In 2014, Dr. Marsha Rosenbaum published a guide for parents and educators entitled Safety First: A Reality-Based Approach to Teens and Drugs. She begins the explication of her transformative, reality-based approach for dealing with teen drug use with a heartfelt letter to her own son. At the time of her writing, her son was about to enter high school where, she was certain, he would be presented with numerous opportunities for drug use. Because the booklet is geared toward the education of young people, the attempt to understand their perspective is crucial, as is the understanding that experimentation with drugs—by people young and old—is common, and always will be. “Drugs are an integral part of American life,” she writes.

In this letter, Dr. Rosenbaum outlines the key ideas established in the rest of her booklet. She presents reasons for her son to heed her advice, all of which have to do with negative consequences of doing drugs, including potentially diminished academic and personal performance, as well as legal and institutional consequences that may follow him beyond high school. Notably, these consequences are things that can harm him and not things that may affect authority figures like her. Dr. Rosenbaum keeps her focus on the actions and reactions of her son, for it is within his conscience that the struggles with decision-making will take place.

The reasons not to do drugs that she gives may seem at first glance typical, but there is an important message within her advice here, and indeed, throughout the entire booklet: her continued reassurance that she is not offering caution because she wishes to appear wiser than he (and thereby fulfilling her own inner need rather than his), but because she truly wants to offer her own experience and knowledge as useful assistance. She writes, “I choose not to try to scare you by distorting information because I want you to have confidence in what I tell you.”

The guide goes on to break down features of young people’s drug use and the attempts that have been made to curb it, followed by an explanation of alternative measures that should be taken. Throughout the entire booklet, the focus remains squarely on the single most important thing to do in a successful preventative strategy: to tell the plain truth. Though adults in positions of authority assert that they, too, have always told the truth in their warnings, it is unfortunately the case that many abstinence-focused learning strategies tend to embellish consequences in order to instill fear in those listening. For example, statistics are often overstated for dramatic effect, again to heighten fear in vulnerable youth.

But the most grievous distortion of truth that often occurs in abstinence-based education is the widely accepted idea that all drug use is the same. Just as a streamlined, uniform set of rules and consequences is ineffective when dealing with individuals, so too is the simplified description of individual drug use counterproductive.

Rosenbaum writes, “prevention messages often pretend there is no difference between use and abuse…[or] emphasize an exaggerated definition that categorizes any illegal use of drugs as abuse.” The interchangeable use of the ideas of drug use and drug abuse is harmful for several reasons. For one thing, common sense shows that all use of altering substances is not necessarily abuse. The world is filled with drugs that are both legal and used in moderation. Caffeine, Ritalin, Valium, alcohol—all of these substances have been determined to be safe in certain amounts, despite the fact that they affect mood and consciousness, much as substances such as marijuana, heroin and cocaine do.

Why make such a specious claim? Much in the same way that rules and regulations have been established to bind all individuals, so have standards concerning degrees and types of harm. It is a fundamental principle of reality-based drug education and of harm reduction that the parameters of moderation and excess vary from user to user.

Far more detrimental, however, is the effect that equating drug use with drug abuse has on young listeners. Rosenbaum states, “Teens often dismiss this hypocritical message because they see adults routinely making distinctions between use and abuse. Most observe their parents and other adults using alcohol without abusing it.” Small wonder that young people view adults’ abstinence-based messages as disingenuous; they are continually confronted with its opposite.

Though these are only two problems with abstinence-based drug education, they are vital flaws. Dr. Rosenbaum argues it is far better to approach the task with evidence-driven caution; personal safety should take precedent. Next we will discuss several of the ways she offers in her pamphlet that people can take this preferred approach when dealing with young people.

– By Maggie Maurer,
SPW Policy Intern