This paper will examine the concept of drug abuse among teenagers in the United States of America (USA) focusing upon alcoholism and other drugs. It will attempt to focus on the various Federal and State policies that have been put in place covering both social and legal perspectives of substance abuse in the school systems considering that majority if not all of those that fall in this age group are in the school system.
The concept of drug abuse creates numerous social problems ranging from crime, family relationships and peer pressures. A good percentage of these could also be working, and so, to the degree that this matters, the paper will attempt to address the possible effects of drugs abuse on employee/employer relationships. It is imperative to note this age group is in its formative stages and care must be taken to ensure that the society has a strong and competent workforce. Addressing this problem would ensure that the lives of these young minds are not nipped in the bud.
The paper is split into three main parts: Part 1 – Provides an introduction and the background information pertaining to drug abuse among teenagers in the USA. Part 2 – Considers the policies that are in place either in the States or federal government. Part 3 – Evaluates the policies and considers areas of potential improvements.
Part 1 Problem and Population Being Addressed
“Drug” may be defined as any substance other than food that by its chemical nature affects the structure and function of the living organism. This meaning though, is determined by the context in which it is used. This definition varies from country to country which is subject to change over time depending on social and economic pressures. Forty years back, drugs like alcohol and tobacco were not termed as drugs, but today they are highly regarded as drugs. Not all drugs are illegal i.e. harmful, some are helpful such as those used in medical therapy while others are both harmful and highly addictive (NIDA 2007, 17)
According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, quoting the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act “drug” is:
“a substance intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease, a substance other than food intended to affect the structure or function of the body, a substance intended for use as a component of a medicine but not a device or a component, part, or accessory of a device, or a commodity that is not salable or for which there is no demand” (Merriam Webster)
Webster also acknowledges that drug is often an illegal substance that causes addiction, habituation, or a marked change in consciousness.
Teenage is a transition time when the body is undergoing many significant changes, such as hormonal alterations and brain development. It is also a time when young people start to associate more with friends and associates beyond their childhood contacts. They feel an increased pressure to “fit in” or ‘go along with the crowd’ in order to be accepted socially. Experimentation with drugs during teenage is common. During this period they are generally considered to be healthy, because young people are less vulnerable to diseases. It is a period that young people mature physically and sexually. Unfortunately, teenagers don’t often see the link between their actions today and their probable consequences tomorrow. According to Web MD (2002-2011) Alcohol and Teens. Retrieved March 2, 2012, alcohol is the most frequently used drug by teenagers in the United States. About half of junior high and senior high school students drink alcohol on a monthly basis, and 14% of teens have been intoxicated at least once in the past year. According to data from the 2005 Monitoring The Future (MTF) study, an annual survey of U.S. youth, three-fourths of 12th graders, more than two-thirds of 10th graders, and about two in every five 8th graders have consumed alcohol. However if they use alcohol at this stage it can significantly affect their safety, health, and their academic performance. According to the WEB MD website, every year about 2,000 people under the age of 21 die in car crashes in which underage drinking is involved.
According to Adolescent Substance Abuse Knowledge Base (ASK), there are many different kinds of drugs that are available now unlike 20-30 years ago. This has caused more teenagers in today’s society to abuse alcohol than they did in the past. The reason being, the generation has changed tremendously in terms of how accessible it is to get alcohol. On the same website (ASK),
“The primary factors that seem to affect increased or decreased drug use among teens are perceived risk, perceived social approval, and perceived availability. The more risky or less accepted a drug is thought to be; the less likely it will be used by teens. Perceived availability is often associated with overall social approval, and so, a drug that’s readily available is considered socially acceptable and will likely increase in use. While these seem like common sense factors, how these perceptions are created is harder to understand.” (Adoolescent Substance Abuse)
Focusing on teenagers between ages 12-17 years old, the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA) presented a summary of findings in 1999 with a national estimates and state estimates of drug abuse such as alcohol and marijuana in connection to teenager’s perceptions and behaviour that was highly related to that use. The statistics were approximately 25,000 youths which included 1,000 samples for largest eight states and the remaining 42 states with 300 each while District of Columbia included. In the same year, NHSDA also reported that the highest rate in a month for alcohol use among teenagers aged 12-17 was North Dakota with 24.7% while the lowest state was Utah with 10.3%. The states that were ranked highest groups were northern while lowest were southern. In comparing the drug use between males and females in the same age, NHSDA indicated that females did use 9% almost their peers which was 10%. Comparing black and Hispanic males, same age, males used more than their counterparts females. For the Whites, there were no difference between males and females. (ASK)
“Among females aged 12 to 17:
755,000 reported using marijuana and hashish during the past month
83,000 reported using LSD
66,000 reported using cocaine
19,000 reported using heroin
13,000 reported using crack” (ASK)
When teens are drunk and are driving vehicles their actions are not in their own control because it decreases their ability to stay focused. Further, they cannot concentrate on one particular task. Slow reflexes can decrease the ability to react swiftly to situations. Eye muscles function slower and eye movement and perception are altered, possibly resulting in blurred vision (Science Daily, 2010). The hands, eyes, and feet physically control the car and they are controlled by the brain. Alcohol reduces the power of the brain to respond immediately for the change in environment (CDC, 2010). The depressant effect of alcohol hinders a teen’s ability to make rational decisions. The level of blood alcohol content (BAC) is 0.05 and this is the amount of alcohol you should have in your system when operating a vehicle. The higher the concentration of alcohol in the blood, the more it hampers the proper working of the brain. As stated on the “We Don’t Serve Teens” website, car crashes are the leading cause of death among people ages 15 to 20. From the same website, people between the ages of 16 and 20 are more likely to be involved in a fatal crash as drunk drivers than those who are 21 or older. Eight teens between the ages of 16 to 19 died every day in 2009 from motor vehicle injuries (CDC, 2010). From the same source, about 3,000 teens in the United States in 2009, ages 15-19 were killed and more than 350,000 were treated in emergency departments for injuries suffered in motor vehicle crashes. People between the ages 15-24 represent only 14% of the U.S. populations. The economic cost of automobile accidents involving teenagers, according to a 2002 CDC report, is a staggering forty billion dollars or more annually.
