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

Sanya Singh Drug Education, 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.

Community Healing in the Aftermath of the War on Drugs: A Sermon by James Kowalsky

Sanya Singh Drug Education, Harm Reduction, Legalization, Racial Inequality

In his sermon “Community Healing in the Aftermath of the War on Drugs” James Kowalsky reflects on drug use in our society and harm reduction as the most appropriate response.  James worked at Heartland Health Outreach in Chicago for seven years and is currently a graduate student at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. The sermon was preached at Prairie Circle Unitarian Universalist Congregation.  We provide excerpts here with a link to the full text.

I’m going to start this sermon with a few questions for you to consider. Many of these questions don’t have absolute answers. They are questions we should ask ourselves so that we know where we stand and try to figure out how these beliefs we hold, impact the action we are willing to take.

What does a drug user look like?…

For many of us when we picture what a drug user looks like we imagine someone looking dirty and disheveled, living on the streets with beer bottles or needles scattered around their body. We picture a desperate and dangerous criminal, willing to harm anyone in order to feed their addiction…

In a study published in the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education in 1995, a survey asked people to envision a drug user and describe that person. 95% of respondents described a black person. This is the case despite that fact that the majority of people who use drugs in our country are white. African-Americans make up about 15% of the people who use drugs, roughly equal to their proportion of the general population.

When we picture who a drug user is, we don’t readily think of the successful people who have used drugs—executives, scientists, writers, musicians, politicians, Presidents. It would be inaccurate to say that people who use drugs or have used drugs are bad people, or are unproductive members of our communities. In fact, the overwhelming majority of people who try a drug—any drug—will not have a serious problem with that drug in their lifetime. Yet, this image of a drug user as a failure and threat persists…

What is a drug?

In general, we would define a drug as a substance that we put into our bodies that alters our mood or physiological state; the caffeine we use to help us get out of bed at the start of the day; the medicine we take to control our blood sugar, blood pressure, or moderate other symptoms that may prohibit us from taking care of business; the glass of wine we use to unwind after a long day at work. All of these are substances we put into our body to alter the way we think and feel…

This does not mean that drugs are not harmful.

Certainly, all drugs have the capacity to harm people. Partially, we have a skewed perspective of drug users because the people who are most negatively impacted by their use, are inherently more likely to need help and encounter systems like hospitals, treatment programs, and law enforcement. However, we’ve exaggerated the likelihood of harm in order to scare people away from trying drugs…

Our relationship with any drug—legal or not—can range from harmful to helpful…Environment matters. Journalist Johann Hari talks about harmful use being a product of disconnection. Dr. Gabor Mate talks about addictions being rooted in painful experiences. Norman Zinberg points to the combination of three sets of factors he calls drug, set, and setting—factors related to the drug and how it’s used, the individual and their circumstances, and the environment they use in… We also know that experiencing trauma in early childhood increases the likelihood that people will have a harmful relationship with drugs.

Yet, we live in a country that demonizes the drug user—they are a person who has made bad decisions and must live with the consequences. We see drug use as an individual choice and an individual problem. We try to interrupt that problem by punishing their bad choices and isolating people from everything that is familiar to them.

But, what child chooses to be neglected or abused? What person chooses to be left without a support system when their parent or caregiver dies? Nobody chooses the circumstances that often precede harmful relationships with drugs. But, it’s far simpler to point to the individual and never consider the environment that they come from.

That way, we don’t have to think about how poverty, a poor education system, a lack of economic opportunities, unstable housing, or growing up in a neighborhood where you regularly witness community violence, all make it more likely that people will have a harmful relationship with drugs. In fact, it is these circumstances, not drug use, where African-Americans are disproportionately represented…

Much like drug use itself, punishment and isolation don’t just impact the individual. They damage the environment as well; they take the parent away from their child, remove brothers and sisters from families. By removing community members, we promote disconnection and thereby increase the likelihood of harmful drug use for the people left behind…

We need to shift away from focusing our energy on trying to eliminate drug use altogether. That is and always has been an unrealistic goal. Drugs have been used for thousands of years, across continents and cultures. Drugs are a part of our lives and we all have relationships with them. We need to focus on the harms we consider most egregious and address them instead.

