Just say “Maybe”? Schools changing tactics

How one Colorado county is adapting school anti-drug programs after Amendment 64

Since Colorado residents voted on Amendment 64, school administrators, such as those in Mesa County, have been waiting and wondering: Will the green light to legalize pot result in more marijuana use by students? Substance-abuse educators have cited the dangers of marijuana for decades. Now they’re facing an uptick in cannabis consumption among teens, many of whom are armed with the rhetoric that “it’s legal, so it must be safe.” Legalization of marijuana may be muddying their message, but educators had already been moving away from demonizing marijuana use. Many schools began dropping the widely implemented D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program in the early 2000s, after a report by the U.S. surgeon general deemed its curriculum ineffective at curtailing drug use. Critics of the program say that D.A.R.E. tried to suppress scientific research that didn’t jibe with its anti-cannabis crusade, essentially “lying” about marijuana’s effect on the body. Modern anti-drug messages, however, don’t shy away from science. Deputy Chad Williams of the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office leads drug prevention and intervention seminars for middle school and high school students in Mesa, in addition to traveling around the country to help other school systems with their outreach programs. He says blanket statements such as “just say no” and scare tactics like those employed by “This Is Your Brain on Drugs” commercials don’t work on today’s pre-teens and young adults. In fact, Williams uses the old “This Is Your Brain on Heroin” public service message — you know, the one with Rachael Leigh Cook smashing up a kitchen with an iron skillet — in the classroom, as an example of how not to do drug prevention. “I will use it at the beginning of my drug seminars…[after the commercial] I ask, what information did you get? Generally you walk away with more questions,” says Williams. To answer questions about the effect drugs have on the human body, Williams and other school officials take a health- and science-based approach to drug education. Instead of using general statements such as the ones Williams, 41, heard as a kid (“drugs kill brain cells”), current curriculum uses scientific studies to explain how heavy marijuana use can impair brain and body development in adolescents. For the younger grades, the message is about prevention. For high schoolers, it’s about intervention, for those already using, mixed with a hint of prevention, for those who are likely to try it when they go to college. Modern substance-abuse programs don’t guilt teens for having made one or two bad choices; rather, they urge them to make better decisions moving forward. “We know more about how teen brains develop in that 12-to-25-year-old timeframe and what can happen when drugs are introduced,” says Williams. He says there’s a lot of misinformation on both sides of the argument for marijuana; if you take a balanced approach, you’ll garner respect from teens. “Most people won’t want to admit one way or the other,” Williams says. “If you’re an advocate for [marijuana], you don’t want to admit that it can be detrimental to a young person. If you’re an advocate against it, you don’t want to admit that there are benefits to people medicinally.” One of the most frustrating challenges Williams and fellow law enforcement have come up against in recent years is teens’ tendency to validate their own marijuana use by calling it a medication. Williams, who says the science is clear that there are legitimate medicinal purposes for marijuana, jokes that Colorado must have the world’s largest glaucoma problem in teenagers. Indeed, Mesa County has seen a spike in students bringing marijuana, mostly homegrown, to school since the passage of Amendment 64. Perhaps the new law has muddied anti-drug messages. Yet for Williams, there’s a silver lining: “As of January 1, marijuana went back to being a drug.” “I’ve seen the beginning of this movement in 2000 and 2001, how definitions changed from [marijuana] being a ‘drug’ to a ‘medicine.’ That message filtered to [children] and over time that’s the same type of verbiage we get back from them,” says Williams. “It’s easier to do drug prevention when you’re talking about a drug.”