Government Teen Drug Use Study Misguided, Say Leading Drug Policy Experts
"Preaching abstinence-only to older teens is like teaching the George Washington-chopped-down-the-cherry-tree version of American history to high school seniors," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, the nation's leading organization promoting alternatives to the war on drugs. "It's foolish, ineffectual and hypocritical."
"Monitoring the Future," an annual survey of adolescent drug use, found that smoking, drinking and the use of illegal drugs among teenagers all decreased this year. Nonetheless, at least half of all American teenagers experiment with drugs by the time they graduate from high school, according to the same survey.
"While we stress the value of abstinence, we need a fallback strategy for those youth who still say 'maybe' or 'sometimes' or 'yes' to drugs," said Marsha Rosenbaum, Ph.D., author of Safety First: A Reality-Based Approach to Teens, Drugs, and Drug Education, and director of the Alliance's San Francisco office. "We need a strategy that stresses safety as its bottom line."
The Alliance believes that the annual survey of adolescent drug use is an inaccurate measure of success or failure for evaluating drug control policies. Far more important would be annual surveys that evaluate the most serious harms of drug use and drug policies: new HIV and hepatitis infections, overdose fatalities, new incarcerations of non-violent drug offenders, and taxpayer dollars spent on prisons rather than health and education.
According to Rosenbaum, an alternative education campaign might include:
"Harm reduction" education similar to comprehensive sexuality education and responsible drinking programs (don't drink and drive) that stress the value of abstinence, but provide teens with guidance on how to stay safe
Voluntary, after-school drop-in programs to provide a safe place for middle and senior high school students to ask drug and alcohol experts questions about drug abuse
Teaching the physiological and biological effects of drugs in high school science classes
Reporters interested in discussing drug education alternatives are encouraged to contact the Drug Policy Alliance by calling Tony Newman at 510-208-7711 or Shayna Samuels at 212-613-8037.