Higher Ground: Reefer Madness 2.0

The “Just Say No” campaign kept me off drugs. NOT! Still, I appreciate Nancy Reagan for using ignorant scare tactics to at least try to keep kids like me away from the Devil’s Lettuce. Drugs are for adults, and having a dialogue about that notion is important. The conversation does not, however, require a sizzling egg to represent your brain on drugs.

Drug Abuse Resistance Education campaigns, aka DARE, were all the rage in the 1980s and ’90s, sucking up hundreds of millions of tax dollars on TV spots, branded backpacks, stickers, and even cartoons featuring Daren the Lion. At its peak, the program was deployed in 75 percent of American schools, with police officers leading classroom discussions and assemblies that students absolutely loved—not because of the content, but because it got us out of math class. According to dozens of published studies, not only was the DARE program expensive (costing more than $200 million in 1995 alone), but, most important, it didn’t work. Kids didn’t say no, and worse, the DARE challenge often had a “boomerang effect”—it made young people more curious about the forbidden fruit, and actually correlated to higher rates of drug use for those exposed to the program.

This isn’t to say that tax dollars shouldn’t go into campaigns informing young people about the ongoing dangers of many street drugs. Adolescents are presented with all kinds of truly terrifying choices these days, with marijuana being the least of a parent’s worries: popular poisons today include MDMA (Molly), K2 (or Spice), cough syrup, heroin, and the worst of all, the opiates found in prescription drugs like Vicodin, Darvon, Viagra, Adderall, and more.

In fact, campaigns should also be created to inform the general public about cannabis, especially as more and more states begin legalizing the plant. Colorado has launched several efforts to educate (and intimidate) the Rocky Mountain masses, including a campaign called “Don’t Be a Lab Rat” that placed giant steel cages all over Denver. Even barely legal Oregon already has an informative series called “Educate Before You Recreate.” But here in Washington, even though tax revenue from cannabis sales is specifically earmarked for drug education and treatment, we have yet to see a public-education campaign in print or on the airwaves. The Washington State Department of Health website has a link to a 30-second radio spot stating that one out of 10 teens use marijuana, and that it’s important to talk to your kids. Listeners are then referred to another site that looks like it was designed by an insane Reddit manager who just learned about hyperlinks. (“Kids, let’s gather around the Learn About Marijuana website and click on the fact sheet sub-section about motivation! . . . Kids?”)

I called the Dept. of Health and was told the staff has been gathering info for an outreach campaign for young people, and that a Request for Proposal (RFP) will be coming out soon for PR firms and ad agencies to pitch ideas. Opportunity knocks!

Coming up with an appropriate and effective campaign is tough, especially given the audience: teenagers not only think they’re smarter than everyone else, but they’ll intentionally do stupid things if challenged. That’s why “Just Say No” or DARE didn’t work. (“Dare me not to? I’m doing it! ”) It also doesn’t help that none of the ancient Reefer Madness was true (i.e. ganja turning our youth into sex-crazed zombies). Recent statistics from legal states shoot down more recent scare tactics as well: driving fatalities, domestic violence, crime, and even teen drug use itself have all gone down. “The problem with scare tactics, even technologically sophisticated ones,” notes Stanford psychiatry professor Keith Humphreys, “is that marijuana use is too widespread a behavior to fool kids for long into believing that it’s invariably a terrifying experience.”

Given that young people are going to experiment with drugs (including alcohol and tobacco), perhaps the best we can do is bribe them into zero-tolerance abstinence. Seriously. With hundreds of millions in taxes being gathered from legalized marijuana, let’s put a bunch of money into a Higher Ground Education Fund. Any teenager who agrees to be randomly drug-tested will receive a full ride to the college of her/his choice. All they gotta do is simply wait . . . until they’re legally allowed to use cannabis. Will my idea be green-lighted?! No! But Amsterdam wasn’t built in a day . . .

Funny enough, when I look at all the current public-education campaigns, the best is probably from the folks who began with “Just Say No.” Today, the good folks at DARE have abandoned frying eggs and other fear-mongering, and gone with the only thing that makes sense. Called “Keepin’ It Real,” their newest program focuses on teaching students good decision-making skills— about not just drug use, but life in general. With a broader message about smart choices in all aspects of their already overwhelming-and-hormone-saturated lives—drugs, sex, relationships, employment—it puts power back in the hands of youngsters themselves by suggesting they do their best to lead honest, safe, and responsible lives. Now that’s a challenge we should all DARE to take on.

For more Higher Ground, visit highergroundtv.com.

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