All Commentary
Monday, January 1, 2001

Public Schools as Drug Delivery Systems

Thomas Szasz, M.D., is professor of psychiatry emeritus at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse. He is the author of Fatal Freedom.

One of the saddest aspects of America’s monstrous war on drugs is the way drug warriors justify their sadism and selfishness with the rhetoric of protecting “kids.” Our public schools not only fail to educate children, but also succeed in undermining the authority of parents as the proper guardians of their children’s health and welfare.

School authorities deprive children, against their parents’ wishes, of the self-controlled use of drugs for which they have genuine medical need and whose proper use they can competently monitor. For example, a 16-year-old high-school student gives her friend two Midol tablets to ease her menstrual discomfort. She is suspended for five days for carrying prohibited over-the-counter medication in her purse.

At the same time, school authorities encourage and force children, often against the parents’ wishes, to use drugs for which they have no rational medical need. Dispensing caffeine in vending machines and compelling children to take Ritalin are now accepted functions of the public school system.

Pushing Caffeine

Government at every level—local, state, and federal—supports our public schools. Like all public services, the quality of the service public schools render deteriorates in direct proportion to the quantity of the funds they receive. When no amount of tax money seemed enough to satisfy their bulimic appetite for funds, state lotteries were justified with the promise that their revenues would remedy the schools’ financial problems. We now spend some $500 billion annually on our schools and, not surprisingly, the experts tell us that our public schools are grievously underfunded. But not to worry, a solution is at hand.

Having been thoroughly corrupted by the courts and politicians, the schools were easy prey for the beverage industry. Companies such as Coke and Pepsi offer school districts a percentage of their sales in exchange for the exclusive right to sell their products. In the District of Columbia, for example, such a contract earns the school system up to $50,000 a month. Hundreds of school districts across the nation have chosen Coke or Pepsi as their exclusive soft-drink purveyor.

Dan DeRose, a broker of exclusive soft-drink contracts with schools, states: “Eventually every school of any size will have to ask the question: Can we do better in terms of revenue with the beverage contracts we now have? Does it make sense for us to walk away from the money Coke, Pepsi and the others will pay for an exclusive contract?”

Long before the Surgeon General discovered it, everyone knew that smoking cigarettes is not a healthy habit. Everyone knows that bubbly brown water sweetened with sugar and spiked with caffeine is not a health food. If cigarettes are “drug delivery systems,” then so are cans of Coke, Pepsi, Mountain Dew, and Surge, the latter so named because it has even more caffeine than the original cola drinks. And so too are the public schools themselves, hooking children on caffeine and Ritalin. Now schools encourage the use of addicting, mind-altering drugs the government endorses, while admonishing them about the hazards of drugs the government forbids. As in other aspects of life, adults may miss, or deny, the hypocrisy obvious to children.

Is Caffeine a Drug?

Caffeine is the most widely used drug in the world today. It is a central nervous system stimulant whose effects range from mild increase in alertness to jitteriness, hyperactivity, heightened anxiety, and even agitation. It also depletes calcium in bone and can cause diarrhea and increased urination. Its regular use can be habit-forming, users experiencing withdrawal symptoms 12 to 16 hours after the last dose, such as drowsiness, headaches, lethargy, irritability, disinterest in work, and depression.

The International Olympic Committee lists caffeine as a restricted drug. Urinary levels above 12 mg/liter are viewed as achieved through a deliberate attempt at doping and disqualify the athlete from performing.

The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IV list four types of “Caffeine-Related Disorders,” including “Caffeine Intoxication” and “Caffeine-Induced Anxiety Disorder.”

According to the National Soft Drink Association, the caffeine content, in mgs per 12-ounce can of soda, is as follows: Afri-Cola, 100.0; Jolt, 71.2, Mountain Dew, 55.0; Surge, 51.0; Coca-Cola, 45.6; and Pepsi Cola, 37.2. Jolt and Surge owe their popularity to their high caffeine content. A 12-ounce can of non-diet soda contains 120 to 200 “empty” calories. According to statistics from the Beverage Marketing Corporation, in 1970 annual soda consumption was 22.4 gallons per person; in 1998 it was 56.1 gallons per person. Childhood obesity rates are double of what they were 20 years ago, another golden opportunity for medical statists to flex their muscles.

The War on Drugs Is a War on the Family

The war on drugs is a pretext for replacing loyalty to family and friends with loyalty to the Therapeutic State. For example, after listening to an anti-drug lecture, a junior high school student walks into the police station carrying a trashcan bag containing an ounce of cocaine, small amounts of marijuana, and some pills. By sunrise, her father and mother are arrested and jailed. Then-first lady Nancy Reagan explained: “She must have loved her parents a great deal.” A 12-year-old girl turns her parents in to the police for growing marijuana and using cocaine. Declares a spokesman for the police: “She did the right thing. We don’t see this as turning in parents. We would rather view this as someone requesting help for their parents and for themselves.” The media report all this as if it were as ordinary as a weather forecast for a sunny summer day.

Betraying one’s parents was not enough. When he was the drug czar, William Bennett instructed high school students to tell on their friends: “It isn’t snitching or betrayal to tell an adult that a friend of yours is using drugs and needs help. It’s an act of true loyalty—of true friendship.”

Under the pretext of protecting children from “dangerous drugs,” we jazz them up with caffeine, calm them down with Ritalin, and tell them to “Just say no to drugs” and yes to betraying their family and friends. The use of Ritalin in toddlers underscores the point that, in the view of contemporary mental health experts, the very nature of the young child, especially if he is a male, is a disease requiring treatment.

As we sow, so shall we reap. When we hand our children over to the government at age five and tell them to pay attention in school, we get what we ask for—they will never really learn when or why to say no.

  • Dr. Thomas Szasz (1920-2012) was a Psychiatrist, academic, and champion of individual rights. He devoted much of his life to campaigning against many aspects of conventional psychiatry, in particular involuntary psychiatric treatment and commitment.