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Differing Opinions on Heroin Prevention:

Opinions differ in the United States on what causes the problem of drug abuse in general, and heroin abuse in particular, and these opinions have resulted in a variety of approaches to prevention.

"The approaches based on these opinions have developed through recent decades," explains the directors of the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic in San Francisco, "[with] one or another gaining ascendancy, depending often on the prevailing attitudes about drugs, politics, young people and a number of other factors."As additional abuse prevention approaches emerge, experts grow even more divided over how the nation's limited allocation of prevention funds should be spent.

Experts do widely agree on a few basic premises of heroin prevention.

One is the belief that heroin-abuse prevention is an extremely high-stakes endeavor, and that its primary objective should be to guard vulnerable children and teens from the drug's dangers. Another widely accepted premise is summed up by Barry McCaffrey, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy: "Since most drug users do not begin with heroin, but turn to heroin after using other drugs, the most useful heroin prevention efforts are those aimed at keeping young people away from [those other] drugs in the first place."Consequently, the prevention of heroin abuse and the prevention of the abuse of these so-called gateway drugs are often considered synonymous by prevention experts.

Yet another premise that is commonly embraced by experts holds that an ill-conceived drug abuse prevention strategy can be more than just ineffective; it can backfire and result in increased experimentation with a given drug. The potential for such a pitfall was demonstrated by the first drug abuse prevention effort in the United States. Launched during the 1930s, this strategy did feature some understanding of the link between the use of gateway drugs such as marijuana and eventual experimentation with potentially lethal drugs such as heroin. This approach featured little understanding of human nature, however, and sought to keep young people away from all drugs by using scare tactics, exaggerations, and falsehoods about marijuana. Reefer Madness, an educational film made by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics during the late 1930s, was the epitome of this prevention approach. "The film depicts the downfall of a promising young man after one puff of marijuana," author Mathea Falcon writes: "Instantly he becomes violent, abusive, and sexually aggressive, shocking his friends and his boss, and ending his chances for success. The message is clear: Marijuana has transformed a son of the middle class into a crazed criminal." Since, as was the case with illegal heroin use, illegal marijuana use prior to the 1960s occurred for the most part in lower-class, innercity areas, and out of the view of the majority of Americans, this image of the lunatic marijuana user prevailed in the United States for many years. During the early 1960s, however, the growing number of young people who were opposed to American involvement in the Vietnam War began to mistrust and question many of the standards and values long held by society. Among the many things they began to reevaluate was what they had been told about marijuana, and use of the drug began to trickle into the middle class.

As more and more teens discovered that the drug had been misrepresented, the damages of the scare tactics that had been employed for decades were twofold: not only was the legitimate harmfulness of marijuana use overshadowed by the absurd exaggerations, but the serious dangers that had been attributed to drugs such as heroin were dismissed by teens as more lies. Epidemics of both marijuana and heroin abuse occurred among teens during the 1960s, and the film Reefer Madness became a cult favorite among drug-using young people throughout the United States.

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