these are kids who are using so much that they’re not able to stay in school, they have tremendous family problems, many of them get involved with the law–but they don’t see their drug use as abnormal. They don’t see it as a problem.

They see it just as they might see a style of clothing or some style of sports. So we need to do an awful lot to change the cultural mind set. And that’s going to mean working with the media and working with the entertainment industry. We really slipped. I think Sue Rusche said it right. We have let the gains that we made 15 years ago slip away from us.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Before we get into why, tell me what, umm–where are you seeing the most problems? Is there any geographic region that you see more problems, more in the inner cities, more in the suburbs? Is this rise everywhere?

DR. ROSENTHAL: Well, you see it in both places. We see inner city kids now who are turned onto drugs by their parents and by their older siblings. We see upper middle class kids who are using drugs with their friends and in their communities, and going to clubs and using drugs, so that they, they do it up and down the economic scale.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ms. Rusche, is that what you’re finding too, that it’s just about everywhere?

MS. RUSCHE: I think that it’s awfully important to realize that there are a lot of myths out there about what drives drug abuse and what doesn’t and who’s doing it. Uh, the conceit is that the drug problem is only in inner city America, and yet, the survey that was released today and all of its predecessors show that 70 percent of the drug users in the country are white suburban Americans. And I think we need to look at our own behavior, and I think that as parents, it’s terribly important to mobilize them again.

Nancy Reagan’s message, ‘Just say no,’ was exactly the right message because what had preceded it was an awful lot of drug education materials that told kids to just say yes, just do it responsibly. It wasn’t enough of a message, and a lot of people supplemented it with why you just say no. We try to work with parents and help them prevent kids from getting started in this, and parents have the power to do that. Kids will listen to parents before they’ll listen to anybody else. But we have to get–make sure that parents are tuned into this, know the dangers, know the effects of drugs, so that they, themselves, are convinced, and then they set expectations for kids. I expect you not to use, period.

As Colin Powell said when Barbara Walters interviewed him and asked him how he managed to escape becoming involved with drugs growing up in the Bronx, he said, ‘My mother would have killed me.’ And obviously we’re not going to kill our kids, but we have to be that firm and that clear with our children about our expectations that they will not use drugs.


DR. ROSENTHAL: Well, I think today’s parents–so many of whom used drugs themselves in their teenage and college years–are having a lot of trouble in being real clear with their kids that they don’t want them to use drugs. They’re very fuzzy. They’re not delivering a strong message, and the kids pick this up.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It’s very interesting that you both are saying this, and Gen. McCaffrey said it to, you really think a major problem is that kids are not given a strong enough message, and you’ve also said that is this message not being reinforced enough by all the people in the–in government at all levels.

MS. RUSCHE: Well, not just government, but in the entire private sector. In fact, the reinforcement is the opposite. If you go to a movie and look these days, you’ll see a number of drug references that weren’t there in the 80’s because the entertainment industry worked really hard to get them out of there. The same for the music that influences children–all those glamorization and use drugs messages have come back into the culture.

So if the parents aren’t taking a strong stand because they don’t know, umm, and the kids are being reinforced in the culture by a “just say yes” message, we shouldn’t be surprised by this increase. But we sure better do something about it, or we will be back at the levels that we struggled with in the 70’s.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Dr. Rosenthal, do you find that the change began in say 1991 as Donna Shalala said in that clip that we ran?

DR. ROSENTHAL: I actually dated to the end of the Gulf War when Bill Bennett left and drugs dropped out of the public conversation, and drugs have not been part of the domestic conversation now for a number of years. I think we also tend to focus on the White House and on Washington, and I think that our governors could bring a great deal to this discussion, as well as our mayors across the country.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You said that people come into your programs and don’t even realize that they have a problem. But are you seeing a lot more people with significant drug problems in your programs? I’m trying to figure out how this is manifesting itself in cities and in the suburbs now.

