One in five drug abusers in some treatment programs in the United States received their first taste of these illegal substances from their parents, usually before the age of 18, a new survey says.
The survey found that drug treatment candidates at 70 Phoenix House drug treatment programs in the United States are 19 times more likely to have been introduced to illicit drugs by a family member than a professional drug dealer, according to Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates, the national research firm in New York that conducted the study.
Twenty percent obtained the drugs from the parents, and of these 6 percent even used heroin with them.
“These findings should disturb everyone involved in preventing drug use among kids,” says Dr. Mitchell S. Rosenthal, a psychiatrist and president of Phoenix House. Rosenthal believes the findings of the survey reveal that too many parents in America view teenage drug use as little more than a right of passage.
Not a Representative Population
The study does not apply to the general population of drug users, however.
“It’s important to realize that these are kids who have already gotten in serious trouble with drugs,” says Alyse Booth, spokeswoman for the National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, in New York City, commenting on the study.
“ I don’t think 20 percent of parents across the country are smoking dope with their kids,” she says, yet added, “a large majority of baby boomers did use illegal drugs and are more likely to have a benign attitude [to their kids using them].”
The survey noted similar levels of parent-teen drug sharing among whites, blacks and Hispanics, as well as among urban and suburban residents.
“In this survey we met the neighborhood pusher and he is a lot like us,” Phoenix House’s Dr. Rosenthal stated.
Stephen Higgins, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Vermont in Burlington, says addiction professionals have known for some time that most people are introduced to drug use by friends and relatives and not by a professional pusher. But he says this may be the first formal study that attempts to quantify that phenomenon.
According to the study, 36 percent of respondents were introduced to drugs by a neighborhood friend, 29 percent by a school friend and 19 percent by relatives. Family members who introduced youngsters to drugs include siblings, parents, uncles, aunts, cousins and spouses. Of those who used drugs with their parents, 76 percent used marijuana, 19 percent used crack, 16 percent used cocaine and 6 percent used heroin.
Prevention Starts Where?
“The study poses significant questions about drug prevention and education campaigns — which call parents ‘the anti-drug’ and urge them to talk to their children about drugs — in many households where parents do not embrace anti-drug values,” according to a statement issued by Phoenix House.
Other addiction experts also questioned the value of anti-drug tactics in light of the survey. For children who are exposed to drugs at home, school or national drug prevention campaigns become “totally worthless,” says Dr. Peter Rogers, a pediatrics and addictions specialist at Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, who also serves on the substance abuse committee of the American Academy of Pedriatics. He called the survey’s findings “shocking... even after working in substance abuse for fifteen years.”
“The message that is very clear here is that parents can have an impact on their kids,” says Columbia’s Booth. She believes parents are unaware of the extent of their influence — both positive and negative — on children. Parents have to send a very clear message to their kids about not using drugs and those parents who use illegal drugs, such as marijuana, are likely conveying very mixed messages.
“Family systems are powerful forces in shaping the attitudes and behaviors of our children,” agrees Scott F. Basinger, chair of the Substance Abuse Assistance Council at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston, Texas. “This information suggests the problem is not ‘out there’ but ‘in here.’”
He says the survey suggests more efforts and resources should focus on families and education rather than in support of law enforcement effort attempts to stop dealers, adding, “I hope the Office of National Drug Control Policy considers this survey data.”
The survey, funded by Phoenix House, looked at a random sample of 528 current residents at Phoenix House drug treatment programs in New York, California, Florida and Texas. Residents responded to 80 questions about their drug history and their views on substance abuse treatment and policy issues.
Phoenix House is a private, non-profit substance abuse treatment, prevention and education program, serving 5,000 adult and adolescents in eight states.