Fixing What’s Wrong With Drug Education

A recent survey conducted by Join Together a program of the Boston University School of Public Health shows that few teachers believe that alcohol and other drug prevention programs work. Only 2 percent of more than 3,700 respondents felt that their school-based prevention program is effective. The report says that teachers are skeptical of the prevention programs they deliver. It goes on to say that teachers cite the need more relevant study materials, more time to do prevention, more support, and more training.

Although more training and enhanced study materials would certainly do no harm, how does this change the current destructive belief permeating our schools and our culture that drug prevention doesnt work? It is not a matter of more time, more study materials, or more training, but a need for a fundamental change in how we define prevention, set prevention goals, and understand how children adopt and reinforce healthy and unhealthy behaviors.

For three decades the United States has been waging an expensive and ineffective drug war a war more political than practical. In 1993 the federal government spent $1.7 billion on the drug war and in 1999 17.9 billion. The most ubiquitous of drug education programs DARE (Drug Awareness Resistance Education) which was started in Los Angeles in 1983 is plagued by research showing its lack of effectiveness. DARE currently costs taxpayers between 1 and 1.3 billion dollars a year. In addition, the DARE programs premise that early drug education inoculates kids from future drug use in high school is both nave and lacking a fundamental understanding of child development. In the most recent survey of adolescent drug trends conducted by Monitoring the Future, 48% of 12th graders had a drink within the last thirty days and by the time a student graduates from high school nearly half have tried an illicit drug – most likely marijuana. While recent trends in drinking and drug use show decreases in most categories, underage drinking and most notably marijuana use remain a regular experience of teenage life. What have we gotten for our money? And how does the current drug education approach reflect the reality that most teenagers face every weekend?

Teenage drug use is normalized in our culture. By the time most teens reach high school, they accept alcohol and some drug use by their peers as a common social activity. The popular notion that drinkers and drug users are outcasts and deviants conveniently ignores the reality that many teens drink including student leadership, athletes, active and involved good students. Scare tactics and exaggerated drug effects only work when your audience does not have access to other information. This generation of students has more access to information than any other generation in time. This will most likely be the case for subsequent generations. Manipulation, coercion, and exaggerated claims are not tolerated by students.

Prevention programs need to support and validate those students who choose to delay their drinking and abstain from other drugs. Programs need to help students effectively communicate concerns to friends who may be experiencing problems with their drinking and drug use and to connect those friends to helping resources in the community. Finally, prevention programs need to offer suggestions to students to minimize the risks associated with drinking and drug use such as frequency and quantity of use. Promoting risk reduction strategies no more condones drinking than the suggestion of wearing a seat belt condones speeding.

We are in a crisis right now. It is not a drug crisis, but a crisis of belief and faith. We are loosing faith in the idea that we can be effective. We are giving in to the fear that any deviation from the path of abstinence-based zero tolerance education is an endorsement of drinking. The results of giving in to fear are the growing popularity of random drug testing programs, locker searches and drug sniffing dogs. We dont need to catch more kids, but to connect with more kids. We dont need to make an example of a student, but be examples for students of healthy living and compassionate care.