I’m 12 years old, sitting near the front of my 6th grade classroom next to Kevin, the “cutest boy in our class,” according to the clique of lipgloss-wearing leg-shavers that have recently inducted me into their club. Gangly Officer So-and-So, dressed in full police uniform with a prominent “D.A.R.E.” (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) badge pinned to his chest, has just finished blathering about the terrifying health risks of the big, bad, dangerously addictive “gateway drug,” marijuana.
We girls have been sneaking notes back and forth discussing Officer So-and-So’s goofy tone of voice and the way his nostrils flare up whenever he drops the phrase “peer pressure.”
“Now, April,” he says, snapping me out of a scribbled description of his glistening bald patch. “Kevin here is going to pretend to offer you marijuana, in front of all of your friends. You might feel pressured to smoke it in order to blend in or seem cool, but here’s what you’re gonna do: Just say no!”
After Kevin and I blush our way through the forced skit, Officer So-and-So turns to the room. “Say it with me everyone: JUST SAY NO.” The class giggles its way through an unenthusiastic echo. We’re giggling because, even at 11 and 12 years old, we can sense that this presentation is way over-the-top. For one, there’s Officer So-and-So with his skits and Hellfire-and-Brimstone-esque lectures. For another, a couple of the kids in our class have older siblings who smoke marijuana. Most of us have met them, and they seem totally fine.
Thirteen years later, it turns out my 6th grade classmates and I weren’t the only ones snickering at the D.A.R.E. program. According to recent data, the program simply doesn’t work. As Scientific American reported in December of 2013, data indicates “that the program does little or nothing to combat substance use in youth.” This is largely because teens, and tweens, can see through the exaggerations and false claims the program promotes. Several studies by psychologists and public health professionals pointed to D.A.R.E.’s significant shortcomings as early as 2002, and, a 2009 mathematical review by statisticians looked at 20 controlled studies, concluding that teens enrolled in D.A.R.E. were just as likely to use drugs as those not enrolled (you can find more details on these studies in the Scientific American piece).
The program was touted as the best way for parents and teachers to educate kids about drugs from the day First Lady Nancy Reagan first uttered “just say no” in a 1982 speech. Responding to reports of increased and problematic adolescent drug use, classrooms everywhere worked with local law enforcers to fast track a mass rollout of the D.A.R.E program. Unfortunately, despite knowing what we now know, many schools continue to use D.A.R.E. today as there are few alternate guides available to parents and teachers.
As marijuana legalization spreads (23 states and Washington, D.C. have legalized medical marijuana; four states and Washington, D.C. have passed adult-use laws), with it spreads an awareness that the herb is relatively safe with a low rate of addiction and proven medical uses. Kids are bound to pick up on that and start asking questions. Meanwhile, the use of truly addictive and potentially life-threatening drugs, such as heroin and methamphetamines, is rising to epidemic levels nationwide, and there is a glaring gap when it comes to realistic teen drug education.
So, if “just say no,” doesn’t work, what are parents (and educators) supposed to do? The “drug talk” is among the most awkward conversations parents face with their teens, but they’re left with misguided, faulty advice for broaching the subject.
To address that very issue, Marsha Rosenbaum, PhD and mother, wrote the educational booklet Safety First: A Reality-Based Approach to Teens and Drugs. Rosenbaum is director emerita for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and began her career as a research scientist at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), where she conducted a number of studies on addiction, drug abuse and treatment. When her own children approached their teen years, she became particularly interested in the issue of adolescent drug abuse.
“I learned, when my kids became teenagers and had school programs, that the drug education they were receiving in school was chock full of inaccuracies and scare tactics,” she said, speaking on a panel of experts organized around the new release of Safety First. “My daughter, for example, a precocious child, came home from school announcing to me that she was a D.A.R.E. graduate, she knew everything there was to know about drugs now in a couple of lessons, and that I may not be aware of this but, ‘Mom, when a person smokes marijuana, soon they will become a heroine addict.’”
She continued, “This struck me because I had been studying heroin addiction and I knew that these scare tactics didn’t work. I became concerned about what the kids were actually learning in school and what we might be able to do about it. I also knew that other parents like me were struggling with ways to communicate with their teenagers about drugs — how to open this very difficult conversation and how to keep it going.”
While Dr. Rosenbaum says while there was never any argument over the fact that parents want their teens to abstain from drug use, the existing model contained no fallback plan in case they did try drugs.
