When we talk about prevention, we’re always focused on the parents. We have forums for parents to learn about drugs. We send home notices and we publish articles. We try to reach parents so that they can try to reach their kids. But the problem is that the message that reaches our kids is not sufficient. It isn’t working. “Just say no” and “drugs are bad” is not, nor has it ever been, effective at stopping kids from experimenting with drugs.
By the time they graduate high school, almost HALF of American teens will have tried marijuana at least once. Kids are inclined to try recreational drugs, which includes alcohol, because alcohol IS a drug. There are so many reasons that drive kids to experiment with drugs. Celebrity culture glamorizes drug use. Kids want to do anything that makes them feel older, like an adult. More than anything else, drugs can be fun. Just like the average person goes to the bar, has a few drinks and has a good time, recreational drugs can provide that same social energy and party atmosphere. People do it because it’s fun.
But heroin addicts are not having a good time. Drug addiction is NOT fun. There is no social, party time atmosphere for most junkies. There is a difference between recreational drugs and hard drugs. This is an unpopular opinion. Parents and school administrators want to cast all drugs as bad, and leave no wiggle room for experimentation. This is totally unrealistic, and just as ridiculous as abstinence only sex education.
We know that in areas that promote comprehensive sex education and access to contraception, the benefits are enormous. Teens are 50% less likely to get pregnant than those who receive abstinence based education according to a study by the National Survey of Family Growth. Advocates for Youth reviewed comprehensive sex education programs and found a significant delay in first sexual encounters; declines in pregnancy, HIV and other STIs; increased use of condoms; increased use of other contraception; reduction in the number of sexual partners and increased monogamy; and reduced incidences of unprotected sex. Despite all this success, comprehensive sex education is still fought by conservatives.
Science illustrates to us that education actually decreases the dangerous behavior that parents are afraid of. The same is true of drug education. Providing fact based, scientific drug education is likely to have the same results as providing fact based sex ed.
Kids are autonomous. They make their own choices. Yes, they are influenced by their parents, and parents should always outline expectations for risky behaviors including sex, drinking, and drug use. Parents should make it clear what they will not tolerate, what the consequences are, and what the real dangers associated with the behavior can be.
But maybe we need to let kids make their own choices, since they go ahead and do that anyway. Focusing on the difference between recreational and hard drugs allows kids to see that not all drug use is the same. If they smoke pot or drink a few beers and don’t suffer any of the scare tactic consequences they heard about from adults, they start to believe that all drugs are the same and none of them have real consequences. They start to believe that only weak people become addicts, and that they can totally control this, and it’s just all in fun. This is a direct consequence of painting marijuana and heroin with the same brush, and the same scheduling by the government. Both drugs are Schedule I, meaning they have no medical purpose, even though many states have begun recognizing medical marijuana. This allows the justice system to prosecute all drug offenders the same way.
In every direction in our society, we are lumping all drugs together, calling them all bad, and then calling it a day.
Make no mistake, I am not advocating for the use of any drugs. I suggest we attempt to influence our youth not to pick up any drugs, no matter how harmless they may seem. However, we need to be realistic. Kids should understand that all drugs are dangerous, but some drugs are even more dangerous for different reasons.
Only 9% of marijuana users develop what professionals call an addiction to the drug. This is an unlikely consequence for those who try smoking pot. However, those who try prescription painkillers thinking they are also a recreational drug are in for a rude awakening. Those who try prescription painkillers are almost TWENTY TIMES more likely to try heroin. Four out of five heroin users today started with prescription painkillers. Those are pretty significant statistics. Kids, and adults included, look at medications like recreational drugs because they come from a doctor and are legal when prescribed, which implies that they are considered safe to use.
Opioids, along with methamphetamine and crack cocaine, are the most dangerous and habit forming drugs out there. These drugs are NOT recreational, party time drugs. There is a big difference between going to a party and dropping some ecstasy on a Friday night and picking up one of these dangerous drugs, thinking it’s going to be a one time thing. Kids know meth is dangerous, they’ve seen the pictures of the addicts with missing teeth and open sores on their faces. They know crack is dangerous, they’ve joked about crackheads picking lint out of the carpet thinking they’ve found a tiny rock to smoke. And of course, they know heroin is dangerous. They’ve heard the stories of famous musicians living under bridges and shooting dope. It’s the prescription painkillers that they don’t understand the danger of.
Kids should be taught that prescription painkillers and street heroin are the same thing, because that is the truth. They should know that when they pick up one of those little blue pills, they are doing pharmaceutical grade heroin, and their brain and body interpret it as heroin. If they swapped that blue pill for a bag of dope, and ingested it in the same manner, they would experience the same high. These drugs are the SAME.
I did a lot of partying in high school, and spent many Friday nights drinking, smoking weed, rolling on E, and blowing lines of coke off of my math book. I partied pretty hard and so did a lot of my friends. Not a single one of us became addicted to any of these drugs. Not a single person became a felon because of these drugs. Everybody still graduated from high school and went to college. The behavior was dangerous, illegal, and extremely risky. I don’t condone it, and I don’t recommend it, but that is the reality of life for many high school students in America. They party. They have a good time. They still succeed in school and play sports, and they still go to college and become productive adults. The vast majority of people I did recreational drugs with in high school are all doing just fine today as adults.
The people who are not fine, are the ones who picked up the painkillers. While a handful of people did experiment with the pills and were able to move on, most of the people I know who got caught up in prescription narcotics in my graduation year of 2006, are still dealing with the ramifications of that choice today, in one way or another.
I didn’t understand that these drugs were different from all the other drugs I tried. I didn’t understand that this wasn’t a party drug. I didn’t know there was a physical dependence, meaning that I would get physically ill from withdrawal, and that it would happen whether I was mentally addicted or not.
We need to focus on the difference. We need to highlight what separates opioids from recreational drugs. I know this is an unpopular opinion. I know that no parent out there wants to think of their kid playing beer pong in their garage after school while parents are at work, or smoking weed in the woods behind the house. This is reality. You know this, because when you were a kid, you probably experimented with drinking and some recreational drugs yourself. You know in your heart there is a good chance your kid will experiment. You need to make sure they know the difference between smoking a joint and taking a opioid medications (which probably seems less harmful to them than the joint).
Ideally, kids would stay away from drugs and not drink until they turn 21. This is not reality for most young people. This is why we need to focus on highlighting the dangers of hard drugs vs. recreational drugs. We need comprehensive, fact and science based drug education that illustrates these differences. We need to work on harm reduction, and we will be much more likely to see positive results.
Think about this when you talk to your kids about drugs. Remember that when you misrepresent the dangers of some drugs, you undermine the danger of other drugs. Don’t undermine the danger of opioids by putting them in the same basket as marijuana and beer. Opioids love it when you underestimate them, and they have become the star of their very own epidemic based solely on the public underestimating their danger. Tell the truth about drugs, and the unique differences between them. This allows kids to make informed choices, and leave the propaganda behind.