Just Say NO? It’s Better to Get Real About Drugs

I dropped by my son’s elementary school the other morning for D.A.R.E. graduation, a ceremony that capped weeks of anti-drug lessons taught by a local police officer. There were awards, speeches and a printed program for which each kid had penned a few sentences about why he or she would stay away from drugs.

As part of their Drug Abuse Resistance Education, the kids wrote mostly about their visions of adult life, and how drugs would derail their dreams of becoming scientists, singers or professional athletes. As a dad, I was glad to
hear their confidence. But as a journalist who has written a lot about substance abuse, I was a little uneasy.
That’s because I knew that a lot of these pledges, judging by the authoritative monitoring the Future survey on teen drug and alcohol use, will eventually be abandoned. By the end of high school, half of all students have gotten drunk.
Half have used illegal drugs, and a quarter have used something other than marijuana.

Substance abuse education has come a long way since my school days in the 1980s, with scientific facts generally replacing the Just Say No scare tactics I grew up with. But given the continuing abuse, I have to wonder: Can any classroom lesson really make a difference?

Sociologist Marsha Rosenbaum, who has studied drug education, said the research into that question is not comforting.

“What happens in reality is that kids go through different phases,” said Rosenbaum, a consultant with the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates for liberalized drug laws. “Fifth-graders can make a declaration (that they’ll never use drugs) and really mean it, and that’s good. But what happens is by the time they get to high school, junior high sometimes, the world is much bigger, and they actually get confronted with substances. These declarations become, ‘Well, when you’re a kid you say that, and then real life happens.’

“Is anything effective? Early messages are effective for a while. What’s effective for junior high or high school? I don’t think anybody really knows.”

The scientific papers I looked through told the same story, with most finding that school-based prevention programs have either modest or non-existent effects. I guess that should come as no surprise, given the strong currents that push young people toward drugs and alcohol.

They range from an entertainment culture that portrays booze and pot as tickets to fun times to a medical establishment that furnishes a pill for everything to a basic human urge for intoxication. Combine those with a still-developing adolescent brain that’s not exactly optimized for sound decision-making, and some level of substance abuse seems inevitable.

Rosenbaum, who raised two children in San Francisco, said it’s not fair to expect already overburdened teachers to take the lead in preventing that problem, and it’s not realistic to believe that complete temperance can be achieved. Instead, she advocates what she calls a “reality-based approach” that focuses on lowering the risks.

“Abstinence would be everybody’s choice, but if you can’t have abstinence, what’s your fallback?” she said. “For me, it’s always safety.”

She has distilled her philosophy into a 28-page pamphlet in which she emphasizes communication between parents and children and information that is “scientifically grounded and balanced.” She writes that kids should be taught to not ride with intoxicated drivers and to call 911 if a friend is having a bad reaction to drugs or alcohol. They should also be informed of the possible legal and social consequences of their choices.

All of that is good advice, but I’m still hopeful that the right educational formula is out there. After all, efforts to keep kids from smoking, driving while intoxicated and engaging in risky sexual practices have made a huge difference
over the past 20 years.

But to Rosenbaum’s point, leaving drug and alcohol education up to the schools is not sufficient. Moms and dads have to do their part, too, relaying information and expectations not just once, but frequently. We can’t expect D.A.R.E. officers, classroom teachers or anyone else to do our work for us.

“The job of the drug conversation really falls on the parents,” Rosenbaum said. “The bottom line is parents and kids really understanding the effects of any substance that’s ingested. It’s a tough job, but I don’t think there’s any
way of avoiding it.”

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