Decades of Drug Use: The '80s and '90s

by Jennifer Robison, Contributing Editor

This is the second in a three-part series examining the history of public opinion on illegal drug use. This segment focuses on the 1980s and 90s.

The 1980s

In 1986, Len Bias, a college basketball star, died of a cocaine overdose two days after he was taken by the Boston Celtics as the overall No. 2 pick in the National Basketball Association draft. President Ronald Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. In 1985, one-third of Americans said they had tried marijuana at some point in their lives.

By the mid-80s, the introduction of crack cocaine turned youth drug use into a truly terrifying issue. Crack was cheap, plentiful and hideously addictive. Its effects -- including gang warfare and crack babies -- were quickly gaining notoriety. A 1986 Gallup poll asked Americans, "Which one of the following do you think is the MOST serious problem for society today: Marijuana, alcohol abuse, heroin, crack, other forms of cocaine or other drugs?" At 42%, "crack" and "other forms of cocaine" beat "alcohol abuse" by eight percentage points -- even though there are far more alcoholics than crack addicts.

As the war on drugs escalated and hard drugs moved into the suburbs, a new form of anti-drug education was born. It was becoming obvious that, as Gary De Blasio, Executive Director of Corner House Counseling Center for Adolescents and Young Adults, said, "Scare tactics don't work." Drug-abuse prevention began to center on education. Instead of giving kids the willies, new outreach programs such as DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) and Partnership for a Drug-Free America (PDFA), began teaching kids how to make good choices -- the willies are temporary, the ability to reason is permanent.

De Blasio's group, based in Princeton, N.J., prefers to use factual information. "We provide kids with refusal strategies, problem-solving and emotional coping skills. We show them that they have choices, and that choices have consequences. They find they have options. Peer education is one of our most effective programs. High school students speak at the junior highs, junior high school students talk to elementary school kids. They tell them that they have alternatives, but what the kids in the audience see are the cool kids NOT taking drugs."

The 1990s

Federal funding for the war on drugs reached $17.1 billion dollars. In a Gallup poll, 34% of Americans admitted to having tried marijuana.

By the last decade of the millennium, it appeared that fewer people were using drugs. Gallup polls showed little change in the percentage of adults who said they had used marijuana -- 34% of Americans said they had tried it in a 1999 poll. According to the Gallup Youth Survey, however, the percentage of teens admitting to marijuana use also continued to drop, from 38% in 1981 to 20% in 1999. PDFA reported that teens' "trial" use of marijuana, inhalants, methamphetamines, LSD and -- for the first time -- cocaine, had declined in 1999.

So the recent upswing in the use of heroin and "club drugs" was all the more startling. "Ecstasy and crystal meth are popular in California, meth is big in the Midwest, and the New Jersey Turnpike is just ‘the Heroin Highway'," said De Blasio. Heroin is one of the most deadly of the illegal drugs. Luckily, the most common form of ingestion -- injection into a vein -- has repulsed most potential users. Until now. A stronger, purer version of heroin that can be smoked or snorted is becoming available in big cities.

The use of methamphetamines (often called "crystal meth" or "meth") is relatively new among teens. A stimulant, meth creates paranoia, hallucinations and repetitive behavior patterns. Long-term use can lead to toxic psychosis. Recent PDFA studies found that use by high school students more than doubled between 1990 and 1996.

Ecstasy, a club drug (associated with all-night raves and parties), can cause paranoia, confusion, anxiety and severe drug cravings. The long-term effects can include damage to the parts of the brain that control thought and memory. In fact, because Ecstasy spikes the user's heartbeat and temperature, a very long-term effect of just one use can be death from heart failure.

The dangers of these drugs are new to kids -- how many 17-year-olds associate heroin with Janis Joplin's overdose? Many kids thought Ecstasy, which wasn't outlawed until 1985, was harmless. In the future, the challenge for drug educators will be to inform kids about the very real dangers of drugs that most adults have never heard of.

Part three of this series will discuss a 100% successful drug prevention strategy, as well as the demographics of drug use.

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