We’ve tried, what some would call, a tough love approach for too long. It’s time we just try love. We need to shift from seeing harmful drug use as an individual problem that we solve with punishment, to a community problem that we solve with healing…

One approach that does just that, and is gaining traction, is called harm reduction. Harm reduction is the practice of using drugs in less risky ways. When we drink responsibly, we are practicing harm reduction. We eat food before drinking, drink water, we practice moderation and limit our total number of drinks, we don’t drive when we’ve had too much to drink. These are all harm reduction choices we regularly make. As we make harm reduction choices with alcohol, we can make similar choices with other drugs…

Beyond this individual practice, harm reduction is a philosophy—a belief in the human rights of people who use drugs. Harm reduction promotes the idea that regardless of what a person puts in their body, they should not be denied their basic human rights…

As members of a faith community, your congregation has a unique opportunity to offer connection and healing to people in need. Matthew 11:28 tells us, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. The church has long been a place where people have sought out sanctuary. Extend an olive branch to the people who experience the severe consequences of drug use.

Too often, people who struggle with their drug use don’t seek out help, because they think that love and support will only be available to them if they are ready to stop using altogether. We need to dispel the myth that belonging to this community is contingent on abstinence from all drugs. Because it’s not. We know that because we’re all here…

Instead of focusing on trying to get people to stop using drugs, we can focus on trying to understand how and why they are using drugs. In order to understand people, we need to be willing to listen.

Healing happens in relationships. We should focus on building a connection with people. Learn about their lives. Find out about their story, ask them about their hopes and dreams, ask them about what’s missing in their life. Almost certainly, one of the things they’re missing is someone who’ll ask those questions and respectfully listen.

Remember, that person who is struggling is likely trying to disconnect from some source of pain. Give them love, give them connection, give them rest, help them heal, and you will help our communities heal.


Effective Drug Education

Sanya Singh Drug Education, Legalization, Tax and Regulate

Our November 17, newsletter argued that marijuana legalization makes possible “Drug Education That Students Will Believe.”  While Rick Steves did not address drug education explicitly, his comments confirmed this critical point – as these excerpts make clear:

We need credibility for teachers, cops, and parents when it comes to the dangers of hard drugs.

When we get the ‘reefer madness’ out of the system we have credibility.  When we take the crime out of marijuana, then we can address the serious problems of hard drugs, and we can do that effectively.

This isn’t an issue of soft or hard on drugs. This is an issue of how can we be pragmatic? How can we be smart about a problem that we can’t just wish away?  Marijuana is here. People who are opponents talk like, “If you legalize marijuana, it’s going to mess up kid’s brains.”  Well, the kids are smoking marijuana. They’re going to smoke after legalization. The question is how can we gain credibility.

In Europe, they talk about pragmatic harm reduction. For eight years during the Bush administration, if you proposed pragmatic harm reduction that would not even have been considered because that would have been code for “Let’s legalize it.” But what is wrong with pragmatic harm reduction when it comes to a moral issue?

We are suffering from decades and billions of dollars of misinformation from the federal government on the need to make marijuana criminal.  When they finally legalized alcohol, there wasn’t a celebration.  There was recognition that the laws against alcohol were causing more harm to society than the alcohol itself.

We can gain credibility by talking truth to our young people and to me it’s a huge issue. I was a parent of two kids and we had to navigate all those challenges. I want teachers and parents, and cops to have credibility with kids. They will when they speak the truth rather than mouthing government talking points.

Let’s regulate instead of criminalizing it.  We’re learning that right now. Marijuana use is going down among adolescents, because now we have credibility, just like we’ve had success with tobacco and kids. You can advertise, you can educate, and you can make progress.


Rick Steves: Law Enforcement, Race, Opioid Use, and Marijuana

Sanya Singh Legalization, Racial Inequality, Tax and Regulate

Photo via Flickr

On Monday evening, Nov. 27, Rick Steves spoke at a private reception.  On Tuesday morning, he held a press conference and then testified before a joint hearing of state legislative committees on marijuana legalization and economic development. Here are excerpts from these events.  Transcripts of the complete remarks are available upon request.

In Washington State marijuana is legal and the sky is not falling.  I’m a friend of our Governor, Jay Inslee, who wanted nothing to do with this. He was elected the same day we legalized marijuana and now he understands what it is.  He’s so thankful we are not arresting 10,000 people a year.  He so pleased that we’ve taken out much of the black market. And he’s getting to used to $300 million in additional revenue.

The black-market industry rivaled apples in my state, and if you know how big apples are in Washington, that’s a big industry. It was empowering and enriching organized crime and gangs, and we dismantled it.  We’ve turned it into a highly regulated, highly taxed legal market employing 26,000 people, especially in rural areas where we can use the employment. We’ve been able to redirect precious law enforcement resources away from petty pot issues to serious crime.

