This Is Your Brain on Drugs, Dad

In an Op-Ed in the New York Times, Mike Males calls for an end to “the obsession with hyping teenage drug use.” I have the same reaction every time I read something from him. He always does a good job arguing that we while our attention is on drugs, sex and violence among youth, the biggest problems in these area are adults.

Among Americans in their 40s and 50s, deaths from illicit-drug overdoses have risen by 800 percent since 1980, including 300 percent in the last decade. In 2004, American hospital emergency rooms treated 400,000 patients between the ages 35 and 64 for abusing heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana, hallucinogens and “club drugs” like ecstasy.

Equally surprising, graying baby boomers have become America’s fastest-growing crime scourge. The F.B.I. reports that last year the number of Americans over the age of 40 arrested for violent and property felonies rose to 420,000, up from 170,000 in 1980. Arrests for drug offenses among those over 40 rose to 360,000 last year, up from 22,000 in 1980. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 440,000 Americans ages 40 and older were incarcerated in 2005, triple the number in 1990.

In 1972, the University of Michigan researchers who carry out Monitoring the Future found that just 22 percent of high school seniors had ever used illegal drugs, compared to 48 percent of the class of 2005. Yet as that generation has aged, it has been afflicted by drug abuse and its related ills — overdoses, hospitalizations, drug-related crime — at far higher rates than those experienced by later generations at the same ages.

However, I get the sense that his intention is for the reader to be more alarmed about adult behavior and less alarmed about youth behaviors. I tend to be more alarmed about both young people and adults. He also (unintentionally?) makes the case that the problem is worse than we realize:

When releasing last week’s Monitoring the Future survey on drug use, John P. Walters, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, boasted that “broad” declines in teenage drug use promise “enormous beneficial consequences not only for our children now, but for the rest of their lives.” Actually, anybody who has looked carefully at the report and other recent federal studies would see a dramatically different picture: skyrocketing illicit drug abuse and related deaths among teenagers and adults alike.

While Monitoring the Future, an annual study that depends on teenagers to self-report on their behavior, showed that drug use dropped sharply in the last decade, the National Center for Health Statistics has reported that teenage deaths from illicit drug abuse have tripled over the same period [emphasis added]. This reverses 25 years of declining overdose fatalities among youths, suggesting that teenagers are now joining older generations in increased drug use.

Everything I’ve read by Males is thought provoking and worth reading. I just always feel that he’s successful in making his case about adults but fails to persuade me that we’re overly concerned about young people.