In addition, in the process alcohol causes metabolism to slow down resulting to mental and physical fading out. Besides feeling good, enjoying with peers and relaxing, they have little understanding of the various side effects, which are manifested in their bodies as well as in their lives. Frustrations brought about by the physical, mental, emotional, psychological and social changes at this time. Clark et al (2001) at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found that while most self-reported health problems in teenagers with alcohol use disorders can be traced to the emotional consequences of drinking, there are also physical consequences in which the liver is affected. These teenagers reported many symptoms on their health such as chest discomfort, breathing symptoms, abdominal complaints, muscle and joint pain as well as headaches. Amongst some of the abnormalities uncovered in their physical exams were elevated liver enzyme levels. Although the rise in liver enzyme was statistically significant, they did not pose an immediate health problem. However, with continued drinking they may develop permanent liver damage. Teenagers who used alcohol did not have adequate health maintenance behaviours such as tooth brushing, dental cavities and gingivitis.
Since 19th century, American societies have had a drug abuse and addiction as social problems. In 20th century, due to heavy law on addiction, and World War II movement, the drug use went down significantly to a point that it was not considered as an epidemic. In 1960s, new drugs emerged such as marijuana and amphetamines which was embraced by the current generation. (Illegal Drugs in America: A modern History.)
Currently, most people in America have strong faith that drug related crimes as well as drug use are some of the most pressing social problems in the nation. At least 45% of Americans can identify someone with a drug or substance abuse problem. Although the consequences of substance abuse are threats to Americans, in social economic background, education level, ethnic and racial identity level among others, they are felt unproportionally. (II. America’s Drug Abuse Profile)
Part 2: Policy Response
The US Government policies on drug control are not working (Messing,A.F. 2010) and it is now time to consider a new approach. It is argued that alcohol and tobacco currently pose a greater threat than drug abusers. It is interesting to note that approximately half a million-heroin addicts land up in jail each year. A majority of those in jail do not receive medical treatment for their addiction. The World Health Authority issued guidelines that stated the prisons should offer appropriate medical treatment to addicts. It is clear that most prisons are not abiding by these guidelines. The addicts also eventually are released from jail without any referral to medication or health support. This sees them back on the streets and resorting to criminal activities in order to feed the habit. Subsequently these people find themselves back in jail and so the vicious cycle continues. (Hollmer, M. 2009)
There has been a policy argument in favour of the de-criminalization of drugs. A great deal of controversy has been raised in these debates and particularly in the differentiation between hard and soft drugs. The arguments in favour of decriminalization of drugs might be briefly summarised as follows:
- Finance – The USA spends millions of dollars each year in an attempt to combat the criminal distribution and trafficking of drugs. It is considered that this is a futile effort and that the money could be spent in other areas like improvement of the healthcare system or child education. (Bar of the City of New York, 1994 )
- Social Problem – The real issue is not a criminal problem but an acute social problem that needs to be addressed. Dealing with aspects of poverty in the USA, addressing the juvenile delinquency problem and above all treating many of the addicts who are mentally ill and should be treated in hospitals.
- Policies – The US Government policies on drug control are not working and it is now time to consider a new approach. The Department of Health argues that alcohol and tobacco currently pose a greater threat than drug abusers.
- Civil Rights – The argument that puts forward freedom of choice and if individuals who decide to take drugs then they should be allowed to do so as long as they do not harm others. The counter argument is that they are abusing and hurting themselves and as such, it does not just affect the user but all of society from a duty of care perspective.
It is argued that the key to resolving drug abuse is by educating the people in society and providing counter measures like community initiatives to combat this. By legalising drugs, it would remove the criminal elements and allow initiatives at the community levels to become more successful. The ‘Fighting Back Program’ is an excellent example of a community program designed to combat the sale and use of drugs in a community. This has been designed for adoption in medium sized Cities and eligible for grant awards up to $3 million. Grants for up to $3 million are available for approval. The counter arguments of this proposed policy change considered are: (Wealawski, I.M. 2004)
- Harm – It would create an increased avenue of harm to the general public making psychoactive and harmful addictive substances available to the general market place. This would encourage distributors to freely target the most vulnerable elements of the population e.g. the poor immigrant communities, orphans, kids from poor families, troubled upbringing, single parentage etc).
