Why abstinence-only drug education doesn’t work—in fact, it backfires spectacularly.

I talked to a lot of middle-class recreational drug users for my research. None of them had any idea when they were younger that they’d end up dropping acid on a regular basis when they became successful adults. Very few of them grew up in explicitly drug-positive environments, or even around healthy drug using behaviours. Some, in fact, experienced trauma caused by family alcoholism. (One person, Brad, who did grow up with parents who used recreational drugs, actually ended up adopting a teetotalling stance until age 30 as his form of rebellion1: “My parents were really disappointed. They genuinely were like, ‘Brad we’re really worried about you, you’re not gonna try drugs?'”)

Everyone I talked to remembered being taught anti-drug messages in school, and many were staunchly against drug use themselves as teenagers and young adults.

Dave: I had basically not even smoked weed at that point in my life. The only thing I’d ever done was drink alcohol. I was like, OK, I’ll have a drink, but like, I will not do drugs. I’m not going to throw my life away.

Adam: I was one of those people who years ago, I would have told you, no, I would never do those drugs, drugs are bad, drugs kill people.

So why, then, did they change their minds and start experimenting with consciousness alteration?

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Everything is fair game for an anthropologist’s office. You should see my hilarious collection of Far Side comics.

There was a really interesting pattern that came up in discussions of this topic. Without exception, every time I asked a person if they remembered anti-drug education in school, I would be met with the same reaction: a smile and a laugh. They would reminisce on how ridiculous scare tactics are as an educational strategy, chuckling as they remembered advertisements cracking brain-eggs into a frying pan or portraying the average drug user as a person with, as Ella put it, “your teeth falling out, skin all scaly and whatnot”. (“I actually watch those ads on YouTube sometimes because I just think they’re funny,” said Mandy.) They really are pretty funny. I have a “Reefer Madness” poster in my office, partly as a reminder of the messed-up, racist origins of North American drug policy and how that “Danger Will Robinson” paradigm continues today, and partly because it’s hilarious. When drug users laugh at this kind of scare tactic, the laughter comes not only from the ironic awareness that anti-drug education clearly did not work for them, but from the knowledge of how incredibly sensationalized and counterproductive it is in general.

The funniest part is this: Often, drug users talk about how, after being bombarded by frightening images of the worst possible effects of drug use, those internalized messages would actually backfire and have the exact opposite effect of their intention when they ended up trying illegal drugs for the first time. When none of the doomsday predictions come true after their first few times, users are left questioning the accuracy of all of the narratives they’d been given about drugs—including important ones about actual potential dangers.

Eleanor: They do all these anti-drug campaigns, and then you like, smoke weed for the first time. And then you’re like, oh it wasn’t even bad, and you’re like, OK now they’re lying.

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Because “You’ll probably dance a lot, hug all your friends and then maybe have a light headache in the morning” isn’t going to terrify the youth.

The only narratives about drug use offered in an educational context are negative and completely over-the-top. When these narratives fail to prevent use, they’re promptly rejected as incongruent with the actual, real experience of being high. A lot of people are underwhelmed, even, after all the drama and hype around illegal drugs. (Fun fact: Your odds of seeing flying purple elephants on a starter dose of magic mushrooms are pretty low.)

Bobby is a 30-year-old raver from Toronto with an impeccable memory and a sweet disposition. He told me about how, when he was just starting to explore the scene, the stigma he had associated with drug users due to educational scare tactics was challenged when he found out that a good friend of his used illegal drugs. This change in perspective in turn caused him to decide to try them himself.

Bobby: I thought about it for a while before I decided to actually do it. And really the main reason I did it was, my best friend at the time—who I went to high school with and spent most of my time around at that time—him and I started going out, he kind of pulled me into the club scene with him. And then, I didn’t even realize it at the time until after a few months, I somehow found out that he’d been doing ecstasy the whole time and I never even knew about it.

In coming to learn that, that’s when I realized, oh okay, maybe drugs aren’t so bad and evil like I was taught, you know. Like as a kid, that’s what we were all taught. I expected this big change in someone and they’d just turn into this person, you know, this evil person, and I didn’t see that, so I was actually kind of shocked and surprised, like really? I didn’t believe him, and he said ‘yeah, I’m on it right now’. And I said oh, okay, well, what does it feel like? And he started telling me more, and I guess gears started turning in my head, and I got curious about it.

And I did a bit of reading and stuff, you know, I Googled it, just to learn some more information, in order to make an informed decision, I guess. So then, yeah, on New Year’s I decided that would be the first time to do it, I waited long enough. So that was the first street drug that I took.

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Drug negativity and sex negativity all in one fear-mongering package! Two stigmas for the price of one!

However, from I think age 14 or 15 I was medicated with Ritalin and then Concerta and then Dexedrine. So I guess I had already established some sort of ongoing drug usage.2

But then, what is there to replace those scary life-ruining narratives with? If they’re wrong about pot or ecstasy, what other lies have they told? What else is out there? Curious, bright-eyed little budding drug users are left with nothing to guide them except information from other users and their own personal experimentation. And that’s where problems start. Unchecked experimentation without informed guidelines and boundaries is the main source of bad drug experiences, especially when constrained by access only to unregulated substances (looking at you, prohibition. Man you are just the absolute worst).

Without being armed with any sort of accurate, balanced information about drugs, safe usage or harm reduction, inquisitive experimenters are left to find out for themselves about harms and benefits, relying on their peers and on their own process of trial-and-error to discover a more rounded picture of the world of psychoactive substances. And since not everyone knows about Erowid, you can imagine what kind of ridiculously preventable crap can happen when ‘figuring it out as you go along’ is how it’s done. “Oops, okay, so apparently you shouldn’t re-dose GHB if it’s been less than an hour since your first dose. Too bad I found that out the hard way, by puking on my friend’s shoes and passing out in the middle of a Bassnectar concert. Would have been nice to know beforehand.”