“We needed … a plan B, if you will, that would keep them safe, and had safety as the bottom line,” she said.
She created Safety First in 1999 and distributed it online and through the million member California State Parent Teacher Association (PTA). She has since updated the booklet as times and drug laws change.
A new version of Safety First came out this month, with updates focused primarily on the changing attitudes and laws surrounding cannabis.
“I had to address new concerns,” she said on the DPA panel. “What about the information we were getting about the developing adolescent brain? What about marijuana potency? What about the edibles? And finally, marijuana legalization. It seems to be inevitable. So, what should parents be thinking about, talking about and learning about regarding teens and drugs in 2014?”
Also on the DPA panel discussing Safety First were Jerry Otero, MA, DPA’s youth policy manager and former assistant director of Helpline and Family Services for the Partnership at Drugfree Kids; Kassandra Frederique, MSW, policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance; and Amanda Reiman, PhD and marijuana law and policy manager for Drug Policy Alliance.
Here are three tips for parents to keep in mind when approaching their kids about drugs, from Safety First and the experts on the panel:
1. Stick to honest, science-based information. Avoid over-the-top warnings you’ve heard on the news, but look for signs of deeper issues.
Amanda Reiman holds a doctorate in social welfare and teaches classes on drug policy at the University of California, Berkeley. She said DPA feels strongly that marijuana use is not appropriate for adolescents and that “it is a behavior, just like other drug use, that adolescents should delay as long as possible. The longer you can delay any kind of initiation into substance use, the less risk you have for that use becoming problematic.”
That said, she explained how the media has largely gone overboard in its analysis of the recent research on marijuana and the adolescent brain. While the research points to a correlation between teen marijuana use and differences in brain structure, there is no evidence that marijuana caused those differences.
“There has been a misdiagnosis, you might say, in the media in the difference between correlation and causation,” she said.
She said heavy and regular marijuana use in teens is often a symptom of a greater problem, so parents should look out for things like mental health issues, problems with peers, or biological issues a young person might be using marijuana to self-medicate for.
“As we emerge from this fog of drug-related propaganda and fear-based information, adolescents as well as adults are really seeking reliable, valid information about what the research says about drug use,” she said.
2. Make safety a priority in every conversation. If your kids do end up experimenting with drugs, encourage moderation.
Safety First suggests, rather than focusing the conversation around peer pressure or exaggerated health risks, voice your concerns for your teen’s safety. Let them know they can talk to you about drugs, and that you’ll be there for them no matter what. At the same time, focus the conversation on their own personal responsibility to arm themselves with knowledge and make educated choices.
Jerry Oteiero, youth policy manager at DPA and former assistant director of the help line in Family Services for the Partnership for Drug Free Kids said the biggest concern he heard from parents on the help line was, “how hard it was for them to have an honest, straightforward conversations about drugs with their children, especially with their teens who had simply grown cynical about the exaggerated, misstated and often untrue nature of drug prevention information and programming.”
He said the lack of reliable, scientific information available led “well-meaning” adults to take drastic measures they wouldn’t normally take, like tough love.
“Now, no parent wants his teenager to use drugs, but since we know that some half of teens will experiment with some sort of substances before they finish high school, to prevent adolescents who do experiment from falling into these abusive patterns, we need to create fallback strategies that focus on safety,” he said. “What we need is reality based approaches to education to foster open, honest dialogue about the risks and consequences of drug use.”
3. Help them understand the realistic legal and social consequences of drug use.
It’s important to help educate teens about the potential consequences of drug use beyond personal health. This is especially key in communities of color, as Kassandra Frederique, policy manager in the New York office of the Drug Policy Alliance pointed out. Frederique works on a range of issues including ending racially biased marijuana arrests and policing practices and holds a masters degree in social work from Columbia University.
Because of the nature of the federal government’s drug policies, and policing practices in this country, non-white communities are at a significantly greater risk for arrest and other legal consequences that come with drug use (this is despite the fact that all races use drugs at similar rates, as a 2013 ACLU report details). Frederique said it’s important to be honest with teens about the criminalization of drug users, and how that might impact their own lives.
“As someone who is a young person of color that grew up in the New York City school system, my D.A.R.E. experience was quite different: We had a police officer who came in who wanted to talk to us about drugs, and we wanted to talk about criminalization,” she said. “It’s not just about the drugs, but the drug war as well, and the conversation has to be comprehensive if you want young people to respect it.”