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Will NIDA Finally Talk About Harm Reduction During Alcohol and Drugs Facts Week? Don’t Count On It.

Sasha Simon

This week is National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week, a week dedicated to linking teens with experts and science-based information about drugs, sponsored every year by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. It’s a wonderful idea, but it’s missing something.

NIDA purports to share science-based information this week, but it has predictably failed in the way that drug education aimed at teens typically does: its approach lacks any mention of scientifically-proven harm reduction techniques that can keep teens safe if they ever choose to use drugs or if they’re ever around someone who does.

Unfortunately, drug education seems to be following the trajectory of sex education in America in the late 80s and early 90s – sparse, preaching and praying for abstinence, and lacking any real information that helps teens mitigate the risks involved in engaging in potentially unsafe behavior.

Moralistic ideologies tend to have sway in public policy and debate, with conservative abstinence-based programs dominating the field and causing major hindrances to the progress of health education in America.

Despite the majority of Americans favoring comprehensive sex ed, its implementation was only sparked by the urgency of the AIDS epidemic. Only fairly recently has comprehensive sex ed been cemented as a top-to-bottom standard for teens.

Currently, and alarmingly, we face an opioid overdose crisis that compels us to take the lessons learned from sex education and immediately apply the principles of harm reduction to drug education.

The generalization that young people are impulsive and prone to making mistakes often causes adults to resist giving straightforward information to teens on the very subjects we’d prefer they’d avoid altogether, primarily sex and drugs.

Well-intended as this position may be, it’s self-serving, over-simplified, and actually counterproductive to young people’s ability to make healthy decisions for themselves.

Compare sexual health outcomes among teenagers who receive comprehensive sex education to those who receive abstinence-only education. Comprehensive sex education has proven to be effective at delaying teens’ initiation of sexual activity, reducing their frequency of sexual activity as well as their number of sexual partners, and increasing condom and contraceptive use when they do have sex.

The Moralistic Parent’s Nightmare is that sex ed will compel their child to be sexually reckless, yet we find the opposite – teens act more responsibly when they have accurate information about the risks involved in sexual activity and the skills to circumvent them.

The true conciliation of young people’s desire to explore and adults’ instinct to protect is to get teens into the habit of receiving and seeking information that will keep them safe and minimize the risk of harming themselves or others.

This is why the Drug Policy Alliance has created a drug education curriculum, Safety First: Real Drug Education for Teens. Developed in collaboration with drug policy experts, high school teachers and public health professionals, Safety First empowers high school students to make healthier decisions about alcohol and other drugs by teaching them a harm reduction approach.

So while this year probably isn’t the year NIDA talks about harm reduction during their Alcohol and Drug Facts Week, it ought to be. We know that harm reduction works, and the time to take a harm reduction-based approach is now.

Sasha Simon is the Safety First Program Manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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