In 2013, James Cole of the U.S. Justice Department made this memo with very clear points: we’re going let you try this, but if you break our rules, you can expect to be busted by the federal government: keep it away from children, keep the criminals out of the business, keep out leakage from neighboring states, be very strict about safety on the roads, no pot in federal property and so on, and don’t let it be a cover for other illegal drug use.

In Washington State, we have been very shipshape about making sure the Cole Memo is satisfied. Consequently, we actually have banking now in our state.  About 95% of our money is not cash.


I spend a third of my whole life hanging out in Europe.  They cannot imagine how in the United States 70,000 people are in jail today for non-violent marijuana crimes. “How can you arrest 700,000 people?” they ask. “You Americans lock up 10 times as many people per capita as we do here in Europe. Either you have inherently more criminal people or there’s something screwy about the laws.”  They look at us and they say, “You guys are just crazy about legislating morality.”


The exciting news today is that we have a track record.  There’s never been a correlation with how strict the laws are and how much is consumed. That was our hunch when we started in Washington State. Now we know that because we have the statistics. We’ve been at this for four years in Washington State and in Colorado. The numbers are in. Use does not go up. Adolescent use does not go up. DUI’s don’t go up. Crime does not go up. What goes up is civil liberties and tax revenues.

I’ve been at this, as I mentioned, for 15 or 20 years and it’s always difficult to get statistics because people who generate statistics have an agenda. We have a thing called the Healthy Youth Survey that our government does in our state. It interviews 200,000 students between sixth and 12th grades every year on their lifestyle choices and their challenges and drug use and all those kinds of things.  Since 2012, teen use has stayed the same in our state.

You drive into town and you see the marijuana signs. It seems like it’s less forbidden. Perhaps that makes it less sexy for the kids. Also, remember of that $300 million we’ve generated in tax revenue, a good portion of it is earmarked for education and drug prevention programs.

Most of those who oppose legalizing marijuana are assuming use will go up. People who oppose legalizing marijuana act like nobody smokes it now.  A lot of people assume a whole reservoir of decent people who would love to ruin their lives smoking pot if only it was legal. But what we’ve learned is that anybody who wants to smoke pot, generally does now, already.


A big issue for me is the racism embedded in our prohibition.  When I was doing this in Washington State an individual from law enforcement was assigned to trail me when I gave my talks.  We became friends.  We went to dinner one night.  He said, “I disagree with everything you say except for the civil liberties thing.” Later he asked, “Why are you so passionate about this? Rick, you’re comfortable here in suburban Seattle, you can smoke pot for the rest of your life and never get in trouble.” I said, “That’s exactly it!   A rich white guy won’t get arrested.  It’s poor kids, it’s black kids.” It is just pathetic – the racism behind this law, and now people are starting to stand up.

In the first 57 years of my life I had never been hugged by a big, black, Baptist minister. After we legalized, I’ve been hugged by lots of big, beautiful, Baptist ministers.  Now leaders in the black community know how drugs have ravaged their communities. What they’re learning is it’s not the drugs that are so devastating, it’s the fact that it is criminal to use those drugs.

The NAACP endorsed our law in Washington.  They know that the most costly thing about marijuana is the fact that if you smoke it, you can ruin the rest of your life because you have a record, you can’t get into school, and you can’t get a loan, and you can’t get a job.


People are going to say that marijuana is a gateway drug.  Europeans have taught me that the only thing ‘gateway’ about marijuana is when it’s illegal, you got to buy it on the street from some criminal who is not going card you, and who is going to offer you something that’s more addictive and more profitable.


DUIs are a very important concern.  In Washington state, we were not a pro-pot law, we were a public safety law. That’s why we got the endorsement of law enforcement. We had very, very strict DUI considerations in our law. It was so strict that our main opposition was from the left, not from the right.

I don’t know anybody who believes that if somebody is driving intoxicated by anything – pills, marijuana, alcohol – we shouldn’t throw the book at them.  But I don’t think there’s any real evidence that shows in any state — medical, legal, or no marijuana — a correlation between those states and safety on the roads.

There are all sorts of people looking for an excuse to discredit this legalization movement, whose job is to be in the opposition.  They can spin examples and say, statistically, “Look it, there were two more accidents in this county than before, fatalities have doubled.”  But if you look at the broad picture, there’s no indication that medical or legal marijuana states show any difference from states that have not taken these steps.


Portugal and the Netherlands initiated their liberal policies on marijuana in order to deal with a serious opioid problem. After they got rid of their dictators, it was just a free for all. They had a horrible problem with hard drug addicts.  They decided to take the marijuana out of the equation and focus on hard drug addiction. Their marijuana use has stayed the same, they do not have any drug tourism, and their hard drug addiction populace has been cut by 50%.

