Distributed November 1996
Copyright ©1996 by David C. Lewis, M.D., and Christopher Goodwin
In Texas, a drug-sniffing dog found a bottle of Advil in the backpack of a 17-year-old-girl before gym class. The girl was suspended. A 10-year-old boy in Rhode Island brought his epilepsy medicine to school but did not give it to the school nurse. The boy was suspended. An eighth-grader in Pennsylvania, joking around with his friends, did an impression of a rabid dog by putting an Alka-Seltzer tablet in his mouth. School officials notified police and referred the youth to a county drug agency. A girl in Ohio gave a Midol tablet to a friend who was suffering from menstrual cramps. The girl was suspended.
It is wrong to lump all drugs into one amorphous group. To include aspirin in the same drug category as heroin and cocaine clearly destroys any useful distinction between the helpful and harmful effects of drugs. The reason we're not making this distinction is that drugs have become a simplistic symbol of evil or immorality through our zealous anti-drug campaign. We once feared Communist insurgents were stalking our loved ones, whispering lies in their ears. We fought against rock and roll, worrying that it would brainwash the innocent youth of America into committing immoral acts. Today, we see drugs taking on that function, as if syringes full of heroin were walking the streets, tapping on people's shoulders and smiling as drugs surreptitiously kidnapped their minds. One can imagine an extreme version of Doonesbury's "Mr. Butts" engaging potential converts on the street. But drug misuse is a complex social, economic, and physiological problem in which the actual substances play only one part.
This absurd situation comes about because some believe Nancy Reagan's warning in her "Just Say No" campaign - there is no moral middle ground about drugs. As drugs become "immoral," an honest and open debate about their varied affects and uses is cut off. We jump from the sure knowledge that some drugs are very harmful to the false and oversimplified conclusion that drugs themselves are evil. The results of this misunderstanding are evident in more than just the overzealous punishment of school children. The relief of suffering among the sick and dying is frustrated and impeded as physicians under-prescribe potent pain medications, even to terminally ill patients because of the stigma attached to narcotics. The normal medical instinct to relieve suffering is subverted when cancer and AIDS patients are blocked from access to medically prescribed marijuana to alleviate the side effects of chemotherapy because such treatment will somehow convey the wrong message.
Ultimately, in the name of making a strong moral statement that drugs are bad, we are not only losing sight of the helpful aspects of drugs, but we are implementing this moral crusade in a way that terrorizes children and their families. Zero tolerance becomes intolerance. There is little doubt that schools will soon adjust their procedures, and that the comical crackdown on the benign use of aspirin, ibuprofen and other such medications will change. But until we develop a more complex view of substance use and abuse, we can expect similar legend-inspiring spectacles such as school sanctions against 10-year-olds and their families to occur. It is time to rethink a war on drugs that promulgates the absurd implementation of such school policies.######