Sixteen-year-old Chad Barnes found himself pinned face down on a cold tile floor, his arms and legs stretched out from his body. Four other boys were holding him, pressing so hard that Chad screamed in anger. Just a few moments before, Chad had tried to start a fight in the gymnasium-size meeting room of one of the toughest adolescent drug-treatment programs in the country: Straight, the program chosen by Republican gubernatorial nominee Clayton Williams to cure his own son.
Chad, a wiry boy with eyes the color of coffee, was furious over the way a veteran in the program, known as an oldcomer, had confronted him. “You’re lying to us, Chad!” the older teenager had yelled. “You’re not working the program! You’re holding the rest of us back, Chad!” Chad had shouted an obscenity and shoved another kid next to him, and within seconds, other teenagers had thrown him down. Anyone who rebels at Straight is quickly restrained by oldcomers or by recent graduates working as counselors. Wild-eyed, like a trapped animal, Chad tried to shake loose. A “first phaser” like himself—someone in the first level—couldn’t take one step anywhere in the building without an oldcomer holding on to one of his back belt loops. He couldn’t even use the bathroom without someone watching him.
At Straight, kids who don’t admit to having a drug-oriented lifestyle are yelled at by the other kids until their defenses are broken. Nearly 120 young people, ages 12 to 22 and in various stages of treatment, spend almost the entire day in this windowless room in a brick office complex in the Dallas suburb of Irving. For nearly twelve hours each day, they must sit erect in blue plastic chairs, not speaking or standing or making eye contact with another person without permission. Those who misbehave are held back in their chairs or, like Chad, spread-eagled on the floor. The theory at Straight is that kids on drugs are more likely to accept therapy from peers who have been through the program than from adults who have not. A fourteen-year-old program with treatment centers in nine U.S. cities, Straight has been called the best program of its kind in the country. Clayton Williams was so impressed with Straight that he wants the state to spend at least $50 million for adolescent-treatment centers based on Straight principles.
But others are not so impressed. Acting on complaints from parents and teenagers who had been through the program, the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse launched an investigation last year to determine whether Straight abuses kids. The head of a rival treatment program calls Straight “fiercely controlling” and questions its long-range success. “It decides what a kid’s identity is going to be and then does all the thinking for him,” says Mike Townley of Bedford Meadows psychiatric hospital in Bedford, a dozen miles west of Straight. “By the time a kid gets out of the program, he really has trouble thinking for himself.”
The controversy over Straight underscores a dirty little secret: Our vast drug-treatment system, with its armies of therapists, medical conferences, and marketing strategies, doesn’t really know what it’s doing. Even though hospitals and treatment centers bombard the public with haunting commercials about costly state-of-the-art treatment programs and claim that they have high success rates, one jarring statistic is always left out: According to the latest independent research, about 80 percent of the adolescents who complete such programs will, within a year, relapse and return to drugs, regardless of the program they attended.
Adolescent drug treatment is portrayed as a science, but in reality, it is a huge psychosocial laboratory, where therapists attempt an array of experiments—from fierce behavior-modification techniques to ancient superstitious practices, from chemical aversion to spiritual conversion—just to see what it takes to keep the laboratory mice, our kids, from wanting to get high. Considering this is where the real war on drugs will eventually be fought—people must learn not to want drugs—the results so far haven’t been exactly impressive. There is very little good scientific evidence that any of these programs really work.
By the time Chad Barnes arrived at Straight, he was already a savvy player in the drug-treatment game. Having been to three treatment centers since the age of twelve, Chad knew exactly what to say and how to act in order to make his counselors and his parents believe he was turning his life around. He could talk about life’s pressures and family problems. He had mastered all of the Alcoholics Anonymous phrases. For him, like many of his peers, going to a treatment center was a rite of passage. Invariably, however, within days of his release from each facility, Chad would be back with his old friends, happily using a variety of drugs.
But Straight was unlike anything Chad Barnes had ever seen—a modern-day Lord of the Flies, where teenagers control other teenagers. The other boys finally released Chad, only to slam him into his chair, and the group therapy continued. Another boy, Will, was asked to stand up, and an oldcomer began telling him that he wasn’t being honest about his drug use. Will seemed to lose it. He leapt over his chair, screaming at the group to leave him alone, and then rushed toward the girls’ side of the room, causing two girls to smash backward into one another and start fighting. Suddenly, Chad was up again, his jaws clenched, and he stepped toward another teenager, letting fly a hard right that would have knocked even a grown man off his feet. By then, a small riot was breaking out. Another boy took a swing at someone, and a couple of boys tried to escape out the back door. More counselors and other adults poured