If you’ve been to Amsterdam to see that neighborhood, it was a no-go zone when I was a kid traveling in the Netherlands.  It was just completely owned by the hard drug dealers. Now, it’s gentrified, there are beautiful restaurants and cafes and there is a coffee shop on the corner. They’ve taken the marijuana off of the streets, they’ve turned it into legitimate businesses and they have targeted their hard drug-addicted population very successfully.


You can learn about our prohibition against marijuana when you look at how we struggled with the prohibition against alcohol back in the ’20’s and ’30’s. Mayor LaGuardia of New York said, “When a society has a law on the books that it does not intend to enforce consistently across the board, the very existence of that law erodes respect for law enforcement in general.”

Take away the black market and generate tax revenue, then you can get your police to focus on serious problems instead of running down petty pot smokers and you can save a lot of money in law enforcement on top of the tax revenue.


In Europe the word for addicted is “enslaved.”  People who are drug addicts are not criminals. They don’t need cops, they don’t need lawyers, they don’t need judges, they need counselors and they need nurses and they need compassion. They need support. When you can take the crime out of the equation, you can see this is a health and education challenge, whether it’s hard drugs or a soft drug use and abuse.



Reparations In California

Tom Houseman Uncategorized

The toll taken by the War on Drugs is enormous and incalculable. People had their lives destroyed for minor infractions, and that damage can never be undone. Still, there must be a way for the government to make up for the harm it has caused, and the lives it has destroyed, in the pursuit of the impossible goal of a “Drug-Free America” that resulted in overly harsh law enforcement targeting urban communities of color.

One way to begin to repair this damage is through policy designed to improve the lives of victims of overly punitive marijuana policies in states that have since legalized recreational use. Knowing that marijuana is now legal will be cold comfort to those who spent years in prison for being caught holding a joint, who cannot get public housing or federal student loans because of a criminal record, who have found themselves unemployable because of a box on a job application that they have to check.

Countless policies at the state and federal levels seem designed to destroy the lives of convicted felons, to make their path to rehabilitation more challenging, to hinder their ability to build a stable life and to increase the likelihood of recidivism. Not only should these punishments no longer be inflicted on those who have unnecessarily suffered for infractions since made legal, but steps can and should be taken to ensure that victims of the drug war receive restitution for the suffering they endured. Unfortunately, policy regarding legalization does not always take this approach.

Among the many policies related to marijuana legalization that seem to favor the white and rich are the various employment and licensing restrictions placed on those with previous criminal convictions. Essentially, this means that anybody arrested for selling marijuana when it was illegal is barred from reaping the rewards of its legalization. Accounting for the fact that the strict regulations on marijuana sales makes the price of opening a dispensary extremely high, the effect of this legislation is that those who suffered under overly aggressive laws for decades (typically minorities living in poverty-dense neighborhoods) cannot benefit from marijuana legalization. Instead, all of the money will go to people who are already wealthy and were never caught smoking marijuana.

If state and local governments do not account for the damage they have done and take steps to atone for it, the history of racial injustice in drug policy enforcement will leave a long and painful legacy. In 2016, three states voted to legalize recreational marijuana: Massachusetts, Nevada, and California. While dispensaries in Nevada have already been up and running for months, the process of regulating the sale of marijuana in California, which has largely been left up to local jurisdictions, has been slow and complicated. Yet one recent development from the Los Angeles City Council shows that they are taking seriously their responsibility to lift up communities that have been harshly punished by the drug wars.

Herb Wesson, the LA City Council President, has proposed a program that would support people convicted of marijuana offenses by expunging their records and helping them set up legal dispensaries. In an idea inspired by one proposed by the Oakland city government, the city would provide assistance with licensing, and even offer reduced rent on vacant city properties. In addition, new dispensaries would be required to hire a certain number of low-income workers in order to maintain their license. California law prohibits local governments from giving preferential treatment based on race or ethnicity, but since the war on drugs has so disproportionately punished people of color, this form of reparation is almost certain to have the intended effect.

One of the main arguments in favor of marijuana has long been the revenue that will be raised to fill the coffers of states and cities, and undoubtedly the taxes raised from marijuana sales, coupled with the money saved by not having to enforce drug laws, will be enormously beneficial. But cities need to do more than legalizing marijuana and wait for the money to roll in if they want to heal the wounds inflicted by decades of discriminatory policies. By erasing the drug convictions of low-level offenders and helping them enter the rapidly expanding legal marijuana market, California has created a model for how to repair the harm it has caused. Hopefully, other cities will follow suit.