There are many reasons to legalize marijuana in all states, not just the eight that have already done so. No longer will we continue to ruin hundreds of thousands of lives through arrests for marijuana possession. Police, our courts, and prosecutors will be put to far better use. Marijuana will be safer through the regulation of how it is sold and who sells it. We will stop subsidizing the drug cartels that profit from control over the black market.
But as important as all of those factors are in considering marijuana legalization, perhaps the most significant reason to move towards legalization is that it will make it possible for us finally to provide drug education, especially to our youth, in a way that works because it is open and honest. That is not possible now.
Our national policy on marijuana is abstinence because it has to be. When a substance is illegal what else can we expect schools to tell children but to never use it? Unless we really expect that teenagers never will or should experiment with marijuana, where does that leave our programs of drug education? Short answer: they can’t, and, for the most part, do not work.
In the current issue of the Journal of the American Health Association, Dr. David Nathan and his co-authors wrote that “Cannabis prohibition for adults does not prevent underage use… Unfortunately, prohibition sends the message that marijuana is dangerous for everyone, because it is illegal for everyone, and children know that is not true. If we want our children to believe us when we say that cannabis can be harmful to them, our laws should reflect the difference in health effects of underage and adult use.”
This distinction between underage and adult use is lost, of course, on our Attorney General Jeff Sessions. For him, and much of the federal bureaucracy, all drug use is bad. That is why the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program (DARE) has been the most prominent federally-funded drug education since its founding in 1983.
My colleague Tom Houseman has written that “DARE is famous for its distinctive slogan, its use of police officers as teachers, the pledge it has students sign to remain drug-free, and the countless studies that have proven it to be, at best, almost completely ineffective.”
To the extent that DARE relies on police officers to stand in front of a classroom full of high school students and lecture them on the dangers of drug use, such programs are pedagogically unsound. Do we really believe that kids will respond to being told what to do, especially when what they are hearing does not jibe with their own experience, and what they know adults are doing?
Faced with criticism over the years, DARE has made efforts to adjust. Jeff Sessions: The message has largely shifted away from “just say no” and introduced life skills training, and often drug use is not discussed at all. But without being able to teach harm reduction and safe use, the idea of “just say nothing” will barely be more effective than “just say no.”
Harm reduction calls upon us to be present and offer resources for those struggling with addiction without insisting on abstinence. This should be the starting point for all that we do in relation to drug use, including the education of our youth.
The concept of “abstinence only” is incompatible with “harm reduction.” This does not for a second mean that abstinence is wrong, or should be discouraged. It means only that harm reduction is both more realistic and more helpful to the majority of teenagers when it comes to drug education.
Activist and educator Marsha Rosenbaum, captures the key point in the title of her booklet “Safety First: A Reality-Based Approach to Teens and Drugs.” This is what we need. This is what we should work toward as we stop living in the darkness of drug prohibition, and even the twilight zone of decriminalization.
Drug legalization will make good education possible.