Pseudoscience and misinformation plague many efforts to keep young people off drugs. These errors destroy our credibility with teens and sabotage drug-abuse prevention immensely. As Nanette Asimov documented in The Chronicle (“What Narconon tells students,” June 9) our children hear outrageous ideas as early as the third grade. My personal favorite: Drugs will store in your fat cells forever but niacin and saunas will release their remnants as colored ooze.
Programs that rely on lies such as these make me very pessimistic. I wish this example of misinformation was an isolated slip, but as a drug researcher I hear comparable tales daily. A recent e-mail from a boy in Danville explained how his teacher held up a peanut to the class to emphasize the size to which their testicles would shrivel if they smoked marijuana. (I hesitate to think what the girls in the class must have thought.)
Students in my undergraduate course on drugs and human behavior also heard some real whoppers growing up. A woman from Texas learned that 1 in 3 people who try marijuana become heroin addicts. (The actual number is 1 in 333, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.) The health instructor of a boy from Southern California explained that a single puff of marijuana would later cause debilitating flashbacks. These flashbacks allegedly would force his eyes back in his head as he fell to the floor babbling during job interviews. A woman from Alaska had a DARE program police officer threaten to arrest her uncle who successfully used marijuana to battle chemotherapy-related nausea because “medical marijuana is a myth.” Obviously, research does not support the claims of these drug-prevention approaches.
The drug myths don’t just surface at school. Our own tax dollars financed an elaborate and expensive series of television commercials, radio spots and billboards from the Office of National Drug Control Policy in 2003. Every semester I hear students laugh heartily as they ridicule this campaign, which linked marijuana to terrorism, date rape and the accidental shooting of a friend. Obviously, data don’t support these assertions, either. We’re clearly so scared of teens hurting themselves that we don’t know what to do.
We’re all willing to do anything to prevent teen drug problems. We’ve spent billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of hours at work and in school. And we should. Drug problems are a debilitating and preventable waste. But we shouldn’t lie. Lying hurts our credibility and actually creates more problems than it solves.
Teens know markedly more than we give them credit for, especially when drugs are involved. They’re excellent detectors of our little fibs, too. They need only turn to their friends to learn that shrunken testicles, heroin addiction and flashbacks are not the destiny of every marijuana user. These lies don’t make them fear the drug. But they do make them suspicious of everything else we say.
Exaggerations about the negative effects of drugs boomerang, making more trouble rather than less. More than once a student has told me a story along the lines of: “When I realized that marijuana didn’t lead to crack, I figured everything else they said was a lie, too. That’s why I went ahead and snorted glue.” This predicament is extremely unfortunate. Inhalants are dangerous, with the potential to damage the brain. But what teen would believe it from the fraud who gave them this other misinformation?
Fortunately, not all drug prevention programs resort to these tactics. Those that focus on the truth actually show great success:
— The Safety First campaign in San Francisco emphasizes that, although abstinence is best, most teens experiment with drugs, so information on how to call for help when problems arise is dramatically better than repetitions of “Just say no.”
— UP FRONT, a program based in Oakland, builds confidential relationships with teens so they can discuss the concerns about drugs that matter to them most.
— Project Toward No Tobacco Use in Los Angeles corrects young people’s overestimates of how many of their peers smoke and teaches them to dispute glamorized media depictions of cigarettes.
Programs like these give me hope. Replacing the Narconon presentations with one of these could make a huge difference in our schools. The simple strategy of telling the truth is the best way to keep our children from developing drug problems. Let’s give it a try.
Mitch Earleywine is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Southern California and author of “Understanding Marijuana” (Oxford University Press, 2002).
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