DR. ROSENTHAL: The numbers–the numbers of people who are calling for help are going up. We run the national help line–1-800-COCAINE. We get many more calls today on these lines. We have bigger waiting lists in California and in New York for service. But what I was trying to emphasize is that the way people view themselves, that we’re–we’re having a cultural shift in beginning to see drug abuse as normal again, especially among teenagers.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Sue Rusche, sometimes after these studies come out, people say, oh, this has been over-stated, it’s not really as serious as it seems. How serious, in your view, is this rise that we’re seeing over the past three or four years?

MS. RUSCHE: I think it’s deadly serious, and I would point out that these surveys have been done year after year after year since the 70’s. So if they’re over-reporting or under-reporting, whatever they may be doing, they’re doing it consistently. They are the two best measures we’ve had over the last two decades. Umm, there’s another point I wanted to make, Elizabeth, and that is that in the Monitoring the Future Survey, it not only talks about disapproval and our children disapproving or not, but there’s another significant and very important measure, and that is belief in harm.

The more children who believe a specific drug will hurt them, the fewer children use that drug. And what we saw in 1991 was the–a peak and a downturn in belief in harm. And the next year we saw the use begin to increase again. So I think that tells us what it is we need to do. But I would implore all of the policy makers not to leave parents out of this equation because they are the first line of defense. And we would like to see a new parent and family movement underwritten financially so that we can institutionalize it and help families learn about drug effects so they can teach them to their children.

DR. ROSENTHAL: We also tend to minimize this problem because we see it so much in marijuana terms and don’t appreciate the significance of marijuana one as a health and psychological problem and two how many of these youngsters will become de-stabilized on marijuana, itself, and how many will go on to other, more destructive drugs.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Well thank you both very much. Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: Thanks, Elizabeth. I’m back with Barry McCaffrey, the White House Drug Policy Czar. Your reaction to this, General.

GEN. BARRY McCAFFREY: Well, these are two of the real professionals in the field, Margaret, and I couldn’t agree with them more. Drugs in America is 20,000 dead a year and $67 billion. Now 20,000 dead is an abstract number, as I wear the memory bracelet of Tish Elizabeth Smith, a college freshman, a beautiful young girl, who was killed on the first exposure to smoking heroine and crack cocaine. There’s a very personal face to this. Now the other thing I would underscore that they made the point of–people don’t use drugs because they’re poor or because they’re a minority. One of the highest rates of addiction in America are anesthesiologists who have access, enormous education, et cetera. So–

MARGARET WARNER: Well, a point they made and a point you made is how important it is really to get parents of these kids alarmed and then energized to do something. What would it take to mobilize the parents?

GEN. BARRY McCAFFREY: Well, I think a lot of it is the kind of message that’s now coming out of the drug-free workplace concept. You know, parents are working, double wage earners. Crime, sex, and drugs among teenagers takes place from 3 PM to 7 PM, and that’s because Americans are working hard. They don’t have enough time for their children. So part of it, I think, the drug free workplace is going to help educate American families again on the dangers of drug use.

MARGARET WARNER: And do you see a role–I mean, what is the role for government and specifically for the President?

GEN. BARRY McCAFFREY: Well, I think we’ve got a very important role to play. Clearly, the President, the 14 cabinet members of the Drug Cabinet Council. We have a $15 billion program, and we’re going to have to develop policies and budgets that are supportive of these more than 4,000 coalitions of the type that Sue Rusche represents. That’s where we’re going to solve this problem at community level.

MARGARET WARNER: Will you be recommending to the President or to the First Lady that they take the kind of very out front public role such as Nancy Reagan did or Bill Bennett did?

GEN. BARRY McCAFFREY: Yeah. Well, clearly–I mean, right after I was sworn into office, we had three thousand some odd people in the White House Drug Policy Conference on Youth. And you know, the President and I and others took a leading role in it. We’ve got to get both parties, though, to understand that this is America’s problem, this isn’t a government problem.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, thank you, General, very much.

GEN. BARRY McCAFFREY: Good to be part of the show.