When parents are a part of the drug problem

New evidence suggests that many teens were introduced to drugs by a family member, not by a professional dealer.

Lara Alvord had her first puff of marijuana at home, in rural Pennsylvania. Her mother, an occasional drug user, thought that it would be safer if Lara tried drugs around her rather than out on the streets.

Lara Alvord was 12 years old.

From marijuana, Lara and her friends tried cocaine, then crack. In her mid-teens, curiosity gave way to craving, and by the time Lara had reached her adult years, she was a young mother and an addict desperate enough to steal to feed her habit.

"I don't blame my mother for any of my drug use, or for the choices I made," says Ms. Alvord, now at the Phoenix House in East Hampton, N.Y., a long-term residential drug-treatment program. "But I think if she had put her foot down and said I could not have done drugs, I wouldn't have felt comfortable enough to try them in the first place."

There is mounting evidence that the people most likely to bring drugs into the lives of young Americans are friends and family members - not shadowy drug dealers.

To some, it's evidence of an alarming permissiveness among many baby-boomer parents. And with national antidrug campaigns turning to parents to help keep kids drug-free, the new data raise questions about drug-war policies and how America is combating use among teens.

"Right now we have more prisons in the US than in the former Soviet Union, and the attitude is that if you have a drug problem, then lock 'em up and throw away the key," says Dudley Farenthold, a drug-treatment counselor in Houston and a recovering addict.

In one form or another, drugs have been around for millenniums - from the first brewed beer in 8000 BC to the rise of opium around the time of Jesus. But illicit drugs have only become ingrained in American culture during the past several decades. Now, they are being passed from generation to generation.

Fresh light on drug use

A recent survey of drug addicts, conducted among 582 residents of Phoenix House drug-treatment centers in four states, states that:

*Twenty percent of respondents say they were introduced to drugs by family members, 75 percent first tried drugs with friends, and less than 1 percent were introduced to drugs by a professional dealer.

*Of those who used drugs with their parents, 76 percent used marijuana, 19 percent used crack, 16 percent used cocaine, and 6 percent used heroin.

*Parent-teen drug sharing was found in most ethnic boundaries (22 percent white, 18 percent black, 22 percent Hispanic) and was almost as pervasive in the suburbs (17 percent) as in the inner city (22 percent).

Respondents also gave their views on the US criminal-justice system. Some 94 percent of those surveyed had been arrested, and 86 percent had been to prison.

*Eighty-eight percent said they could get drugs in prison, and 46 percent said prison made them more likely to use drugs. Most (94 percent) believe rehabilitation programs are more effective than incarceration.

*Sixty-two percent support putting more police on the streets, and 65 percent say drug sweeps are good for cleaning up neighborhoods.

*Sixty percent say the penalties for drug possession are either not tough enough or just about right. Sixty-seven percent have similar beliefs about penalties for dealing.

These results are adding momentum to the movement to place more emphasis on treatment, not incarceration. A New York judge, for example, has ordered the state to create an additional 10,000 places for drug treatment. Also, a new California law prohibits prison terms for first- and second-time offenses for non-violent drug crimes, preferring drug treatment instead.

"People are realizing now that treatment is not a statement of sympathy; it's the only cost-effective tool we have," says Peter Kerr, vice president of marketing for the Phoenix House Foundation in New York.

Other experts on the drug issue say the sampling of drug addicts - many of them convicted felons - is perhaps not a representative sample of American society. Yet the study highlights the very real problem of parent-teen drug sharing, they say.

"These are some of the most problematic addicts that we have," says Alan Leshner, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Washington.

Many Phoenix House residents are required to enter the year-long program after multiple drug offenses. "But the precise numbers are not the issue," says Mr. Leshner. "The problem is that a substantial amount of drug abuse is because of parents modeling drug use for their kids."

'Don't be afraid'

For James Woods, a resident of Phoenix House, drug use started early. His brothers and his father sold drugs in downtown Baltimore. Even when his mother, who didn't approve of James's drug use, moved the family to the suburbs, James didn't stop selling drugs. If anything, his business increased.

"Most people think there's less drugs in the suburbs, but it's just the opposite. That's where most of the people who use drugs live," says Mr. Woods, noting that he was so well-known on the drug scene that police knew his name.

Jail time didn't stop Woods from using drugs. Nor did being shot in the head by a carjacker in 1981. But when his father and two brothers were killed - within a year of each other - Woods realized he had to change his life.

"Suddenly, I didn't have any other males in my life, except my baby brother and my son," says Woods, who completed college and got a civil-engineering degree while dealing drugs. Speaking of his mother, he says, "I didn't want her to lose another son."

Now, when Woods talks to his own 12-year-old son, who lives with the boy's mother in Florida, he offers a very different message than he received as a child.

"He's going to be a teenager soon, and the No. 1 thing for me, when I was a teen, was peer pressure," says Woods from his Phoenix House treatment center in New York. "I tell him, don't be afraid. If it's not what you want, and if you don't feel right about it, stand your ground and say, 'No.' "

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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