Teen Drug Use: Cultural Amnesia, Current Harm

Seth Leibsohn

When it comes to teen drug use, not only are we on the wrong track, but things are getting worse. This is not a mysterious happenstance. First, note two data points in the accompanying chart: The high-water mark of teen drug use in America was 1979; the low-water mark was 1992. However, since 1992, the share of 12th graders reporting recent drug use has increased 64 percent. These facts should immediately shape the conversation, but, sadly, they do not.

What these data reveal is the fallacy of the commonplace notion that “keeping drugs illegal doesn’t work.” In fact, reducing any social or policy problem by more than half in the course of about a decade is the definition of public policy success. Just imagine what would be said about policies and results that cut fatherlessness or poverty or budget deficits by more than half. Too few remember this success, and too many are ignoring the lessons learned, which is why the trajectory of teen drug use is back up and getting worse.

How were we successful? By taking a page from the first step in substance abuse recovery: The country recognized that there was a problem and got serious about dealing with it. As the nation’s first drug czar, William J. Bennett, put it, practically the entire country — from law enforcement to Hollywood to athletes to political leaders — rolled up their sleeves and went to work:

Those old enough to remember will recall how much the cultural message used to be anti-drug. There were the “This is your brain on drugs” ads that were ubiquitous…. There were sit-coms aimed at children with anti-drug messages. President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Nancy Reagan, in their tenures, gave innumerable speeches on the harms of drug use. [1]

What resulted? Drug use in America plummeted. We didn’t lose the drug war; we began winning — big — and then we gave up on it. Now, particularly in the teen population, drug use is going up again. We need to ask ourselves a few questions about the changes in the culture and the different cultural messages we now send in light of this growing problem.

When was the last time anyone saw an anti-drug or “this is your brain on drugs” ad? When was the last time anyone saw an anti-drug message embedded into a popular television show or movie? How often has the President ever spoken to this issue? (To my knowledge, the only time this President, a man uniquely gifted at attracting the attention and seriousness of our youth, delivered a major speech on substance or drug abuse was this year — his last in office — in Atlanta).

Today, popular television shows (still downloaded and aired “On Demand”) like Breaking Bad, Weeds, and High Maintenance laud, celebrate, and make heroes of drug users and drug dealers. As the President of Showtime said of Weeds (where the heroes and laugh lines are about a drug-dealing family): “Our ratings were va-va-va-voom! Who said hedonism is passe?”[2] The popular toy store Toys R Us had to face protests before discontinuing the sale of a Breaking Bad doll complete with a fake bag of cash and crystal meth.

As for the law, opposition to legalization of drugs is at an all-time low, especially as it relates to marijuana, just as marijuana has become more potent and dangerous and as more and more scientific research is establishing its harms — particularly in the teen and adolescent brain.[3] Research shows that the more drugs — particularly marijuana — are destigmatized, the more the perception of harm goes down, and as the perception of harm goes down, initiation and use increase.[4]

Again, all of this is taking place just as the dangers are becoming more and more widely known and understood by the scientific and medical communities. This is public policy cognitive dissonance, and it helps to explain why states like Colorado that have pioneered the legalization movement have not only the highest teen marijuana use rate, but also the highest overall teen drug use rate in the nation: a whopping 60 percent higher than the national average.[5]

The efforts to destigmatize and legalize drugs have caused great harm and have signaled the greatest surrenders in our previous efforts that kept drug use low. They are upending decades of hard work to prevent substance abuse and leading to greater costs in treatment, rehabilitation, accidents, enforcement, and criminal violations, as well as true education deficits. This is the opposite of good public policy and good youth policy. Instead of building a culture that makes greater health, education, and opportunity available to all, this is how a society harms itself.

The tragedy here is that we know what has worked in the recent past. We simply cannot afford to surrender those lessons before it is too late.

Seth Leibsohn is the host of the Seth Leibsohn Show, heard nightly in Phoenix, Arizona, on KKNT/960am; Chairman of Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy; and Chairman of NotMYKid.

Next Up in the Culture Section:

Abstinence Among High Schoolers


  1. William J. Bennett and Robert A. White, Going to Pot: Why the Rush to Legalize Marijuana Is Harming America (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2015), p. 116.
  2. Kimberly Nordyke and Associated Press, “’Weeds’ Sets Showtime Ratings Record,” The Hollywood Reporter, June 17, 2008, 
    http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/weeds-sets-showtime-ratings-record-113998 (accessed June 16, 2016).
  3. For example, see Nora D. Volkow, Ruben D. Baler, Wilson M. Compton, and Susan R. B. Weiss, “Adverse Health Effects of Marijuana Use,” New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 370, No. 23 (June 5, 2014), pp. 2219–2227, 
    http://dfaf.org/assets/docs/Adverse%20health%20effects.pdf (accessed May 27, 2016).
  4. White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, “Marijuana Use Is Inversely Related to Perceived Risk of Occasional Use in 12th Graders,” https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/ondcp/perceived_risk_inversely_related_2011.PNG (accessed June 6, 2016).
  5. Rocky Mountain High Intensity Trafficking Area, “The Legalization of Marijuana in Colorado: The Impact,” January 2016, 
    http://www.rmhidta.org/html/FINAL%20NSDUH%20Results-%20Jan%202016%20Release.pdf (accessed June 6, 2016). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Comparison of 2012–2013 and 2013–2014 Population Percentages (50 States and the District of Columbia), 2014, http://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUHsaeShortTermCHG2014/NSDUHsaeShortTermCHG2014.pdf (accessed June 22, 2016).

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