- Category: Articles
- Published: 01 September 1999
Alan Markwood, Illinois Delegate
This essay is about the drug problem in society, particularly in the United States. By "drug" I mean alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs such as marijuana, hallucinogens, stimulants, depressants, and opiates. In regard to youth, inhalants (household chemicals inhaled to get a "high") are also included.
This is not about the struggles faced by individuals who are addicted, or who struggle with any of the many life problems that can arise from drug use. Others are well addressing those issues in the treatment programs they offer and the publications they write. That society should be more diligent in ensuring availability of treatment for all who need it has been well stated by others. This essay is not about people's drug problems so much as society's drug problem.
The problem is that drugs are significantly decreasing our collective quality of life: decreasing our capacity to solve the problems that we collectively face in living. Whether you turn to issues of economics, health, social justice, family life, or the strength of the work force, the magnitude of the damage done by drugs is striking:
- The number of deaths due to drugs in the United States alone each year exceeds 400,000 from tobacco, 100,000 from alcohol, and 35,000 from other drugs.
- The most recent estimate of cost to U.S. society (not to users) of alcohol and other drug abuse was 246 billion dollars: 148 billion from alcohol abuse and 98 billion from other drug abuse.
- A large percentage of health problems and health care costs are due to alcohol or other drugs.
- Substance abuse in a single year costs American businesses 37 billion dollars due to premature deaths and another 44.6 billion dollars due to employee illness. Drug dependence and alcohol together cost businesses 200 billion dollars. A majority of the alcohol problems are caused by light and moderate drinkers, rather than alcoholics.
- A high percentage of child abuse and neglect is associated with parental AOD (alcohol or other drug) abuse.
- A recent study of teen marijuana users found they were 4 times more likely than non-users to attack someone, 3 times more likely to destroy others' property, and 5 times more likely to have stolen things.
- The combination of alcohol-related accidents, assaults, and suicides makes alcohol the leading risk factor for adolescent death and injury.
Whether or not you have directly experienced a drug problem in your life, society's drug problem is shared by all of us. Most of the people who are aware of the impact of drugs on families and other relationships would argue forcefully one person's drug use hurts more than just that person. The issue may be debatable in the case of any single individual, but collectively there can be no doubt: the drug problem is a problem for all of us.
In the twelve years I have worked in drug prevention, I have learned a lot about how drug use develops, and how it can be prevented. I have discovered that there is tremendous energy and potential in drug prevention, but progress has sometimes been slow, for good reason. The reason is that the general public, and in some cases even prevention professionals, hold some core assumptions about the drug problem that are actually incorrect. As a result, much of the effort put into prevention strays slightly, but significantly, from what is needed.
This essay is an attempt to identify, describe, and correct those faulty assumptions. This is not a "how to" book on prevention. I have written such a book (Best Practices in ATOD Prevention, 1997), with much help. But having the right tools are not enough to become a builder. To be successful with "how to," you have to start with, "what's that?" This essay is about understanding the drug problem: what causes it and what is needed to stop it. The application of this knowledge is up to each reader. I hope you find some valuable insights here, or perhaps find support for some of your own observations.
I am convinced that if we stop going down dead-end streets, we can really get places in prevention. Thanks for letting me share the results of my explorations in drug prevention.
Fallacy #1: The primary target of drug prevention should be hard-core drug abuse.
This fallacy has three main parts: (a.) which drugs are the problem, (b.) which drug users are the problem, and (c.) the relation of addiction to drug abuse.
a. "Shouldn't crack, speed, and heroin be our number one concern?"
No. Ounce for ounce these drugs are certainly among the most potent, but they are (or should be) of secondary concern to drug prevention because of the developmental nature of drug abuse, the limitations of prevention, and the greater amount of societal problems associated with other drugs.
Development of Drug Abuse
It is exceedingly rare for an adult who has never used any drug to use drugs like cocaine or heroin. Nearly as rare is a youth or adult who uses one of these drugs without a history of use of at least one, and often all three, "gateway" drugs: alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana.
