Just Saying No to ‘Just Say No’: Drug Education is Evolving as Marijuana Becomes Legal

By Suzannah Weiss

Before states began legalizing cannabis, most U.S. residents grew up with drug education programs like Drug Abuse resistance Education (DARE), which told kids not to use drugs at any cost and emphasized the risks of marijuana.

But where weed is legal, the question of how to address it in health classes has become murkier.

“Teens are less and less inclined to believe that cannabis use causes problems, so telling them not to use at all, ever, is just not a realistic message that they will take seriously,” Danielle Ramo, Associate Professor in Residence and Director of the Research on Addiction and Digital Interventions Lab at the University of California, San Francisco, told Marijuana.com. “The modern approach to prevention should be realistic about the research with cannabis, which shows that using early and often in adolescence is not good for the brain or the body.”

A review in the Scientific Research Publishing journal Health found that young adults who smoked before age 20 experienced more health problems that those who started later, even if they’d since stopped.

However, there’s also research showing that “just say no” drug education doesn’t actually prevent drug use. One meta-analysis of 20 studies, for example, found that students who received DARE education were no less likely to use drugs than those who got no drug education at all.

“Abstinence-based programs face challenges because teens don’t want to be told what to do — they would prefer to make their own decisions,” said Ramo, who works with school-based prevention programs in California. “Further, since the trend is toward the belief that cannabis is less and less harmful, a ‘just say no’ approach is not realistic for this particular substance.”

With this research in mind, programs are focusing their efforts on getting students to delay cannabis consumption rather than avoid it altogether. One such program is Being Adept, a non-profit that teaches middle-schoolers in Northern California about drugs. Being Adept pushes the message “delay, delay, delay” and “just not now — maybe later” instead of “just say no,” Being Adept’s founder Jennifer S. Grellman told Marijuana.com.

“Kids by nature do not like to hear the word ‘never,’” she said. “They can comply better with ‘wait.’ In fact, one of the key reasons the DARE program failed is that kids rebelled from the authoritarian rules around use that the cops delivered.”

Since cannabis was legalized in California, Being Adept has seen more interest from schools, and it updates its curriculum each year to reflect the latest research, as well as marijuana’s changing legal status. Many drug education programs aren’t doing this because of the time and money investment involved in updating teaching materials, said Grellman.

Abigail Kesner, communications and marketing lead strategist for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Prevention Services Division, told Marijuana.com that the department has similarly focused its campaigns on the risks of marijuana use during youth since legalization. It’s now funding a study testing whether the state’s drug prevention curriculum is equally effective post-legalization, and has created a Retail Marijuana Education Resource Bank, along with the Colorado Department of Education, to provide educators with research-based education practices.

Some, though, are continuing to teach drug prevention as they always have after their state has legalized cannabis. Kenneth Thaxter, a police officer and DARE officer in West Bridgewater, Massachusetts, told Marijuana.com that legalization has not affected his lessons, which have remained about the same over the 18 years he’s been teaching.

“We’ve always focused on trying to make kids aware that any substance you put in your body has some effect,” he said.

However, he too has emphasized delaying drug use rather than abstaining permanently.

“The longer they can abstain, the less possibility of a negative effect on their brain development,” he said. “My position is never that anybody should never do anything. What they’re trying to do is, legally, under the age of 21, it is against the law. … Our first job is to enforce the law.”

Ramo hopes to see more programs that teach teens the benefits of delaying drug use without demonizing weed altogether.

“Focusing the message on delaying use until the brain is fully developed and until decisions to use will not interfere with important life goals (school, extra-curricular activities) is ideal,” she explained. “Good prevention programs should also focus on why making healthier decisions in the face of stress, e.g., choosing to exercise rather than drink or use drugs, will support lifelong behavior patterns that will make teens happier adults.”

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