The War on Drugs: The Parent Movement and Zero Tolerance

The Movement faulted popular culture for luring innocent kids into drug abuse and promoted the idea that all users were without any ambition.

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Stumbling around YouTube the other day, I came across this incredible video of an interview with Frank Zappa, recorded by Canada's CBC Television on Valentine's Day in 1971. Interviewer Ralph Thomas asks Zappa what the drug culture had done to the youth of America.

"It's taken away a lot of their ambition," Zappa explained. "I think we have yet to reap the so-called benefits of the acid generation as the burn-outs begin to turn up more frequently." Thomas continued, asking if rock music contributed to this change. Was radio a "propaganda vehicle for the way drugs have been sold?" "Certainly," Zappa replied. Radio, both AM and independent stations, have "definitely assisted in the popularization of various forms of drugs."

When I found this video, my jaw dropped. Finally, after years of searching, I knew the answer to the age-old riddle, what do Frank Zappa and the Parent Movement have in common? As it turns out, the answer is: a lot. Both faulted a powerful popular culture (movies, television, and rock & roll) for luring innocent kids into drug abuse, and both found the results similarly upsetting: Drug-using kids showed a frightening lack of ambition (later known as 'amotivational syndrome'), and a tendency to take both a metaphoric and a literal "stumble down the stairs."

It wasn't until five years after Zappa's prescient interview, however, that the Parent Movement debuted on the national scene. In the summer of the nation's bicentennial, as Americans celebrated with parades, festivals, and fireworks, Marsha 'Keith' Manatt Schuchard and her husband, Ronald, found, to their horror, that their 13-year-old daughter was smoking pot. In a tale that has since become the origin story in Parent Movement mythology, Keith and Ron threw their daughter a birthday party in hopes that it might shake the girl's newly-acquired saturnine mood. Instead, they discovered that their daughter was only one of the many red-eyed pot-smoking youths that inhabited the wealthy suburbs of Atlanta -- and the rest of them were apparently gathered in the Schuchard's backyard. During the party, as pre-teens stumbled in and out of the house or huddled in groups in the darkened periphery of the lawn, the food went uneaten and Keith got increasingly concerned. This, she realized, was why her previously bright and happy daughter had become morose and withdrawn: drugs.

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By 1 a.m. Keith and Ron were out, scouring the lawn in their pajamas, flashlights in hand, searching for proof that their daughter was going down a dangerous path. Marijuana "roaches," empty bottles of Mad Dog 20/20, and other drug- and alcohol-related ephemera littered the yard, filling the Schuchards with terror and inspiring Keith to launch a grassroots social movement that would dramatically change the war on drugs for the next 30 years. What began as a small organization of concerned parents in Keith Schuchard's living room morphed with unprecedented speed into an influential nationwide gestalt. Led by organizations like National Families in Action -- organized by Schuchard's friend Sue Rusche in 1978 -- and the Parents' Resource Institute on Drug Education (PRIDE) -- formed by Schuchard and Buddy Gleaton in 1977 -- activists like Keith oversaw the formation of thousands of individual parent groups across the nation. Over 4,000 of these groups had formed by 1983, and by Ronald Reagan's second term as president, they were influencing national drug policy.

With "Parent Power" as their rallying cry, the movement promoted a zero-tolerance approach to youth drug use and stressed prevention and anti-drug education for children and parents alike. The groups decried the "commercialized and glossily packaged popular youth culture" that Schuchard saw stemming from the overly-liberal 1960s, and worked to counteract anything that presented drug use as fun and cool, or as undermining "traditional adult authorities who could nurture a young person's ability to reject drug use." These groups feared that drug use by children as young as 11 and 12 would result in a generation of Americans stunted physically, emotionally, biologically, and morally. Taking Schuchard's 1979 NIDA-produced publication Parents, Peers, and Pot as their sacred text, they decided that "parents are a child's main defense against the pressures [to experiment with drugs], but parents need to recognize that they are up against powerful social and economic forces. They may face a hard struggle in helping their child to be drug-free, but the struggle will be worthwhile."

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Emily Dufton is a Ph.D. candidate at George Washington University, where she works as a teaching assistant in GW's University Writing Program. She served in the Peace Corps in Niger, West Africa, where she worked as an agriculture extension agent.

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