Don't misunderstand the gateway drug phenomenon: obviously not all people who use alcohol, tobacco, or marijuana progress to other drug use. But, the odds of other drug use depend on gateway use because those who don't use gateway drugs are so extremely unlikely to use other drugs.
The gateway phenomenon includes two other notable features in addition to the issue of whether or not gateway drugs are used. One is that the younger a person is when they begin gateway use, the greater their likelihood of drug problems (with gateway and other drugs) later in life. The other is that people who use two or three gateway drugs are more likely to progress to other drugs than people who use one (use of all three is most significant).
So alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana are truly "gateways" to other drug use. Although most of the people who go through the gate don't do on to other drug use, nearly everyone who goes on to other drugs passes first through the threshold of gateway use. This alone doesn't conclude the case for where to direct drug prevention, but sets the stage for two other two facts.
Limitations of Prevention
Prevention is just one of the major strands of anti-drug efforts. The other two are treatment and legal restrictions (regarding use, possession, and sale of drugs). To a great extent the target population for prevention and the target for treatment are opposite. By the time people go through gateway use and begin using other drugs, they have become (due to some combination of self-selection and the results of earlier gateway use) fairly habituated to drugs. In many cases they are already addicted. The habit formed from regular drug use is hard to break. When addiction is also present, the strong forces involved are not only psychological but also bio-chemical. We like to think our minds are in control, but addiction can rule behavior at a level so deep and powerful that rational thought pales in comparison.
As a result, prevention efforts that may be appropriate for youth who are non-users or experimenters with drugs are simply not effective with more committed users, and certainly not with addicts. Addiction calls for drug treatment: prevention is inadequate for those trying to back away from heavy drug use.
On the other hand, treatment is not appropriate for first-time experimenters. The treatment process is not designed for that population, and the cost of providing such intensive services is neither justified for the individual drug experimenter nor remotely available for the whole population of experimenters. For them and for those who are yet to experiment, prevention is the key.
Of those who use gateway drugs, some require treatment (or cessation aid, in the case of tobacco), but most do not. Of those who use other drugs, a large proportion requires treatment, and few would benefit from prevention. This strengthens the case for targeting gateway drugs in prevention, and leads to the third point.
Societal Cost of Gateway Drug Problems
Recall that ounce per ounce, gateway drugs are not as destructive as crack, crank, and heroin. But the scope of any one drug's impact on society depends on the amount of use (including number of users and degree of use by each) as well as the drug's dangers. Unlike crack and heroin, gateway drugs are used by a large portion of the population. And, though gateway drugs seem less dangerous than so called "hard" drugs, research and bitter experience have shown that the gateway drugs are dangerous enough:
- Tobacco kills four times as many Americans as does alcohol, and alcohol kills three times as many as all illegal drugs combined.
- Alcohol seems to be the leading cause of teen deaths, based on the high percent of instances in which alcohol is a major factor in car crashes, suicides, homicides, drownings, and other unintended injuries.
- Marijuana combines the cancer potential of tobacco with the cognitive impairment of alcohol, except that impaired thought lasts longer after each marijuana use than after each alcohol use.
As a result, the benefit to society of cutting gateway drug use in half would be much greater than cutting other drug use in half. Combine this point with the point about prevention's limits and the point about the development of drug abuse, and you get a strong case for making gateway drug use (particularly by youth) the prime target of prevention.
b. Shouldn't prevention always target "high risk" youth?
No. Although it may be appropriate to devote extra preventive effort to some groups of youth, conceiving ATOD prevention in only those terms is problematic for reasons that include the breadth of risk, the importance of environmental risk, and the need for different approaches according to the nature of different risk conditions.
Breadth of Risk
While some characteristics act as "risk factors" for youth ATOD use, the absence of those risk factors doesn't guarantee a drug-free youth. To some extent, everyone is at risk. The older a persons gets without using, the lower the risk that they will use. Furthermore, while the primary aim of ATOD prevention is to prevent use, an important secondary function is to help prepare all youth for addressing the drug problem in society: as family members, co-workers, or citizens. We are currently a society at risk.
