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The War on Imaginary Drugs

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My 12-year-old neighbor has just gotten into serious trouble. He had seemed like such a nice kid. "Eddie," as I call him, is a Boy Scout, a fisherman, an inventor, the author of countless ingenious science projects, and a fine student. According to the principal of his middle school, he has never been in trouble before.

Like his peers, Eddie was familiar with a granular candy called "Crave," manufactured by Eat Me Now Foods of Pasadena, Calif. Crave, which comes in "14 candy flavors," is placed on one's tongue as if it were tobacco. For the purposes of my research I ate some. If you would like to experience the taste of Crave and don't have any in the house, open a can of Tang or iced-tea mix and insert your tongue. I found it vile, but I am not 12. All across America, Crave is the rave with the prepubescent set.

Some parents don't like Crave because they say it might encourage substance addiction. The name would suggest that they have a point. On the other hand, the real fascination with Crave seems to be what it does to one's mouth. I can attest to the accuracy of the manufacturer's claim: "A moment in the mouth and you'll transform your tongue, gums, and even teeth to unearthly colors!" There is much competition to see who has acquired the most vivid hues.

But what impressed Eddie about Crave was not its appearance, not its taste, not even what it did to his mouth. It was the price--$1.25 per pencil-sized tube. He was astonished that anyone could be dumb enough to pay that. So he decided to get into the business for himself. He went to the Grafton Country Store and invested in a variety of hard candy, which he ground up with a mortar and pestle, mixing in sugar, Kool Aid, and cherry flavored Lik-m-Aid. He called his recipe "Power Dust" and, in what he now admits was "just a marketing gimmick," said it contained a "secret ingredient." Power Dust wasn't a big hit, but it grossed Eddie $12.50.

"Which is better," I asked him, "Crave or your stuff?"

"Mine by a lot," he said. "Mine is much, much, much more sour."

"But does it color your tongue and lips as well?" I demanded. He wasn't sure about that, so I ate some and looked in the mirror. I must report that it was less colorful. The flavor was, well, no worse.

When the principal learned about Eddie's product, she pronounced it a make-believe "drug" and called in the police. Eddie was taken into a room, grilled, and forced to complete and sign a long fill-in-the-blank confession. During the two days that his hearing was being arranged and before any other due process, Eddie was suspended from school ("given over to his parents," the principal insists on calling it).

The rule against granular candy was made three days after Eddie's bust. The superintendent of schools issued a letter to all parents announcing that the Grafton, Mass., public school district "is prohibiting students from having the mock drug 'Crave' or similar concoctions in our schools" and informing them that "the state of Connecticut has removed it and related products from sale." But when I contacted the Connecticut attorney general's office I was told that this was not true. The state had only asked the manufacturer to remove it and had then been rebuffed.

At Eddie's second (appeals) hearing, the superintendent called in the chief of police. Eddie's parents were not allowed to ask questions the superintendent didn't think were "relevant." She sustained the principal's finding, ordering that Eddie be suspended from school for four days and that the previous suspension count toward his sentence.

I asked the principal if selling candy was against the rules. "Yes," she said. "Selling anything is against school committee policy." When I inquired if that policy was available to children, she said: "Well, it was available to parents. It's our solicitation policy." When I asked where it appeared she said: "As far as I know in The Parent Handbook." But it doesn't.

I then asked the principal if Eddie had made reference to a "drug" in marketing the ground-up candy. She said: "Yes." This surprised me because it contradicted everyone else's testimony, including the superintendent's. But when I persisted, the principal opined that Eddie must have meant a drug when he used the words "secret ingredient."

My interview with the superintendent left me even more confused. She told me that Eddie had endangered the school because his candy might have caused diabetic shock or harmed children with dye allergies. "Did the school place the students at similar risk when it dispensed M & M's for rewards after the magazine drive?" I asked. That was different, she averred, because the candy had been "wrapped." The superintendent then explained that Eddie's most egregious transgression was that, for all she or the principal knew, he could have put something dreadful into his candy. "The fact that [Eddie's] concoction appears to have been benign," she wrote in her decision, "does not detract from the danger." It doesn't?

Eddie seems subdued now. He doesn't talk about his suspension, but I believe it has taught him two important lessons: 1. Authority figures are unfair, duplicitous, incapable of admitting error, adept at covering their posteriors, and utterly bereft of common sense; and 2. If trafficking in candy results in multiple hearings, police action, and suspension from school, and if trafficking in drugs results in precisely the same thing, then drugs can't be much worse for you than candy.

Ted Williams is an editor with Audubon magazine in New York City and has been a free-lance writer since 1975. He lives in Grafton, Mass.

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