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Parents and society as a whole often use fear to keep youth from engaging in practices that adults see as dangerous. This can backfire, undermining trust and resulting in lost opportunities. …Like many of my peers, I was taught to fear drugs. In rebellion, some of my classmates began experimenting with marijuana in early high school. Once they realized that pot didn’t destroy their brains any more than alcohol did, many became vocal critics of the war on drugs, convinced that adults were trying to dupe them. Unfortunately, the all encompassing ‘drugs are bad’ message left no room for nuance, and I watched as some of my classmates began exploring cocaine and then crystal methamphetamine with the logic that these drugs must be equivalent to marijuana, since they had been lumped together in the war on drugs. I watched numerous classmates struggle with addiction for years. Looking back, I’m frustrated by how the fear-driven abstinence-only message regarding drugs left no room for meaningful conversation, let alone a framework for understanding abuse or addiction. When adults jump to fear and isolationism as their solution to managing risk, they often undermine their credibility and erode teens’ trust in the information that adults offer.”
– Dana Boyd (2014, pp. 125-26)

Billions of dollars have been poured into drug prevention programs over the last several decades, with very little to show for it. For example, DARE, the biggest and most ambitious drug prevention education program ever launched, has shown no long-term effect on drug use, despite reaching 25 million students and counting across 44 different countries. In fact, evidence suggests programs like DARE may actually increase use, by peaking curiosity and inviting rebellion. “I can’t tell you how many kids told me DARE introduced them to drugs,” says one official. Teens would often mock its infamous “This is your brain on drugs” commercials as they were getting high. (Hanson et al., 2004)

Much of the failure likely has to do with the fact that drug use is driven by broader social and environmental factors, which education programs don’t even begin to address. Therefore throwing a topical “education” program in the mix without actually touching the root causes of substance abuse is like rubbing non-poisonous leaves on top of a bad poison-ivy rash and thinking this will cure the problem.

Another reason these programs have proven ineffective is that they fail to provide factual, useful, or realistic information. The “Just Say No” campaigns are almost comical in their naïveté, issuing a hollow slogan in the style of a parental command without actually giving kids the tools to do this in a real-life situation. Nor do they help kids honestly understand the dangers. Like the abstinence-only sex (miss)education programs in school, they attempt to control children’s behavior by scaring them rather than offering the type of nuanced information that would help them make better decisions. The fact that programs like DARE are typically presented by police officers also sends the wrong message, putting a wide and impersonal barrier between kids and the message.

“The research literature says doing exaggerated claims and scare tactics don’t work very well for prevention,” says Richard Rawson, a professor in addiction studies at the UCLA School of Medicine. (Verini, 2009) Hanson, Venturelli and Fleckenstein agree, saying that “education based on scare tactics is not likely to dissuade adolescents from experimenting with drugs. Adolescents are at a point in their lives when they feel invincible, and graphically depicting the potential health consequences of drug and alcohol use has little impact.” (2004, p. 102)

Drug prevention education that works

I don’t believe the situation is as helpless as past results would have us believe, especially for kids who don’t have any of the other risk factors for substance abuse. While all drug prevention programs are limited in what they can accomplish, since no amount of education or messaging will counteract the other powerful forces that can pull a child down into addiction, we can be doing a lot better than we have been.

In order to be effective, drug prevention education has to provide honest information to kids, and it needs to address topics that pertain to a child’s life and that are realistic about the situations they are likely to encounter. There’s no reason to hype up the fear or exaggerate the risks; the actual consequences of addiction and drug use provide plenty of disincentive on their own so long as you convey these risks in an honest way.

Drug prevention education should address a number of concepts, each of which is discussed in detail in our e-book:

  • The illusion of drugs: The idea that substances provide a false sense of empowerment or relief from one’s problems while digging someone into a deeper pit of despair.

  • How people fall into addiction: Kids need to understand how easy it is to slide into addiction; that it’s an accidental process that can happen to anyone, and how to spot the warning signs that they’re headed for trouble.

  • A truthful and realistic portrayal of the risks involved in drug use.

  • How to abstain when you want to under real-world circumstances.

  • Why people use drugs.

  • Information on overdosing, including what leads to an overdose, recognizing an overdose in a friend and how to respond.

  • The process of habituation and how drugs mess with our emotional chemistry.

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