Brilliant Ways to Tell Kids the Truth About Drugs

With school back in session, many students across the country will file into classrooms to learn drug education or resistance training. But with shifting public perceptions and drug policy reforms in many states, drug education programs are entering a new landscape in which the punitive, zero-tolerance approach they once championed is increasingly being called into question.

Often, those programs are at odds with cultural perceptions, especially when paired against legal frameworks in states where marijuana has been legalized for both medical and recreational use. Advocates have called for reform, but divergence from the abstinence only approach can be a tricky issue given the target audience: kids.

Still, experts point to the failures of programs such as Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.), whose trademark zero-tolerance curricula is a point of reference for many, for getting teenagers off of drugs, as evidenced by evaluations from the Government Accountability Office, the American Psychological Association, and Office of the Surgeon General, which noted that "children who participate [in the traditional D.A.R.E. curriculum] are as likely to use drugs as those who do not participate."

Scare tactics

"We've used all sorts of scare tactics and punitive policies to persuade and coax young people to abstain [from drug use], and it doesn't work," according to Jerry Otero, Youth Policy Manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based policy advocacy group that has authored a report about the need for reality-based drug education and discipline reform

According to Otero, programs that emulate the Reagan era "Just Say No" ethos are drastically out of touch with not only the realities of teenage drug experimentation, but also the role of school in developing life skills. "Even the idea of school-based drug education is kind of at odds with itself, because school is a place where, presumably, students are encouraged to develop critical thinking. Drug education nested in a school does not involve critical thinking; it's all bent on messaging." 

Reality of teen drug use

The realities of teenage drug use are nuanced and can be difficult to concisely pin down. But advocates roundly seem to agree that older models of abstinence-only drug education do little to serve young people, many of whom see drug use or experimentation as a fact of growing up. While some recent research in the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research annual study on teen drug use, Monitoring the Future, shows marijuana use was up last year among college students, other recent numbers from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration show that teen marijuana use was relatively stable last year, even after Washington and Colorado implemented recreational laws. Moreover, the Monitoring the Future report showed daily, monthly, and annual marijuana use among 8th, 10th, and 12th graders was either slightly down or unchanged.

The question comes down to overall prevalence, which seems to be generally on the downturn, according to the SAMHSA study. That study found that regular marijuana use is decreasing, dropping by more than 50,000 reported regular users—teens who used marijuana 20 or more days per month—from 2013 to 2014. For reform advocates, many abstinence-focused programs that either rely on scare tactics or reinforce punitive retribution fail to engage drug use realities for young people in a productive way.

Related: The Real Reason Teens are Choosing Marijuana Over Cigarettes

These methods stretch back to early cliches of anti-drug education, like cartoons approved by George H. and Barbara Bush that prop up marijuana as the gateway to crack cocaine. But they still exist today. Following the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado in 2014, the state invested millions into an ad campaign targeting 12 to 15-year-olds, highlighting the potential dangers of marijuana on teenage brains, using the slogan "Don't be a Lab Rat," and installing life-sized rat cages in public places. Critics expressed doubts over the campaign's scare tactic style, and Colorado teens posted pictures of themselves smoking pot in the cages. In April, the state backed down, taking a more cautious approach that focuses on the risks marijuana poses when it comes to limiting the full extent of young people's potential. 

Some school-based education programs have taken steps to address new attitudes, and to move away from scare tactics and focus on knowledge and science-based prevention curricula. Even D.A.R.E., for example, mostly dropped marijuana from its list of high priority substances. Other programs, such as those run by Narcotics Overdose Prevention and Education (NOPE), seek to illuminate the dangers and consequences of drugs more commonly used among teens these days, including opioid painkillers. A program used in some Nebraska schools highlights lower usage rates among teens there, forgoing discipline-focused scare tactics. 

But advocates still find holes in reformed programs. According to Otero at the DPA, newer programs may have nuanced approaches to drug use, but the abstinence-centric message remains largely the same. And for young people living in an era of shifting drug perceptions, that discrepancy—grouping marijuana in with heroin, for example—ultimately belies programs' trustworthiness and, possibly, its efficacy in engendering an informed view of drug use.

The way forward is unclear, but clear steps could be taken to better prepare young people for the possibility of drug use, according to Otero.

"Very few of the programs—even the more progressive ones—provide any sort of harm reduction," he told ATTN: in a phone call. "We want [young people] to be safe, and we want them to be able to have had experiences where they are engaged in the process of thinking about alcohol, marijuana, and other drug use as life decisions and whether or not they are going to engage with them in a deliberate and intentional way."

Advocates like Otero are careful to highlight the fact that they are not promoting programs that teach teens how to get high—far from it. Rather, they emphasize the need for educational programs that not only reflect realities of drug use using scientifically-backed information, but also prioritize safety and restorative practices, distinguish between use and abuse, and generally shape a more sophisticated conversation around drug use. In Safety First: A Reality-Based Approach to Teens and Drugs, a DPA handbook outlining a "reality-based approach" to drug education, director emerita of organization's San Francisco branch Marsha Rosenbaum writes that an better program "should be based on sound science and acknowledge even the seemingly most reckless and impulsive teenager's ability to understand, analyze, evaluate, and take responsibility for their actions."

Still, drug education programs and curricula are far from uniform in the U.S., and few of them fully encompass reforms and approaches set out in guidebooks like Safety First. Those discrepancies will likely create strains as cultural perceptions change, and more states take steps to legalize marijuana, setting up potential clashes with abstinence-only type programs, advocates say, and though it's a landscape that is shifting slowly, the changes are fast and substantial enough to cause problems for antiquated education models. 

To learn more about the history of marijuana, and other drugs, check out this ATTN: video.