‘Drug Epidemic’ Sparks Unprecedented Meeting

By Marleen Nienhuis — September 10, 1986 3 min read

the highlight of the First National Conference on Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention may have been the unscheduled appearance by President Reagan on the conference’s last day.

But for many of those present--some 1,200 professionals and volunteers from across the nation who are working to stem what the President termed “America’s drug epidemic"the event’s impact will extend beyond the media attention generated by Mr. Reagan.

The three-day meeting in Washington last month was the first federally sponsored conference to examine ways to curb the growth of substance abuse among the young. It brought together a wide variety of experts, counselors, and concerned adults representing schools, state and local governments, private agencies, and community groups.

And for some participants, such as Betty Jones, who works at a juvenile center in Mobile, Ala., the chance to share strategies and information was the event’s most valuable contribution.

“It was good to come here, if only to find out there were some other dogs out there doing what I do,” Ms. Jones said.

The consensus us at the gathering, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, was that substance-abuse prevention is a continuous process, requiring the near-permanent involvement of teachers, administrators, parents, children, and the community at large.

“There must be a long-term commitment,” said Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, one of the keynote speakers."If all we’re talking about is a six-month P.R. campaign, forget it.”

But such commitment alone may not be enough, according to Peter Bell, executive director of the Minnesota Institute on Black Chemical Abuse and another of the conference’s keynote speakers. He noted the pervasive nature of the drug and alcohol-abuse problem and said that nothing less than a “cultural readjustment” would be needed to deal effectively with it.

Mr. Bell suggested that current substance-abuse-prevention efforts are hampered by a lack of clearly defined values about the proper use of alcohol and drugs.

“We have to state clearly where it is legitimate to use drugs or alcohol, why, when, and what behavior should be tolerated,” he said.

“Not answering these critical questions is a major problem,” he warned, pointing to the liquor industry’s $1.2-billion advertising budget as a force that would continue to “define such values for us” if not countered.

Mr. Bell also questioned the popular notion that drug-related highs can and should be replaced with “alternative highs” found in such experiences as exercise and the enjoyment of good food.

“People would be much better served by legitimizing the lows,” Mr. Bell said. “It is important to convey to children that feeling lonely, bored, and hurt is part of the human condition. Denying this by saying there’s a cure for it all is setting kids up.” Mr. Bell, who received a standing ovation at the close of his speech, also made a strong call for the early diagnosis of genetically and nutritionally based addiction.

“A lot of money is being spent on research,” he said in an interview after the conference, “but we need it i in early diagnosis.”

I ‘The financial and political implications of such prevention programs were not a prominent theme of discussions. But, according to Karst Besteman, executive director of the Alcohol and Drug Problems Association and a participant in the conference’s planning, that was not the event’s intent.

Instead, the focus was on promoting awareness, coordinating public I and private measures, and extending the reach of prevention to include the I home, school, and local community. For his part, President Reagan I underlined the involvement theme. Speaking only days after urging Americans to participate in a new national anti-drug effort, the President called the use of illegal drugs and the abuse of alcohol “everybody’s business.”

“It’s time to stand up and be counted,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the September 10, 1986 edition of Education Week as ‘Drug Epidemic’ Sparks Unprecedented Meeting