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Anecdotes, Aggregates, and Anguish

June 6th, 2006 · 4 Comments

Today, NPR’s Morning Edition had an audio commentary by a father whose 21-year-old son recently died of a heroin overdose, warning other parents to attend to warning signs like “the empty beer bottle in the backyard, the smell of pot on his clothes,” rather than remaining in denial, as he says he and his wife were. Insofar as the message is that parents ought to be trying to keep their adolescent kids away from heroin, I don’t think anyone can disagree with that. But I think the way the story ends up working rhetorically highlights one of the reasons the drug war remains such an uphill battle. Says the father (this may not be quite verbatim):

One day it was pot; the next day, a pill. And before we knew it there was a needle in our son’s arm. Our family’s experience isn’t unique.

He goes on to cite National Institute on Drug Abuse survey data to the effect that half of all teens have tried an illicit drug by the time they’re through high school.

Now, the thing is, in the face of this kind of paternal grief, I think most of us are inclined to shut down our critical responses: It seems churlish to be thinking something like: “Wait, that’s a non sequitur.” But it is a non sequitur. In fact, what that data underscores is just how unusual (if not literally “unique”) his family’s experience is. Nowhere near half of American teens, after all, are dying of heroin overdoses. What the NIDA figures say is that by the end of high school, over half of students have used at least one illict drug, just under half have smoked pot, and three quarters have used alcohol. Total who’ve ever used heroin at the same age? A whopping 1.5 percent. So, in fact, very few people—at least by the time they hit 18—are moving from pot to pill to the needle in the arm. That’s no consolation to the parents of that small group who do go astray, of course, but sympathy shouldn’t prevent us from saying: “Wait a minute, the huge majority of teens who smoke pot don’t end up junkies. Lots do it a few times, some do it for a few years, and then by and large they grow out of it and go on with ordinary lives.” Terrible as this guy’s premature death is, I doubt that promoting the unrealistic notion that a whiff of the ganja on junior’s backpack is likely to be a prelude to a heroin overdose is going to be conducive to either good policy or good parenting.

Tags: Nannyism



4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 c // Jun 6, 2006 at 1:03 pm

    Julian, the link to the NPR site is broken. (It’s because there’s an extra quotation mark at the end of the URL)

  • 2 theCoach // Jun 6, 2006 at 1:22 pm

    Good post. I agree with everything in it. I am pretty clearly a liberal in policy and I have a question as to where you would characterize this type of policy argument as coming from — although they are not talking policy here, there are paralell arguments that are — and how would you characterize them, especially with regard to the dominant political parties in the US.

    Does emotionalism have a consistent appeal, or does it ebb and flow with cycles of influence? I am hoping we are on the down swing of this influence, but I am not sure at all.

  • 3 theCoach // Jun 6, 2006 at 1:25 pm

    If you grant a tension between the concerns of the individual versus the concerns of the populace as a whole, is there a relationship between projecting unique individual stories onto action plans versus using aggregate data?

    I am agnostic on that question, myself, but thought you might have some insight.

  • 4 mencken // Jun 6, 2006 at 5:40 pm

    I think the issue is less the heroin than a kid using illegal drugs. in large quantities. I’d be interested in the % of kids using coke or X who passed thru the gateway of pot (or alcohol, for that matter).

    so—sure, statistically there’s not a huge causal relationship b/t marijuana then heroin use, but there’s plenty of room for parental concern about adolescent behavior that includes a consuming need or want to very frequently alter consciousness. that and most parents should probably be concerned if their kids are engaging in conduct that carries criminal penalties.