This trial-and-error is a process that often causes damages that could have been be easily avoided had they had access to balanced information about drugs in the first place, framed by a critical-thinking orientation and informed by attention paid to all aspects of drugs’ place in human life: good, bad and neutral. It also—this is where we get into the really controversial stuff—might be preventing a lot of people from experiencing significant benefits from some drugs, especially psychedelics and MDMA.

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Don’t do drugs, k gotcha. I can still get wasted on jager though, right? Alcohol’s not a drug.

Scare tactics might prevent some teenagers from trying psychoactive substances, but they leave those who do end up trying them woefully unprepared. Sound familiar? It’s because we’ve already accepted that abstinence-only education is a gigantic, steaming pile of failure when it comes to sex. Sex is an unavoidable part of life, teenagers included, despite what the puritans would like to believe. But guess what–today, right now, in our culture, drugs are an unavoidable part of life too. The odds are extremely good that you’re under the influence of a drug right now. My guess would be caffeine, especially if it’s morning when you’re reading this. Maybe it’s the evening, and you were sipping a glass of wine as you scrolled around Facebook and saw this post. Only you know what’s in your medicine cabinet. Drugs are such a normal part of life that we barely even remember the fact that most of us take them all the time.

Ignoring this fact is either a significant oversight in health education, or a conscious choice to leave those dirty, deviant experimenters who are curious about drugs to fend for themselves. This might make sense, in some cold, heartless neoliberal way, if human beings didn’t have a pretty clear universal desire to both alter our consciousness and experience pleasure. Either we find a way to get rid of that desire (HAH), or we need to acknowledge reality and have a conversation about what to do next.

“The reluctance to acknowledge research findings which show that experimental drug use is a normal part of adolescent development and that it may in fact improve psychological health, prevents genuine reform of abstinence-based drug education” (Keane 2003:229).

Is it time for education based on moderation and information, then, instead of prohibition and abstinence? This is the stance that public education in Canada takes on sex education, and we know it works far better than abstinence-only education. The idea of allowing young people to make their own, even informed, choices about their bodies is one that doesn’t sit well with many policymakers or parents. It makes them grimace and squirm and protest. However, the fact is that these choices are being made by young people regardless of the lack of information they have to making those choices with. The current strategy of leaving youth uninformed or even deliberately misinformed in the hopes that they abstain from drugs (many of which aren’t even harmful unless they’re consumed improperly) is, quite frankly, immoral.

Let’s treat teenagers with some respect, instead of thinking that lying to them is going to protect them from the world.

Please share this, or start a conversation, with anyone you know who is reasonable enough to accept that abstinence-only sex education doesn’t work, but might not have realized that about drug education too.


Follow me on Twitter (@hilaryagro) if you like snark and feminism, and/or hate drug prohibition, capitalism and the prison-industrial complex.


1 A longer interview excerpt from that story, because it’s hilarious:

Brad: My parents were rock and rollers. My rebellion was spreadsheets, computers and math, and you know, getting a job.
Hilary: [Laughs]
Brad: I got a mortgage at 21, and I didn’t even have a beer until I was 30.
Hilary: Were your parents disappointed?
Brad: They were really disappointed. They genuinely were like, “Brad we’re really worried about you, you’re not gonna try drugs?”
Hilary: [Laughing] Seriously?
Brad: Yeah. And that’s because I was on the path to becoming a miserable square. Like, didn’t live. Didn’t party. Didn’t have fun. And that’s, I mean, I was a workaholic, through my twenties. That’s all I did. So I’m kind of going through my twenties now. Kind of backwards.

2 Note that Bobby’s last comment is a great example of the legal/illegal conflation of what is or is not considered a ‘drug’.

 

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2 thoughts on “Why abstinence-only drug education doesn’t work—in fact, it backfires spectacularly.

  1. There is an infrequent secondary path into drug use that you may be interested in. Taking D.A.R.E. absolutely seriously. Not having friends who do drugs (not from prejudice, just that social sorting that makes people have friends kind of like them). And it goes kind of like this.

    Get in the “silicon valley” memeplex. I’ll just throw a bunch of words out to gesture to it. 99th percentile student, Asperger’s syndrome, ambition, rationality, [insert word here]-hacking etc….

    Notice that there are some psychoactives they endorse, (low risk, good amount of supporting evidence). I realize you focus more on rave culture, but the drugs of choice there are more like Modafinil (very safe and effective stimulant), and psychedelic microdosing (low doses of psychedelics to provide a mood and creativity boost without the usual craziness).

    Do research, verify that they are safe.

    But once you get an interest in any psychoactive group of chemicals, the boundary to the rest of them gets very fuzzy.

    Research nootropics, study drugs, psychedelics, empathogens…

    And the two closely-spaced breaking points were trying to find out why LSD was banned (and not getting any good answers), and reading about the fiasco that happened when the DEA banned MDMA.

    Oh my god. They have no idea what they are doing. They are actually malicious. I do not accept the authority of this pack of bumbling idiots.

    READ ALL THE THINGS ON ALL THE DRUGS

    And then start using the easily-available or high-value ones that my research turned up. It’s been a very positive experience so far and I’m about to have my first trip in a few days. (Tried weed, wasn’t a fan)

    Like

  2. Pingback: Alright, let’s talk about GHB: A user’s guide.  | Raving Anthropology

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