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 Republicans' Contract With America, the act was intended to shield children from questions about sex and other matters. But the law as written, 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 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.
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," 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 seven Democrats opposed. Some proponents seemed taken aback when they were asked over the past few days about the unintended consequence for drug surveys.
"Certainly that was not what we intended," said Todd Burger, the legislative director for Rep. Benjamin Gilman of New York, a co-sponsor. "Maybe there need 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 Hatch, R-Utah, said that he backs the new legislation but is concerned about its effect on the drug surveys. "He has not yet decided what steps to take," she said.
Jill Kozeny, a spokeswoman for Sen. Charles 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 that 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 teenage experimentation in 1992.
Surveys at school are crucial, Johnston said, because teenagers there are more candid about illegal drugs than they would be within earshot of their parents at home.