This is not to say that community risk conditions shouldn't be considered, nor that "selective" ATOD prevention efforts can't be done for groups of medium risk youth or families. I use the term "medium risk" to refer to youth who haven't begun ATOD use, but whose family or personal characteristics include some risk factors (e.g., poverty, low academic achievement, parental drug use or addiction, etc.) for youth ATOD use. But these efforts are a supplement to prevention efforts for all youth, rather than a replacement.
Preoccupation with risk profiles of individual youths, or even groups of youths, diverts attention away from the strongest influences of whether most youth will try drugs or avoid drugs. The combination of youths' peer social environment, family environment, school environment, media environment, and their community's adult social environment account for the vast majority of variation in youth drug behavior. A "low risk" youth who enters a "high risk" environment (e.g., a "no-use" youth who moves to a school where drinking is the norm) is no longer low risk.
Prevention planners who only look at what's "inside" youth can miss the environmental factors (including media influences) that shape youths' attitudes. If not directly addressed, these environmental factors can misdirect youths' attitudes and behaviors as fast or faster than youth-focused programs can positively affect them.
Different Risks - Different Approaches
The risk factor that is most important to the largest number of youth in regard to initiation of gateway drug use is their perception of peer attitudes about drugs, as will be discussed in regard to "Fallacy #3." However, for a smaller number of youth other factors play a major role. For example, children raised in households with parental violence, neglect, or addiction are more likely than average to develop their own problems with alcohol or other drugs. The number of children in this kind of situation, though much larger than it should be, is small compared to the overall number of children and families.
For a child in a household with parental violence (domestic violence and/or child abuse), what happens to that violence may be the most important "risk factor" for their future mental health, including their relation to drugs. Their greatest need may have little to do with drug prevention, and everything to do with appropriate resolution of the violence.
For a youth failing school, the greatest need may be assistance with whatever is interfering with school achievement.
In each case, the most effective form of drug prevention may be to resolve the problem(s) that increase risk for drug use, rather than to directly address the issue of drugs. On the other hand, a youth who has started to experiment with drugs may need intervention services, sometimes called "indicated prevention", but actually more closely akin to some forms of substance abuse treatment counseling. In all these instances, the kinds of programs that constitute "universal" drug prevention programs may be less relevant. So, these kinds of "high risk" youth need more focused and intensive assistance than is available through what I am calling drug prevention, i.e. programs designed to impact the gateway drug attitudes and behaviors of large groups of youth. They may be helped somewhat by such programs, and so should not be excluded, but to limit participation in prevention programs only to such "high risk" youths is probably not appropriate, particularly given the risk of a norm of gateway drug use arising among program participants if all are "high risk."
c. Isn't addiction prevention the main goal of substance abuse prevention?
No. Addiction is one major outcome of drug use, but the impairment of rational thought, the plethora of anti-social and injurious behaviors caused or heightened by that impairment, and the direct toxic effects of drugs are all substantial societal problems worthy of prevention. Addiction increases these other problems, but a person need not be addicted in order to seriously injure of kill themselves or others while impaired, typically due to negligence (as in DUI crashes) rather than violent intent.
Further, since the number of alcohol or other drug users at any given point in time far exceeds the number of addicts (including alcoholics), the societal damage done by non-addicted persons can cumulatively exceed the damage done by addicts. Even though individual addicted persons are more problematic to society than individual non-addicted AOD (alcohol and other drug) users, the much larger number of non-addicted users makes them a major part of societal AOD problems.
Efforts to make the public more aware of realities of addiction should continue, but preventing addiction is one main goal of drug prevention: not the main goal.
Fallacy # 2: Alcohol and other drug problems are mainly a result of other problems, and drug prevention can best be accomplished by addressing those other problems.
