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Privacy Legislation in Congress Could
Wind Up Hindering Research on Drug Use

Christopher S. Wren
The New York Times

May 19, 1996

Research into illegal drug use by American adolescents could be stifled by legislation pending in Congress that requires written parental consent before minors are interviewed about their personal habits, social scientists and some anti-drug advocates say.

The Family Privacy Protection Act, as the legislation is called, passed the House of Representatives last year and awaits only a final vote by the Senate. A legacy of the Contract With America, the Republican manifesto from the 1994 Congressional elections, it was intended to shield children from questions about sex and other personal matters. But the law as now written, which 14 Republican members of Congress co-sponsored, would also prohibit adolescents from being asked about drugs unless their parents approved in writing.

"I think that this bill promises to close the major window through which we gain an understanding of our young people and their problems, and it will leave us conducting the war on drugs largely in the dark," said Lloyd D. Johnston, the program director of the University of Michigan's Survey Research Center, whose Monitoring the Future Study annually tracks the use of illegal drugs, alcohol and cigarettes among 50,000 junior and senior high school students.

Dr. Johnston said the problem is that many adults do not bother to return the consent forms mailed to them, leaving a potential sample so reduced as to be virtually unusable. The findings could not be reconciled with previous ones from a broader baseline and would probably underrepresent adolescents more likely to use drugs through lack of parental concern.

Mark A. R. Kleiman, a specialist on drug policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, said that requiring parental consent in writing would cripple surveys of teen-age sex, drinking, smoking and truancy as well as drug use. "So we shouldn't find out anything that our kids are doing that we might be worried about," Professor Kleiman said sarcastically. "We also couldn't find out whether they believe in God, which some people think is important."

The Family Privacy Protection Act sailed through the House on April 4, 1995, with 225 Republicans and 192 Democrats recorded as voting for it and only 7 Democrats opposed. Some proponents seemed taken aback when they were asked over the last few days about the unintended consequence for drug surveys.

"Certainly that was not what we intended," said Todd Burger, the legislative director for Representative Benjamin A. Gilman of New York, a co-sponsor. "Maybe there needs to be some technical changes. For our part, we'll take a look at it."

Jeanne Lopatto, a spokeswoman for the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, said he backed the new legislation but was concerned about its effect on the drug surveys. "He has not yet decided what steps to take," she said.

Jill Kozeny, a spokeswoman for Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, chairman of a Senate caucus on narcotics control, said, "He is working to organize a compromise between protecting the fundamental rights of parents" and the need for long-term studies. She would not say what the compromise was.

Robert Charles, the chief counsel for the Subcommittee on National Security, International Affairs and Criminal Justice of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, said one option under discussion was "carving out" a pair of exemptions for Monitoring the Future and another nationwide survey of more than 200,000 adolescents by Parents' Resource Institute for Drug Education, a nonprofit group based in Atlanta and known as Pride.

Both surveys are used by the White House and Congress, as well as community anti-drug coalitions, health professionals and law-enforcement officials as the best indicators of adolescent drug trends. Monitoring the Future, which started 22 years ago, was the first to report a new surge in teen-age experimentation in 1992.

Dr. Johnston, the principal investigator for Monitoring the Future, said parents are already told beforehand of their children's participation and given the opportunity to withhold consent. When specifically asked, he said, only 1 or 2 percent of parents object to having their children queried about drug use.

Surveys at school are crucial, Dr. Johnston said, because teen-agers there are more candid about illegal drugs than they would be within earshot of their parents at home.

Doug Hall, the vice president of Pride, which has surveyed 5,500 school systems, said some districts had stopped cooperating for fear of the pending law.

"There's confusion as to what the intent of Congress is," Mr. Hall said. "It's created an environment where school boards are deciding they don't want to take a risk, so they're slowing down."

Even if the two leading surveys are granted waivers, the legislation could hurt other smaller studies, especially those aimed at drug use by minorities. Fred Beauvais, senior research scientist at Colorado State University, directs a survey that has tracked substance abuse among Native American youth since 1974.

"We survey close to 1,000 kids every year across the country," Professor Beauvais said. "We know what is going on with these kids."

If the law requires written consent from their parents, he said, "this is going to drastically bias the sample that I can get from Indian communities," adding, "We cannot compare it with the old material."

Skepticism of consent forms, Professor Beauvais said, was rampant on Indian reservations. "There is a natural wariness out there of signing off on anything," he said. "These people have had their land taken way from them."

When his colleague Randall Swaim conducted a similar inquiry into drug use by teen-age Mexican-Americans in California, where a state privacy law exists, fewer than 16 percent of the parents mailed back permission, Professor Beauvais said. Dr. Johnston said his own research at two inner-city schools with mostly black students drew responses from parents of only 16 and 17 percent.

Mr. Charles said another waiver under consideration would let parents give telephone approval for drug surveys. But, Mr. Hall said, "it's really not a compromise," because the increased cost could put some surveys like Pride's out of business. Dr. Johnston said the chore of making so many calls would fall on schools, discouraging them from cooperating.

Mr. Hall observed that many parents whose privacy the new law was drafted to protect asked for such surveys. Patricia Harmon, the executive director of Ohio Parents for Drug Free Youth, said her organization needed them to gauge the success of its prevention programs and to remain alert for new manifestations of drug abuse.

And Sue Rusche, the executive director of National Families in Action, which is based in Atlanta, said, "Without that warning system to let us know that we're doing well or poorly, we're lost."

"I think Congress just doesn't understand the impact of this part of the legislation," Mrs. Rusche said. She talked to some members of Congress and, she said, "they too are alarmed about some of the implications and willing to try to find a way."

The Partnership for a Drug-Free America, which depends on surveys to plan its advertising campaigns discouraging drug use, is also opposed to the new legislation. James E. Burke, the organization's chairman, complained about "the devastating, unintended consequences it will have on the field's ability to gather meaningful data on teen-age drug use in America."


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