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Joseph A. Califano Jr.October 31, 2005

The 10th annual survey of 12- to 17-year-olds by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) has a loud and clear message: Parents, if you want to raise drug-free kids, you cannot outsource your responsibility to their schools or law enforcement. The odds are that drugs will be used, kept or sold—or all of the above—at the school your daughter or son attends and that laws prohibiting teen use of tobacco, alcohol, marijuana and other illegal drugs will have little or no impact on your child’s decision to smoke, drink or use marijuana.

What will motivate your kids to stay drug free is their perception of how Mom and Dad will react to their smoking, drinking or drug use, their sense of the immorality of such use for someone their age, and whether they consider such use harmful to their health. It is not much of an overstatement to say that reducing the risk of teen substance use is all in the family. Engaged and nourishing parents have the best shot at giving their children the will and skills to say no.

For any who doubt the frontline importance of the family in combating teen drug use and for parents who think they can outsource their responsibility, this year’s CASA survey sends a grim message that a teen’s world outside the family is infested with drugs.

The most disturbing finding is the extent to which our nation’s schools are awash in alcohol, tobacco, and illegal and prescription drugs. Since 2002, the proportion of middle schoolers who say that drugs are used, kept or sold in their schools is up by a stunning 47 percent, and the proportion of high schoolers attending schools with drugs is up by 41 percent. This year, 10.6 million high schoolers, almost two-thirds, and 2.4 million middle schoolers, more than a quarter, are attending schools where drugs are used, kept or sold.

Sadly, many parents accept drug-infected schools as an inevitable part of their children’s lives. Half of all parents surveyed report that drugs are used, kept or sold on the grounds of their teen’s school, and a despairing 56 percent of these parents believe that the goal of making their child’s school drug free is unrealistic. When asbestos is found in a school, most parents refuse to send their children there until it is removed; yet these same parents send their kids to drug infected schools day after day. When parents feel as strongly about drugs in schools as they do about asbestos, they will give our teens a chance to be educated in a drug free environment.

The price young people pay for parental pessimism and nonchalance is high. Teens who attend schools where drugs are used, kept or sold are three times likelier to try marijuana and get drunk in a typical month, compared with teens who attend drug-free schools. Students at high schools with drugs estimate that 44 percent of their schoolmates regularly use illegal drugs, compared with a 27 percent estimate by students at drug free schools.

This year’s survey provides overwhelming additional evidence of the increasingly drug drenched world of American teens. In just one year, from 2004 to 2005, the percentage of 12- to 17-year-olds who know a friend or classmate who has abused prescription drugs jumped 86 percent; who has used the drug Ecstasy is up 28 percent; who has used illegal drugs, such as acid, cocaine or heroin, is up 20 percent.

Given the availability of substances throughout their lives—in their schools, among their friends—it is no wonder that teens continue to name drugs as their number one concern, as they have since CASA began conducting the survey in 1996. This year 29 percent of teens cite drugs as their top concern. (Remarkably, many parents don’t understand this. Only 13 percent of those surveyed see drugs as their teens’ biggest concern; almost 60 percent of parents consider social pressures their teens’ biggest concern, a view only 22 percent of teens share.)

And little progress, if any, has been made in curtailing teens’ ability to buy marijuana. Forty-two percent of 12- to 17-year-olds (11 million) can buy marijuana within a day; 21 percent (5.5 million) can buy it within an hour. This situation has remained unchanged over the past three years.

The abysmal failures of our schools to achieve and maintain a drug free status and of our government to reduce the availability of marijuana should by themselves be enough to alert parents to the critical significance of their role. But the clincher comes out of the mouths of teens themselves, who make it clear that morality and parental attitude trump illegality as deterrents to their smoking, drinking and drug use:

• Teens who believe smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol by someone their age is “not morally wrong” are seven times likelier to smoke or drink than those who believe teen smoking is “seriously morally wrong.”

• Teens whose parents would be “a little upset or not upset” if they smoked or drank are much likelier to smoke or drink than those whose parents would be “extremely upset.”

• Teens who believe using marijuana is “not morally wrong” are 19 times likelier to use marijuana than teens who believe it is “seriously morally wrong.”

• Teens who say their parents would be “a little upset” or “not upset at all” if they used marijuana are six times likelier to try marijuana than those whose parents would be “extremely upset.”

At the same time, most teens say legal restrictions have no impact on their decision to smoke cigarettes (58 percent) or drink alcohol (54 percent). Nearly half of teens say illegality plays no role in their decision to use marijuana, LSD, cocaine or heroin.

The point is not that criminal laws are irrelevant; they serve an important purpose to protect society and as a formal consensus of society’s judgment about seriously harmful conduct. The point is that a child’s sense of morality, which most 12- to 17-year-olds acquire from parents, and a clear appreciation of parental disapproval are far more powerful incentives to stay drug free.

Parents also have an important responsibility to monitor their children’s conduct and know their children’s friends. Forty-three percent of 12- to 17-year-olds see three or more R-rated movies in a typical month. These teens are seven times likelier to smoke cigarettes, six times likelier to try marijuana and five times likelier to drink alcohol than those who do not watch R-rated movies. Teens who report that half or more of their friends are sexually active are at nearly six times the risk for substance abuse as those teens with no sexually active friends. Similarly, teens who report that most of their friends drink or use marijuana are at much higher risk of substance abuse.

The good news is that strong, positive family relationships are a powerful deterrent to teen smoking, drinking and drug use. Teens who would go to either or both their parents with a serious problem are at half the risk of teens who would seek out another adult. The substance-abuse risk for teens living in households with frequent family dinners, low levels of tension and stress among family members, parents who are proud of their teen and a parent in whom the teen can confide is half that of the average teen.

Frequent family dinners are a simple yet powerful way to influence teen behavior. Compared to teens who have at least five family dinners a week, those who have family dinner less often than three times a week are much likelier to smoke, drink and use marijuana. Only 13 percent of teens who have frequent family dinners have tried marijuana, compared with 35 percent of teens who have dinner with their parents no more than twice a week.

Teens who attend weekly religious services—or who say that religion is an important part of their lives—are at half the risk of smoking, drinking or using drugs as those who do not attend such services. And it is unlikely in this nation that 12- to 17-year-olds go to church each week without their parents.

Parent power is the greatest weapon we have to curb substance abuse. When mothers and fathers realize how much power they have—and use it sensitively—we will turn back this scourge that has destroyed so many children and brought so much grief to so many families and friends.

This nation’s drug problem is all about kids. CASA’s research has consistently shown that a child who gets through age 21 without smoking, abusing alcohol or using drugs is virtually certain never to do so. The CASA survey and 12 years of my life devoted to understanding this problem have led me to this bottom line: America’s drug problem is not going to be solved in courtrooms, legislative hearing rooms or schoolrooms—or by judges, politicians or teachers. It will be solved in living rooms and dining rooms and across kitchen tables—and by parents and families.

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