Drug abuse has multiple causative factors: this has become an oft stated truism. Unfortunately, people tend to notice and magnify the causative strand that is most evident in their personal or professional experience. Their observations are strengthened by studies which demonstrate the connection between each of a variety of "risk factors" and drug abuse, but which fail to consider the larger context of the societal drug problem, including which of the many risk factors play the most important roles within the largest numbers of people. Rather than starting with convergence on the most prevalent and powerful risks, people therefore tend to diverge into various less central issues:
- Persons who focus on poverty see poverty as the main root of drug problems.
- Persons concerned with stimulating positive youth development see their work as the best form of drug prevention.
- Persons familiar with dysfunctional family systems see family dysfunction as the main root of drug problems.
Attention to this whole range of negative factors may be appropriate, but mistaking any one of these for the "main" cause of drug problems is not. One person or subgroup may be profoundly influenced by one of these factors, but the prevalence of each factor in the population is far less than the prevalence of drug problems.
Family Dysfunction: Major dysfunction (such as family violence) greatly heightens the chance of youth drug problems, but the majority of youth AOD users (and hence, most of the future AOD abusers) do not come from dysfunctional families. Dysfunctional family life is a potent risk factor but not a prevalent one, in comparison to the scope of youth AOD problems.
Poverty: Poverty makes drug problems more likely, but only slightly more likely: a large number of well-to-do people are among those who children use and abuse alcohol and other drugs.
Positive Youth Development: Policies that empower youth development are a good idea, but aren't sufficient to prevent youth drug use. The notion that positive youth development can substitute for specific attention to drug prevention is similar to the 1970's notion that good self-esteem is the key to drug prevention. Unfortunately, ignoring drug prevention in favor of self-esteem tends to produce drug users with high self-esteem. Self-esteem doesn't protect from the destructive effects of drugs. Youth development programs can be an important aid for youths who lack key developmental assets, but will only impact drug use if:
- anti-drug norms are already present in the lives of those youth, or
- the youth development program includes building anti-drug norms as part of its mission.
Two kinds of problems arise from the mis-attribution of heightened importance of these factors as causes of substance abuse:
- More global causes of ATOD problems, such as youths' and parents' attitudes about drug use, may be glossed over in the design of prevention strategies. In other words, potentially efficacious approaches to prevention may be ignored in favor of less broadly effective approaches.
- Parents may believe that avoiding family dysfunction is sufficient to prevent youth drug problems.
The worst instances of this fallacy in action have parents or other adults allowing and enabling youth alcohol or other drug use under the misguided notion that only troubled individuals abuse substances. Statements like, "It's no big deal," or "They're just going through a phase," or "It's part of growing up" tend to be evidence of this. While it's true that troubled youth are more likely to develop a drug problem, also true is that alcohol or other drug use can cause a person to become troubled - especially if addiction is involved.
Youth alcohol and other drug use is a bad idea no matter how positive an individual's circumstances. Youth with substantial personal or family problems are more likely to experience significant problems with drugs, but the initial absence of personal disturbance is no insurance policy against addiction or other ATOD problems. And, although family problems constitute a risk factor for youth ATOD use, family wellness is not a sufficient protective factor to counter other negative influences on youth ATOD decisions. Parents who don't have general problems with family management can take steps (particularly in regard to monitoring youth activities) to decrease their children's likelihood of ATOD use, but just being a "good" parent isn't a cure-all. Drug prevention needs to go beyond the foundation of healthy families and positive youth development, to build attitudes and behaviors that especially counter ATOD influences in society.
Fallacy #3: The main essence of successful drug prevention is communication about the dangers of drugs.
This very common misperception probably sidetracks more prevention efforts than any other single error. Actually the essence of success in preventing youth use of gateway drugs is making drug use unpopular: destroying the myth that peers approve of drug use. This can be supplemented by fact-based approaches and parent programs, but the most basic reason youth as a whole start gateway drug use is because they believe their peers approve of it. No matter how dangerous they are told drug use may be, if they think many others are doing it they will tend to do the same, unless they consistently see very negative effects on those believed to be using.
