“Today’s teenagers have been exposed…to anti-drug messages…designed to generate fear in young people and encourage them to abstain from alcohol and other drug use.”
–Dr. Marth Rosenbaum, Safety First: A Reality-Based Approach to Teens and Drugs

Over 30 years ago First Lady Nancy Reagan popularized an anti-drug campaign best known by its catchphrase: “Just say no.” From a political standpoint, Mrs. Reagan couldn’t have more simply expressed “the” solution to drug issues. Not only was the action to be taken remarkably straightforward, the description of that action was, too. “Just say no!” A single word was all that was needed to vanquish the problem of drug use among our young people.

The simplicity of the solution strongly implied by extension that the problem itself was simple. Indeed, if a single action is truly the only thing necessary, perhaps people had made the problem entirely too complicated. America did not need to spend millions of dollars on law enforcement and treatment, or countless hours on education and mentoring. No, the problem was simply individual kids taking drugs based on their own choices. Very successfully, the anti-drug campaign sold the idea that making kids strong enough to say no was the best—and ultimately the only—answer.

Many Americans whose lives were not affected by the daily consequences of drug use, easily embraced this revolutionary step toward an end to the Drug War. These citizens began actively supporting abstinence-only education in schools, advertising on television, and programs in communities, youth groups, churches, and any other place where children were able to hear the message.

The result? After over 30 years of warning children to just say no, studies have shown no definitive correlation between drug-abstinence education and a reduction in the drug use of minors. Why did this program fail? And most importantly, after finding no documentable proof of any sort of success, why are we still using it?

Many people would argue that actions earn fitting results, and since those people understand drug use as a negative action, they reason that negative consequences must follow it. Furthermore, they believe that if the negative repercussions of drug use don’t happen consistently, kids will sense a weakness in the authority dictating proper behavior and morality; and that would make the problem of teen drug use even more out of control.

Moreover, many adults can remember a good deal about incidents in their own youth—times when they made foolish choices and suffered negative consequences for those choices. Since today those people are successful enough to have earned some degree of authority, their logic is that a set of rules that worked for them (and indeed, for many others like them) must necessarily be the most effective rule for everyone else.

One attitude rarely mentioned is the motivation that accompanies this abstinence-only instructional model. To be sure, many have been able to resist whatever temptations have befallen them: overeating, cheating financially, and using drugs, among other things. Inside many of us exists the sense that “proper” behavior is often the sacrifice of some sense of pleasure. The conviction that those who were not strong or brave enough to resist these pleasures should be punished: “Why should some people get to do the pleasurable things that we didn’t get to do?” they may think. The idea of unfairness often pulls at us and causes us to wish for punishments to others for getting away with something. But even within these deeply intrapersonal conclusions lies what has long seemed to be a given: that everybody on earth should live within and adapt to precisely the same framework as everyone else, no matter the differences in individual life circumstances.

One notable factor in all of these attitudes is that they focus more on the people unaffected by the repercussions of behavior than they do on those actively suffering those repercussions. Desires for swift punishment, for equality of constraint and predictable results stem from within those enforcing the rules. Such people are not the ones who will be directly affected by the policies they support; those affected are, ironically, overlooked.

This systematic uniformity has proven to be a colossal failure, as shown by the utter lack of effectiveness of abstinence-only drug education. And yet, in spite of this uselessness, the myth persists that, if one form of punishment proved to be utterly useless, surely a stronger form of that same punishment should do the trick. Albert Einstein once quipped that “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.” It seems that the policies of abstinence-only drug education have, over their years of repetition, entered the realm of insanity.

It is time for a new outlook on kids’ drug use. It is time for a factual accounting of effective strategies that may be used to best help out youth. It is time to meet kids on terms that are realistic for them, not terms that the rule makers find most comfortable. It is time for authorities to put aside their fears and to face the problem of young people’s drug addiction head-on. It is time to be brave enough to step into young people’s own territory; to meet young people where they are.

And how do we do that? In our next post we will delve deeper into Dr. Rosenbaum’s reasoning, and discuss views on drug education that should always remain in focus before beginning.

– By Maggie Maurer,
SPW Policy Intern