What Legalized Marijuana Has Done for Education: It’s Not What You Think

Sanya Singh Drug Education, Marijuana Legalization, Tax and Regulate

Sarah Grippa is a high school teacher in Colorado, a state that legalized marijuana in 2012.  In 2015, seeing the need for better ways to educate teens about the risks of marijuana use, she and educator Molly Lutz co-founded the Marijuana Education Initiative to “put the most current, research-based information in the hands of parents, mentors, and educators.”

You may assume I am talking about money—specifically, marijuana excise taxes to fund education—but I am not. I am talking about actual education, the kind that takes place between teachers and students, youth-serving organizations and participants, and parents and children. That kind of education is changing—in a good way—as a result of legalized marijuana. Here’s why.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E). a program, a product of the ill-fated War on Drugs whose educational philosophy was “Just Say No,” was the drug education curriculum offered to schools and youth programs. It typically sent uniformed police officers into schools to talk about the dangers of doing drugs. D.A.R.E was accompanied by mandated zero tolerance policies, contributing to a “school to prison pipeline.” A 1998 report from the National Criminal Justice Reference Service stated, “D.A.R.E. does not work to reduce substance use. The program’s content, teaching methods, and use of uniformed police officers rather than teachers might each explain its weak evaluations.”

In all fairness, those who created D.A.R.E in the 80s lacked the information about effective teaching that we have today. Educators and curriculum writers had not yet learned that students need to hear prevention information from a trusted adult, that it’s better to keep nonviolent offenders in school than to suspend them, and that protective factors play a large part in preventing drug use. Earlier educators also lacked the technical understanding of how adolescent brains develop that we have today. Though some employed “abstinence-only” programs like D.A.R.E. out of complacency, more often it was because they lacked better options.

The legalization of recreational marijuana has forced educators to rethink their approaches to preventing young people from using marijuana. Schools and youth-serving organizations now realize that they can’t talk about marijuana in the same breath as heroin, methamphetamine, or cocaine. There is a clear and concise call for a change in dialogue and approach.

Prevention programs like D.A.R.E. are not only ineffective, they are an insult to young people’s intelligence. Youth are fully capable of understanding how their brains are developing, the functioning of the endocannabinoid system, and the differences between recreational and medicinal marijuana use. Today’s youth endure countless standardized tests in their academic career, can navigate the complexities of social media, and can even teach adults how to use SnapChat. They deserve to be told how recreational marijuana use during adolescence can affect their still-developing brain, rather than being told to “Just Say No.” They have the right to develop a compassionate understanding of the differences between medicinal needs—for example, of youth for whom medical marijuana can help manage childhood epilepsy—and recreational use.

One of the unexpected outcomes of recreational marijuana legalization has been a positive change in educational practices. Across the US, educators are seeking programs that use reality-based education to empower youth to make informed decisions.  Educators, including me, have reinvented, upgraded, expanded, and collaborated to devise new and improved approaches. This would likely not be happening if not for legalized marijuana

Regardless of how one might feel about marijuana legalization, we can all agree that best practices in adolescent prevention, intervention, and diversion programs are in the best interest of youth. Unexpected outcomes are not always negative outcomes. Sometimes they can turn our thinking on its head and transform complacency into action.