There are two reasons I see for the continuing strength of Fallacy #3 in spite of evidence to the contrary. The first is our nature as human beings. We like to think we are logical, sensible beings. To some extent we are, but most of us, and especially children and youth, base our actions first on what we observe from those around us, and only secondly on what we believe.
Remember that we are talking about society as a whole here: there are certainly some people who are less prone to be influenced by others (psychology calls them "field independent" as opposed to field dependent), and all of us vary in our susceptibility. But as a whole, we're just not as logical as we like to think. To be human is to be influenced by our observations of others.
The second reason for the fallacy is a more complex one having to do with the nature of scientific studies of youth alcohol and other drug use. Common scientific method in the social sciences involves looking for things that go together in large populations. The question is what "factors" tend to go with, and particularly to predict, youth ATOD use. A basic premise is that correlation does not necessarily equate to causation, especially in cross-sectional one-time studies. However, when a factor such as "perception of harm" is closely matched with drug use over a period of years, as has been the case in the national "Monitoring the Future" study, observers are hard pressed to ignore the likely conclusion that changing perception of harm is the key to prevention.
The problem is, how does one change perception of harm? The common assumption is that you do this by communicating drug dangers. Often overlooked is that there is an equally strong association with perceived peer approval or disapproval for use of drugs: what youth believe their peers think of drugs. I think that, contrary to common assumptions, the perception of peer attitude drives youths' own attitudes about drugs (both perceived harmfulness and intent to use). Perception of harm then ends up being a strong indicator of whether a youth will use a drug, especially because it is probably also affected by other risk factors. But the route to turning around perception of harm usually has to go through perceptions of peer approval/ disapproval. When we present logical facts about drug dangers to youth, if they think most of their peers approve of drug use, and indeed use drugs, then the warnings seem ungrounded and are easily ignored.
I base this point on a variety of research, but some of the most striking and easiest to communicate is research about what works in prevention. Of all the things that have been tried in prevention curricula for young teens, the most powerful is simply to correct their typically exaggerated assumptions about how many peers use drugs. When they are shown that far fewer than thought peers use, their attitudes change to a degree not seen with mere truth about drugs.
This is not to say that education about drug dangers is not important for youth: it is! These facts back up the facts about peer attitudes, and may be especially important for some youth who are able to base their behavior on rational truth about drug dangers. Even if this weren't the case, it would simply not be right to let youth grow up in this society without exposing them to the truth about drugs. But to assume that exposure is the key element of prevention is to severely limit the effectiveness of one's prevention efforts.
One of the important implications of this is that the images presented by mass media, especially in regard to images of youth attitudes and behaviors, should be a vital concern of prevention. We all like to think that we are too sophisticated to be influenced by the images of television and other media, but it's just not so. We are influenced. That's why advertising works. While any one youth may be more influenced by their parents than by the media, youth as a whole are dramatically influenced (as has been demonstrated by studies showing that youth smoke those cigarette brands that are most heavily advertised to youth). Media plays the role of a "super-peer," playing directly into the heart of youth decisions by telling them what is cool and what isn't. Prevention cannot afford to ignore this. Luckily, the same principles currently used by alcohol and tobacco advertisers to snare youth users can also be used in prevention. But, first we have to get past this fallacy that drug facts are the key.
Fallacy # 4: Making and enforcing laws against the use of drugs, and against underage use of alcohol and tobacco, is contrary to prevention and treatment of drug use.
This premise has been advanced by legalization groups, claiming all would be well if we did away with laws against drug use and relied solely on prevention and treatment. But the truth is that prevention, treatment, and legal barriers to use all depend on each other for effectiveness. The kind of "prevention" touted by legalization groups is not prevention of use but facilitation of "safe" use, called "harm reduction." The role of prevention in this scenario is to teach people how to use drugs safely. The problem with this is that the laws against each particular drug are enacted because its use is inherently unsafe. An analogy would be explosives manufacturers lobbying to take the funds used to enforce laws against possessing bombs and instead just teaching youth how to use them "safely," and of course not until they were 18 or 21. Would the public stand for that? Would even the most avid libertarians be crazy enough to support it? Legalizers suggest that drugs hurt only the user, but impacts of our society's drug problem go far beyond the circle of users, as was discussed earlier.
