The 12th biennial California Student Survey (CSS) released this week by the Attorney General's Office's challenges the nation to reassess the nature and frequency of youth drug use. This statewide survey, founded by Professor Rodney Skager in 1985, collected substance use data from 13,930 students from 115 public middle and high schools in the 2007-08 school year.
The report concludes that both state and national surveys, including the National Monitoring the Future Survey, have significantly underestimated true levels of substance use among secondary school students. The primary reason has been failure to provide a measure of total use that includes alcohol. The current (2007-2008) CSS combines for the first time alcohol, illicit drugs, diverted prescription drugs and cold/cough medications (used to get high) into a total percentage of respondents who tried at least one such drug in their lifetime. The result is that 60% or 9th and 74% of 11th grade students reported using one of the substances at least once. It is important to note that the great majority of youth who experiment do not become regular drug users and for a significant number of substances once was apparently sufficient.
Professor Skager points out that, "By taking into account the entire range of drugs, of which alcohol is by far the most commonly used, it is obvious that the social climate among youth tolerates widespread drug experimentation and use, though not necessarily use that causes problems to self or others. We need to take this cultural reality into account in our approach to drug education and other approaches to prevention. In this climate simplistic abstinence messages, as well as accurate, information, are met with skepticism and may result in an oppositional or 'boomerang' effect."
Rodney Skager, Professor Emeritus in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, is the author of Beyond Zero Tolerance: A Reality-Based Approach to Drug Education and School Discipline published by the Drug Policy Alliance. The educational booklet advocates for educating students through comprehensive, interactive and honest drug education with identification of, and assistance for, students whose lives are disrupted by substance use.
"To prevent adolescents who do experiment from falling into abusive patterns, we need to create fallback strategies that focus on safety," Skager said. "Putting safety first requires that we be careful to provide our young people with credible information and resources. We also need to teach our teenagers how to identify and handle problems with alcohol and other drugs--if and when they occur--and how to get help and support."
The new Obama Administration has the opportunity to replace failed Bush Administration strategies such as the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign and the Random Student Drug Testing Grants Program. Research shows both programs are not only ineffective, but also counterproductive to promoting healthy behaviors in students. The Obama Administration should replace fear-based approaches with programs that promote honest, open and respectful discussion with teens about their experiences and the realities of drugs and drug use today.
The 2007-2008 California Student Survey is available online
Beyond Zero Tolerance: A Reality-Based Approach to Drug Education and School Discipline is available online at www.safety1st.org