Since the 1960s, school-based drug prevention programs for adolescents have relied on scare tactics, zero tolerance, and “just say no.” Last year the federal government spent $2.4 billion on prevention, and a new billion-dollar campaign has recently been launched. Still, by the time they graduate from high school, half of American teenagers will have used illegal drugs. Students often fail to take drug education programs seriously, doubting the validity of their information.
Many educators, health professionals, and parents are seeking alternatives that strongly promote abstinence while providing a fallback strategy of honest, science-based education for teenagers who say "maybe" or "sometimes" or "yes." This "Just Say Know" approach provides sound information as the basis for responsible decision-making, a reduction in drug abuse, and ultimately the promotion of safety.
Drug education has existed in America for over a century. It has utilized a variety of methods, from scare tactics to resistance techniques, in the effort to prevent young people from using drugs. Nonetheless, teenagers continue to experiment with a variety of substances. Despite the recent expansion of drug prevention programs, it is very difficult to know which, if any, “work” better than others. The assumptions that shape conventional programs render them problematic: that drug experimentation constitutes deviance; that drug use is the same as drug abuse; that marijuana constitutes the “gateway” to “harder” substances; that exaggeration of risks will deter experimentation.
The main reasons many students fail to take programs seriously, and continue to experiment with drugs, is that they have learned for themselves that America is hardly “drug-free”; there are vast differences between experimentation, abuse, and addiction; and the use of one drug does not inevitably lead to the use of others.
While youth abstinence is what we’d all prefer, this unrealistic goal means programs lack risk reduction education for those 50% who do not “just say no.” We need a fallback strategy of safety first in order to prevent drug abuse and drug problems among teenagers.
Educational efforts should define “drugs” broadly, to include both illegal and legal substances. Programs should acknowledge teens’ ability to make reasoned decisions; differentiate between use and abuse; and stress the importance of moderation and context. Curricula should be age-specific, stress student participation and provide science-based, objective educational materials. In simple terms, it is our responsibility as parents and teachers to engage students and provide them with credible information so they can make responsible decisions, avoid drug abuse, and stay safe.