Even if, after legalization, the current drug-free message of prevention were maintained, a country that tolerates drug use would be giving a strange message that would undercut any such "no-use" message. "Drugs are dangerous and hurt society, but you can go ahead and do them if you want." Use would soon rise, not so much from drug-free adults starting use but from every new generation of teens becoming more and more enmeshed in drug use, in spite of any legal age restrictions. This is what has happened when legalization has been tried. Similarly, the number of people entering treatment, cooperating with treatment, and avoiding relapse would be far less without the force of law to compel users to quit.
High quality drug prevention and treatment are currently vital to our society, but their success would be lessened, not increased, if legal sanctions against use were eliminated. The specific workings of the legal and criminal justice system in regard to drug use can always be examined for improvement, but most groups who currently call for drug law "reform" are using the term as a euphemism for legalization.
Fallacy # 5: Marijuana is not dangerous.
We tend to think of drugs as poisons to the body, and measure the potency of a drug by how fast and how completely it can interfere with physical health. We are less quick to recognize that the most crucial characteristics of drugs are their "psychoactive" effect: their alteration of thought, feelings, and behavior. Measured by physical effects only, marijuana is not as dangerous as many other drugs (though it has the potential to kill as many people as tobacco does, if it were as popular as tobacco). But, examined for its behavioral effect, marijuana is quite potent. The subtlety with which it alters behavior, typically over a period of weeks or months, makes it all the more effective as a behavioral change agent. The data that has begun to emerge as younger teens and pre-teens smoke more potent marijuana shows a devastating effect on the social functioning of many users. Some users may have been self-centered when they began use, but marijuana heightens that characteristic, killing the empathy and capacity for altruism that embody the best qualities of society. What is left is a person addicted to marijuana and concerned about marijuana, but not so much about relationships, achievement, or even obeying the law. People sometimes discount the effects of marijuana because many users do not seem to be greatly impaired, but the luck of some in warding off clear impairment is a poor balance to the studies and accumulated life experiences of those who have been severely changed by marijuana use.
Fallacy # 6: Anti-drug laws and anti-drug law enforcement is driven by national bureaucracy and the zealousness of federal officials.
People who travel in a sub-culture of drug tolerance tend to perceive the government's anti-drug actions as being out of touch with the populace, but polls show that a large majority of the American (and other) public opposes drug legalization. The greatest passion in favor of enforcing drug laws comes not from any government but from families that have seen the worst that drugs do. The proper balance between society's interest in stopping drugs and the freedom of individuals becomes clear when one has witnessed a family or community ravaged by drug use and addiction. The social value of drugs is far below zero. Any loosening of restrictions on drug use has tended to lead to a cycle of increased use, increased damage to society, and a resulting determination to toughen enforcement of laws against drug use. Ultimately, the source of calls for strict enforcement of laws against drugs come not from any one group but from the power of drugs to damage people, and damage society.
Alan Markwood is the Prevention Projects Coordinator at Chestnut Health Systems, Inc. in Bloomington, Illinois. Responsibilities include:
- Participating in prevention research, development, and training projects as a contractor to the Illinois Department of Human Services.
- Directing prevention coalitions in three counties, funded by the federal Center for Substance Abuse Prevention and the Illinois Department of Human Services under grants he wrote.
Mr. Markwood is the principal author of the Best Practices in ATOD Prevention Handbook (1997), and has managed a series of statewide studies on youth substance use in Illinois. He served as InTouch Area 14 Prevention Coordinator at Chestnut Health Systems from 1987 until promoted to his current position in 1995. Prior to his work in prevention, he worked as a School Psychologist for seven years in Illinois and Massachusetts. He has a Master of Arts degree in Psychology from Alfred University and a Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study in Education from Boston University.