How D.A.R.E. You!

Just Say Know: Talking with Kids about Drugs and Alcohol
By Cynthia Kuhn Ph.D., Scott Swartzwelder Ph.D., Wilkie Wilson Ph.D.

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The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) has outlined its strategy towards drug education, one that shifts dramatically from the “Tough on Crime” Drug War rhetoric of the 1980’s and instead refocuses toward more lenient drug-crimes sentencing and “drug market intervention”, meaning people busted for drug-related crimes who are otherwise nonviolent will be dealt with in more of a sense of rehabilitation than criminalization.

While I applaud this great leap out of the past by the National Drug Control Policy, it doesn’t go far enough to have a real impact on drug abuse in the United States. What is both sorely needed and severely lacking is effective drug education.

In the late 90’s, I like other middle-schoolers was a student in a Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) class. Up until that point I saw DARE as a rite of passage, something that separated the children from the adolescents in my small Catholic K-8 school. Then the program started. A tall, broad-shouldered Viking police officer complete with gun and baton entered our classroom and our teacher demurely took her seat for the next 45 minutes.

He was there to compassionately scare us, and I believe he really believed what he was doing was helping. The first day in DARE we watched a video about a bunny who gets high by huffing household cleaning supplies and paint cans. The bunny’s eyes glaze over and begin swirling as the drugs take hold of his brain. The bunny no longer exists in the pastel paradise of cartoon-land, but has descended instead into a dark red place where everything is wrong, miserable. We are told this is a drug “low” as compared to a drug “high”.

Of course, this rocked my world; I had had no idea I could get high off of everyday items found conveniently at home. My friend and I would later dig through our parents’ garages looking for things to huff and get us high. Or low; it really didn’t matter. It also didn’t matter that huffing made the bunny’s life hell. A police officer had just told us NOT to do something, which in our pubescent minds meant we had to get our hands on it.

I never did like huffing, but I never did like pandering either. I also understand today how lucky I am that I didn’t swallow the wrong pill or huff the wrong can of chemicals. I was lucky, but there were also a handful of my peers who died drinking cough syrups or using other household items as drugs. Why did we do it? I would argue that, just like sex education, we weren’t properly informed.

Drug education in this country is absolutely abysmal. It follows the same fallacy as sex education, that 100% honest dialogue about drugs will only encourage their use. Today, we attempt to scare children away from drugs by shielding them from drug realities and instead using prison and death as deterrence.

By the time I tried marijuana I realized I had been lied to. Marijuana didn’t instill deep cravings for heroin or cocaine, but instead for fruity cereals and funny movies with my friends. But wasn’t this the same marijuana they equated to drug huffing bunnies and needle slamming beagles with high-top haircuts? It was, and that lie was the most potent of all.

If we want to really make inroads at tackling America’s drug abuse problem we need more dialogue centered on facts. We need to tell our kids that people use drugs because the drugs feel good to them. We need to educate them on the differences between substances. Some drugs, like marijuana, have low risk of dependence and cannot kill you. Some drugs, like heroin, may feel good in the moment but are highly addictive and can kill you. Some drugs, like alcohol, may be fun to use but can impair your judgment in social settings and can be lethal when combined with the velocity of a speeding car.

Honesty admits that drugs are fun because it accepts the fact that children will grow into teenagers and young adults who will be exposed to drugs and drug users, and as a parent the best anyone can do is hope their children are educated enough to make the right decisions.

Years later it would be rumored that my DARE officer was fired from the force for growing and selling marijuana. Regardless of whether that's true, the state has certainly transformed. Medical marijuana dispensaries have sprung up around the state and smoking marijuana has become as accepted as drinking. Many of my peers landed in the hospital, dropped out of school or died from drugs or alcohol, but definitely not from marijuana. The lie, permeated through every corner of our society, has been exposed.

So, while the policy shift by the National Drug Control Policy is encouraging it doesn’t go far enough. Proper drug education and drug policy will be centered on fact, not lies, and common sense, not hysteria. It’s time to separate drug abuse and criminal justice and instead focus on education, because knowledge is powerful – and much more powerful than just saying no.