Children, teens, and the drug war
Today, thanks largely to Prohibition, the access it affords and the culture it engenders, America's kids are using drugs at younger and younger ages. This despite the proliferation of "zero-tolerance" policies and drug education, which has become the dominant modality for "teaching" our children about drugs and their dangers.
We can all agree that kids, especially young kids, should not be using drugs recreationally. In fact, if we can keep our children from using drugs when they are young, we can almost guarantee that they will not fall into patterns of substance abuse later. Since it is clear that we cannot be with them all the time, the question is how we, as adults, can help them to make healthy choices in their lives.
Right now, the vast majority of America's kids are taught some version of the D.A.R.E. program. Developed by the Los Angeles Police Department, D.A.R.E. sends police into the schools to talk to kids, primarily grade schoolers, about the dangers of drugs. But D.A.R.E. has been criticized for several reasons. First, critics contend that D.A.R.E.'s message that "all drugs are extremely dangerous," without differentiating between substances, is overly simplistic. Once kids discover that marijuana, for example, is often used by people, older peers perhaps, without dramatic negative impact on their lives, they tend to disregard D.A.R.E.'s warnings about much more dangerous and addictive drugs. Second, critics argue that the D.A.R.E. curriculum sends the message that all use is abuse, further oversimplifying the realities that kids will face in the world around them.
A number of major studies have borne out these concerns. The evidence shows that kids who participate in D.A.R.E. are no less likely to use drugs as young teenagers than kids who did not participate. In fact, at least one of the studies showed that kids who took the D.A.R.E. program were MORE likely to use drugs than their peers. One study in particular, titled "In Their Own Voices," (Brown, et al.) interviewed hundreds of D.A.R.E. graduates and found that three years after completion of the program, many students indicated that they felt they had been lied to in an effort to scare them away from drugs.
Most reformers believe that it is best to teach kids honestly about substances and their dangers. Kids need to know that we have been honest with them if we expect them to take seriously our most important admonitions and warnings. Education should be age-appropriate, but kids who want information should be given the truth.
This brings up another concern about "zero-tolerance" education. What of the kids, for the most part teenagers, who are already using drugs? Should we kick them out? Forbid them from participating in extracurricular activities? In short, should we separate these at-risk kids from the very programs and activities that are most likely to keep them out of trouble and in contact with concerned adults? And finally, should we make available to teens information on the degrees of risks of different substances and practices? In other words, should we endeavor, if we cannot wholly insure their abstinence, to give them the information that will reduce both the harms and the risks of their use?
This last question is akin to the question of whether or not it is rational to provide teenagers with access to condoms. We can hope that they delay the onset of sexual activity, even that they wait until marriage. But knowing, as we do, that some percentage of teens will be sexually active (or use drugs), do we want to try to help them avoid the worst potential pitfalls of their actions?
These are difficult issues. And we don't propose to offer a silver bullet which will work best in all cases. What we do know is that rhetoric and scare tactics have not succeeded in keeping them drug free. No matter how well-intentioned we are, they eventually see through our distortions. And whether it is because we tell them that marijuana will lead inexorably to heroin addiction, or because we overreact and throw their peers out of school for carrying an aspirin, in the end, we will lose their trust as honest and rational mentors. And when it comes to drugs and kids in an age of Prohibition, the trust that we lose might just cost them their lives.