Wall Street Journal, December 31, 2007, p. A13.
In his 1996 autobiography, “Dreams from My Father,” presidential candidate Barack Obama admitted using alcohol and drugs in high school. He was unusually frank compared to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — to name just two politicians reputed to have used drugs.
Mr. Obama raised the issue again in November in Manchester, N.H. In response to a request by Central High School’s principal that he reveal his “human side,” he discussed his high school years in Hawaii: “I was kind of a goof-off. . . . There were times when I got into drinking and experimented with drugs.” He added that he had righted himself to become a “grind” by the end of college.
Then an influential New Hampshire Democrat and Hillary Clinton supporter, Bill Shaheen, said Mr. Obama’s drug use made him vulnerable to attacks from Republicans. Mr. Shaheen quickly retracted his remarks, but voter attention was directed to the candidate’s teen behavior just weeks before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses and Jan. 8 New Hampshire primary.
Are there many other prominent people who used illicit substances when young? Messrs. Bush and Clinton are likely only the tip of the iceberg.
According to the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future Survey, in 2007 about half of high school seniors had used an illegal drug. More than seven of 10 seniors had consumed alcohol, and 55% had been drunk. In fact, 44% drank alcohol in the past month. These figures rise and fall over the years: In 1980, the spring of Mr. Obama’s 18th year, two-thirds of seniors had used an illicit drug and more than 70% had consumed alcohol in the past month.
There has been massive drug and underage alcohol use by Americans over the years — more than 110 million Americans, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, have used illicit drugs. Yet the overwhelming majority of them — like Messrs. Bush, Clinton and Obama — have grown up to be productive citizens. Some believe there’s no need to know about their youthful misconduct.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney takes this one step further. “It’s just not a good idea,” he said, “for people running for president of the United States, who potentially could be the role model for a lot of people, to talk about their personal failings while they were kids, because it opens the doorway to other kids thinking, ‘Well I can do that too.'”
Well, this is not the whole story. Neural research indicates that adolescent brains program kids to try risky behaviors. It is unlikely we will soon prevent large numbers of teens from drinking and using drugs. Yet, subtracting the approximately 20 million current drug users from the 110 million plus people who once used, almost 100 million Americans have left drugs behind. Perhaps it can be good for young people to learn that as they mature they can, and will, straighten out and fly right?
This is the opposite of the approach of nearly all school drug education programs. Here the logic is to troop in people who have ruined their lives by their drug use and drinking, as object lessons in the evils of sin. But there are reasons to believe that kids reject negative messages from figures like these, and that purely scare tactics don’t work. Research on effective drug resistance programs finds that the best ways to prevent substance abuse are for kids to develop skills, feel good about themselves, have positive peers, and look forward to their futures.
From this perspective, Mr. Obama’s message that he briefly stumbled but then righted himself to achieve success may be just what the doctor ordered.
Dr. Peele is a psychologist and addiction expert, and the author of “Addiction-Proof Your Child” (Three Rivers Press, 2007).