BOSTON — What a difference a decade makes.
Back in the 1980s, when the battle against illicit drugs was being called a "war," the crusade had its own drug "czar," William Bennett, and its own dedicated sloganeer, Nancy Reagan, who exhorted young people to "Just Say No."
Today that war resembles a skirmish. "Drug czar" is a mostly forgotten title, and Mrs. Reagan's slogan seems like a quaint cultural artifact. Even the news last week that the Food and Drug Administration has approved a controversial home drug-testing kit captured only a few headlines, then faded away, perhaps to make room for really important stories like the Super Bowl.
More than anyone, young people are becoming the casualties of this national silence on drugs. Eighth-graders' use of marijuana has tripled in five years, from 6 percent in 1991 to 18 percent in 1996. Among high school students, 24 percent - 1 in every 4 teens - say they use an illicit drug at least monthly, according to the National Parent's Resource Institute for Drug Education (PRIDE). Only a quarter of high school students believe marijuana poses any danger.
That naive assumption can be perilously wrong. Marijuana is seven to 10 times more potent today than it was in the 1960s and '70s, according to Ray Kubacki, president of Psychemedics Corporation in Cambridge, Mass., which specializes in workplace drug testing. Heroin, he notes, has gone from "under 5 percent purity to as high as 80 percent." Add crack cocaine and the danger escalates. Yet even many parents, he finds, aren't aware that "the stakes today with drug abuse are very high, and in many cases life and death."
To test or not to test? That is the agonizing question parents will face as home drug testing kits, which can detect marijuana, cocaine, PCP, heroin, and other substances, become more common. Some kits, such as the one making news last week, require parents to send a sample of their child's urine to a laboratory, then call later for results. Identification is by number, not name, to protect identity. Other tests, such as those done by Kubacki's firm, analyze hair samples to trace drug use within the past 90 days.
Doug Hall, executive director of PRIDE, cautions that these drug tests should be used only as the "court of last resort." In his view, parents and children must first have "extensive discussions" with each other. "This is not a one-way lecture," he says. "It should be a family conversation, with the parent talking with the child, not to the child. The child probably has as much to offer about this issue as the parent does, in the way of knowledge and experience and firsthand information."
Parents need to set ground rules, Hall explains, making sure children clearly understand what is or isn't acceptable. Only then, if a parent has good reason to believe a child has been involved in drugs, would a test be an appropriate tool for finding out.
Kubacki also urges parents to explain the dangers of drug abuse, then establish a family drug policy. After that, parents can say, "Look, if we see abnormal behavior, we're going to give you a drug test." Just the possibility of a test often serves as a powerful deterrent to drug use, he finds, helping a teenager fend off peer pressure by telling friends, "Man, I can't try this, I'm going to get caught."
Shades of Big Brother, or a legitimate aid for concerned parents? Wisely used, deterrents like these can help some families. Poorly handled, they risk hurting others.
New testing techniques, more drug-treatment centers, a crackdown on dealers - all are steps in the right direction. But drugs will come and go - and come again - until young recreational drug users, on their way to becoming addicted, see the risks they run. The war on drugs will be more victorious only when its leaders find ways to change the attitudes of a generation now growing up under the delusion that "Just Say Yes" is the '90s version of cool.