- The wrong Message – It would send out the wrong message to the public at large. It would legitimise and condone the use of drugs as socially acceptable. This would affect the vulnerable in society like the youth and the poor.
- Legality – (The legal system) there would need to be significant changes to the legal system to make this work. Illicit drugs are banned because of their intoxicating effects on the brain. This poses a threat to both drug users and the community at large. This would have a knock-on effect to other legal areas like driving, work environments and health/ safety considerations
- Violent Crime – Drug abusers have been associated with some of the worst violent crime and criminal activities in society including that of murder, rape, assault and even robbery etc. To legalize drugs is likely to lead to a large escalation in violent crime on a scale that may be out of control. This in turn will lead to an increased even larger prison population at a time when the prison service is already overstretched.
There will continue to be a press for change particularly from the supporters of legalization of the soft drugs in society; particularly those that wish to see marijuana legalised. Others will use this to leverage the argument for the more general legalisation of drugs including the hard drugs. This particularly carries weight in a depressed economy where millions if not billions of dollars are targeted at attacking the drug Despite this the majority of Americans that were polled in 2007 (some 75%) were in favour of keeping criminalization of drugs. People tend to focus on the statistics that link violent crime to drugs and the fear of this escalating given the decriminalization of this. There is also the worry of the association of needles with that of HIV/AIDS and the possibility of increasing the spread of that disease.
The Prison system is another major influencing factor here. The strain brought about by overcrowding in the prisons has resulted in the Federal Government moving more towards a system of outsourcing this to private sector business operations with specialist expertise in this area. The private sector officers have more of a zero tolerance factor to anti-social or bad behaviour and can impose additional 30-day sentences for infraction of prison rules. This has moved the prisons more distant from rehabilitation programmes and more to a commercial basis of incarceration. In addition, new challenges relate to the amount of inmates that are suffering from mental illness or substance abuse. Hence, these people are being based in prisons as opposed to that of special care facilities. The prison officers do not receive the appropriate medical training in order to deal with this group of people. There are also increasing number of juveniles being processed through the adult prison system and some of these with no possibility of parole trafficking and crime problem.
There is a variety of drug rehabilitation programs offered across the States in order to support those that do not have the necessary insurance or financial support to obtain treatment. This has been particularly focused upon juveniles and young people. Statistics have indicated that those who do not find treatment tend to slide deeper into addiction problems. One example is treatmentUSA.com that provides cost free treatment for addiction and help in breaking the addiction cycle. They provide individuals with affordable drug rehabilitation options. (TreatmentUSA, 2012)
Part 3: Policy Analysis and Evaluation
The anti-decriminalization lobby is likely to succeed in the USA, at least for the medium term, given the gravity of the problem that currently exists in the USA. There is no doubt that the US has a major issue with drug abuse and importation of illegal drugs from abroad. The changes in social lifestyle, particularly among the poorer echelons of American Society, estimated as being 25% of the population, means that the problem will take a considerable time to resolve. Blocking the supply of importation of the drugs to the USA is paramount in destroying the business at source. (Hakem, P.2012)
The difficulty with putting forward a winning strategy is to recognise the massive complexity of this problem. In the first instance, drugs have a strong correlation with areas of poverty in the big Cities. As such, there is a massive social problem that needs to be addressed in order to reduce the number of users of drugs. One critical approach would be the tackling of poverty and housing which is a seriously depressed economic environment. The prospect for addressing change in this area, leastwise in the medium term, looks distinctly bleak. The poverty situation also links to that of drugs and juvenile crime. There is an urgent need to reverse the trends in juvenile delinquency and as such stop juveniles turning into hardened criminals and going to prisons where in turn they are exposed to drugs again. It is now easy to see a vicious circle of events here from poverty, social problems, juvenile crime, prisons and overcrowding and a return to poverty and crime.
There are strong arguments that support both sides of the debate. Perhaps the biggest single convincing argument in the Decriminalization of Drugs is that the problem cannot be evaluated in isolation if one is to achieve a satisfactory outcome to the problem. In order to feed the criminal behaviour there has to be a strong user base to support it. As such, issues like education, social welfare, housing, and poverty all need to be addressed. These would prove to be integral parts of the solution.
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Bar of the City of New York . A WISER COURSE: ENDING DRUG PROHIBITION . 1 6 1994. http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/library/nylawyer.htm. 20 3 2012.
Hollmer, Mark. Study: Prisons Lack Heroin Addiction Treatment Despite Proven Benefits. 8 9 2009. http://news.brown.edu/pressreleases/2009/09/heroin. 20 3 2012.
IM, Wielawski. “To Improve Health and Health Care, VII,.” IM, Wielawski. To Improve Health and Health Care, VII,. New York: Jossey-Bass, 2004. .3-31 .
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