U.S. drug czar Bob Martinez visited MacArthur Middle School in Anne Arundel County yesterday to thank students for just saying no and helping reduce drug use among teen-agers.
"You have made a difference as to what's happening in America," said Mr. Martinez, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. "Why? You have listened to what happens when you use drugs.
"Since 1988, all over the country, young people ages 12-17 have reduced drug use by 27 percent. You truly are the stars of dealing with a problem in America by saying, 'I'm smarter than I used to be because I have more information than I used to,' " he added.
Mr. Martinez spoke to about 500 seventh-graders at the school. All county seventh-graders receive information on alcohol, nicotine, prescription drugs and over-the-counter drugs as part of a science unit on drug education.
A former teacher in Tampa, Fla., Mr. Martinez said visiting the school was like "coming full circle" for him.
"I last taught on a regular basis in 1966, and this is when drug use began to soar," he said. "We didn't know how to talk about it then."
Mr. Martinez said the government has since learned the best way to treat drug abuse is to prevent it from beginning.
"The use of drugs rings contrary to everything we want as a human being," he said. "The use of hard drugs limits your opportunities to succeed.
"There's no need to experiment with a product everyone knows will hurt you," Mr. Martinez said. "There's no sense in having a short-term gain for long-term pain."
The U.S. spends about $12 billion annually on drug-related education, treatment and incarceration, Mr. Martinez said. But the amount of money spent on the programs does not compare to the cost of not having them, he said. "It's a drop in the bucket compared to what we lose when people use drugs. We lose people. This is a tremendous cost."
Mr. Martinez said he understood the pressures young teen-agers face.
"No matter how you may be tempted, just remember your enthusiasm, your drive. Your goals do not require you to alter your chemistry with some chemical," he said. "Be a leader. Be drug-free. Don't be a follower."
Following his speech, Mr. Martinez fielded some tough questions from his young audience. One asked if his home state of Florida had a drug problem. Another asked how drug use began.
Mr. Martinez said legalizing drug use would be disastrous.
"It used to be legal to sell cocaine and heroin up until 1914," he said. "We tried [legalization] once and it was a failure. You know why? The people were taking more of the drugs."
Jordan Montgomery and Laura Lewis, both 13, said students their age need to hear more about the dangers of drug abuse, but not just from officials like Mr. Martinez.
"Sometimes kids get bored just listening to someone speak," Jordan said.
However, Laura added, "If it's someone who used to do drugs and can tell us why they started and what they went through, then it's more meaningful."