Blog Post

Colorado's "Rats in a Cage" Marijuana-Prevention Campaign is as Crazy as it Sounds

Jerry Otero

“We don’t see human-scale rat cages as something that’s going to be seen as a positive or intelligent way to approach young people…We worry about some of the messages…and that how they are worded could feed into stereotypes, especially since that is a time when peer approval is so important.

That's from Boulder Valley School District communications director Briggs Gamblin, in an interview with the Boulder Weekly explaining why BVSD officials, representing 28,171 students in the greater Boulder area, will be opting out of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s  underage marijuana-prevention scheme. Soon thereafter, the city of Boulder followed suit, deciding to hold off on participating in the statewide "Don't Be a Lab Rat" campaign.

Gov. Hickenlooper rolled out his $2 million marijuana-prevention campaign, only to be mocked in the national press and otherwise met with skepticism, criticism and outright rejection from his own constituents. The campaign involves placing human-size metal rat cages, replete with "hamster water bottles," at schools and bus stops to get kids to heed the slogan, “Don’t Be a Lab Rat.”

This is the city's way of conveying to teens that they are taking unknown health risks by consuming marijuana. Already the cages have been vandalized and co-opted as the backdrop for photo selfies of teens puffing away in the cage. Who knows, this campaign has become such a joke that local marijuana growers may even introduce a new hybrid strain of marijuana called Lab Rat.

The campaign's theme concerning the developing brain is reasonable. Many, however question the tactics used. The cages may well be a catchy public relations stunt about the human brain, but they don't appeal to young people's natural intelligence.

Instead, this campaign is cut from the same old cloth as other sensational anti-drug campaigns that have done little more than foment cynicism and mistrust and that miss the mark for meaningful, realistic and honest dialogue about drugs.

Most troubling though, is that this sort of scare-tactic strategy isn’t a relic of the past. It’s happening right now, and not just in Colorado – just take a look at this year’s Electric Zoo’s EMD Festival’s anti-drug messaging directed to their young patrons. The psychological divide between an adult world that has deemed marijuana worthy of legalization and the prevention world that still vilifies marijuana and other drug use creates a schizophrenic split in a teen’s realities – and is much more confusing for them than the questions over marijuana’s changing status.

Couldn’t we be helping them to understand the implications of this historic shift instead of wasting time and money espousing the failed policies of the past?

Supporters of marijuana regulation would rather see evidence-based drug education and prevention campaigns that deliver reliable information through initiatives whose goals include youth development and health. Reality-based programming engages students in a meaningful way and prevents the cynicism resulting from overly simplistic scare tactics.

The “Don’t be a Lab Rat” campaign is just more of the same “This is Your Brain on Drugs” rhetoric that hasn’t worked in the past, and has caused kids to doubt our credibility about the drug information that we provide them.

Don’t our kids deserve facts not rhetoric? Don’t we need to draw them closer to us with the truth, if we are to succeed in supporting them to stay on a healthy positive developmental trajectory – preparing them to eventually be able to make the best decisions for themselves in an increasingly demanding and complex world?

Jerry Otero is the youth policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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