Nineteen percent of eighth graders, 36% of 10th graders, and 47% of 12th graders say they have used illegal drugs, according to a study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the University of Michigan. These numbers should scare the living daylights out of any parent. But some may just shrug their shoulders and say what can I do? Others will look to government institutions for help.
The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, now in its 20th year, has consistently taken a diverse approach to combating illegal drug use. Its outreach extends to parents and community groups, and relies on celebrities and athletes to draw attention to its mission.
To combat adolescent drug use, the White House has allocated $5.8 million in new federal grants for random drug testing in public schools next year, its fifth grant award since 2003 for student drug testing programs. These grants will expand random drug testing programs into schools in 12 new states.
The White House recognizes, however, that testing alone will not solve adolescents' drug problems and neither will a primary focus on schools as the best method to reach teenagers. Their recent ad campaign against teenagers' abuse of prescription drugs is a step in the right direction, targeting not teenagers but the parents who may not be aware of the prevalence of drug abuse among youth.
The new focus was a result of a costly and almost unforgiveable mistake. Between 1998 and 2006, it spent $1.4 billion on anti-drug ads. Unfortunately, a study for the government conducted by the health survey research firm, Westat, Inc., found the effort failed and may have compounded the problem.
"Greater exposure to the campaign was associated with weaker anti-drug norms and increases in the perceptions that others use marijuana," the study reported. Among 14- to 16-year-olds, more exposure to the ads led to higher rates of first time drug use.
When delivered directly to adolescents, anti-drug messages fall on deaf ears. Rather than wasting its own breath and our tax dollars, the White House should mediate its worthwhile messages through institutions that can deliver it effectively.
Mapping America, mappingamericaproject.org, a project cataloguing the societal effects of the family and church, has found that adolescents from broken homes are much more likely to use hard drugs, according to data from the National Longitudinal Sample of Adolescent Health.
Of adolescents who live with married or cohabiting parents or with an always-single parent, up to 11% have used hard drugs. When their living environment has been disrupted, however, that number shoots up: 15% for adolescents living with divorcees, 18% for those in stepfamilies, and 19% for those living with one biological parent in a cohabiting relationship.
Divorce and parental separation increase both the likelihood of trying drugs and the amount of drug addiction and intravenous use, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fourteen-year-olds of divorced parents are nearly four times more likely to try illegal drugs and twice as likely to use them as adults.
What can be done?
Sometimes - not always, but sometimes - complex problems can be addressed with simple solutions. In the case of teenager and pre-teenager drug abuse, a little bit of faith can go a long way.
Church attendance has beneficial effects to at-risk youth. Among American adolescents, 8% of at-least-weekly worshipers admit using hard drugs. That number doubles to 16% for those who worship less than monthly and 18% for those who never worship.
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University is now researching the success of anti-drug efforts led by charismatic Evangelicals, particularly those in Assemblies of God congregations, from which CASA hopes to draw "lessons on the role of spirituality and religious beliefs in recovery."
CASA is on the right track. A diverse group of experts such as Mark Regnerus, Glen Elder, Jerry Trusty, Richard Watts, and Lisa Pullen agree that religious practice decreases the likelihood of drug use. Barbara Yarnold of Florida International University has even said that religion is the only statistically significant factor in inhibiting adolescent cocaine use.
When the statistics for family structure and church attendance are combined, the results are even more striking. Of at-least-monthly worshipers from intact families, 8.5% have used hard drugs, but rises to 20.1% for students from broken families who worship less or not at all.
The White House has a noble cause and a high calling to perform well. It should continue waging its anti-drug campaign by educating parents. In order to provide its services in a more meaningful way to more adolescents, it must include in its efforts the vast network of willing and like-minded churches and religious organizations.