Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform

committed to preventing tragedy that arises from illicit drug use

On Reinventing Drug Education, Especially for Adolescents

Rodney Skager, Professor Emeritus
Graduate School of Education and Information Studies
University of California, Los Angeles
Paper prepared for the 2nd International Conference on Drugs & Young People, Melbourne, Australia, 4-6 April, 2001.

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I was both honoured and surprised on receiving Geoff Munro’s invitation to speak at this conference. Honoured for reasons that should be obvious. Surprised, because according to a recent international study my country scored highest among Western nations in rates of teenage marijuana use. In other words, what can be learned from a nation in which one third more adolescents smoke weed than do their teenage peers in laissez-faire Holland?

Please understand that in what follows I am speaking about the situation that prevails in my own country. That things may be better here in Australia, or that I am arguing for policies that are already accepted here, I freely admit.

Substance use has for a considerable time been normalized among mainstream American adolescents. The concept of normalization goes beyond mere statistics. It speaks to the culture in which most American adolescents live. It means that users as well as many non-users accept experience with drugs as normal. It means that a substantial majority of older teens believe that most of their same age peers have tried marijuana and that student leaders and other social icons have tried it and that many currently use it. Substance use is firmly embedded in the teen social scene, part of the shared experience of both users and non-users.

I would offer some objective evidence for these assertions.

On the 2000 national Monitoring the Future survey last year 54 percent of US 12th grade students reported that they had used an illicit drug at least once in their lifetime. Forty-nine percent had tried marijuana. Yet, the true prevalence rates are probably higher. Even on anonymous surveys self-reported use is likely to be somewhat lower than true rates of use, because not all respondents will be willing to report illegal behaviour even under conditions of apparent anonymity.

When teens are asked to estimate the percentage of schoolmates of their own age who have tried marijuana, the numbers are much higher than the percentages obtained from self-report surveys. On the latest California survey 72 percent of 16 year olds estimated that half or more of their peers had tried it. Forty-four percent thought that half or more used monthly or more often!

Some researchers dismiss youth estimates of peer drug use, arguing that they exaggerate actual prevalence levels. In so doing these researchers miss the point entirely. Estimated peer use reflects youth perception of how things really are, and it is perception that establishes what is ordinary or normal. Believing that a majority of one’s peers have tried marijuana tends to legitimatise use of that drug, but this does not necessarily apply to other illicit drugs or to problematic use. As a third year university student observed, "We accept pot way more than other drugs. I mean, you watch TV and there are jokes about pot. Everybody’s laughing. If they talk about shooting up heroin, nobody’s really laughing…most educated people now feel that it’s not really a serious drug. It’s funny, it’s accepted, we know most people have tried it at some point, so it’s not a bad drug." (This and later comments from young people in their late teens or early 20s were collected by peer interviewers as part of an on-going study of youth attitudes about, and experience with, drugs).

These numbers not only reveal that the huge sums spent on interdiction and enforcement have failed to eliminate supply; they also illustrate the ordinary or commonplace nature of alcohol and other drugs in the social life of older teens. Drugs are there if you want them. They are part of the scene, "part of high school life," as the next informant will emphasize.

Most teenagers know things about drugs than they were never told in prevention education. Consider what one female college student said recently about her initiation into the use of marijuana at age 15.

"In high school drugs were around and my friends and I knew where to get them. People accepted it as a part of high school life. When I was in 10th grade, my friends and I were hanging out after school. We decided that we wanted to smoke some pot, so we walked around the quad and asked the people that knew about drugs where we could get some. We went to the honour roll students who sold drugs. We didn’t trust the stoners because they probably laced their drugs. We bought a 20 sack of weed and smoked it that day. That was the first time that I tried drugs."

The story provides a concrete example of just how easy it is for high school students in California to obtain marijuana. It also reveals that even relatively young teens can learn how to be intelligent consumers without guidance from adults. In deciding to buy their drugs from the honour students, they were applying, at age 15, an important principle of harm reduction—get your dope from a safe source.

This is how things stand after almost 3 decades of no-use messages and escalating punishment for the unlucky few who are caught using or in possession. I fear that if this situation were fully comprehended by my country’s political leadership there would be further incitement of hysteria, if such is possible, and consequent escalation in school drug testing, body searches, sniffer dogs, and undercover police. Would these police state tactics promote a sense of connection between kids, their school, and adults in general? I think not. "Shining adults on" is already an art form among youth. They have learned how to use covertly. Many will enjoy finding ways to defeat even these tactics, just as convicts do in real prisons.

No form of education can achieve zero tolerance objectives in a society where experimentation and use has been normalized. Prevention must be honest lest it be dismissed by young people as more propaganda. This means that teachers do not exaggerate dangers. They present both sides of the story. Failing to do so is to take the low road of indoctrination. And indoctrination "works" only when the learners do not have access to contradictory information.

Being honest means acknowledging up front that among people who try alcohol or other drugs, significant numbers do not like the experience and avoid further use, while others do like it, even perceive personal benefits, and yet do not progress to dysfunctional use. Of course there is a third group whose members never find a drug they do not like and behave accordingly. This is why initiating use is always a crapshoot. You cannot predict how the dice will roll.

These are commonplace observations that most young people arrive at on their own hook; yet, they may not be so much as uttered in a zero tolerance climate. Publicly acknowledging their validity, above all when young people might hear, provokes charges of "giving the wrong message." When the truth becomes the wrong message, something is definitely wrong with the system.

Despite an ostensible commitment to prevention education in the USA, deterrent punishment of young people who are caught is its true face in a zero tolerance atmosphere. Suspension and expulsion for drug offences are standard school policies in the United States. The motivation underlying deterrent punishment is to make an example of those who are caught so as to frighten others. Yet this approach has failed, partly because very few users are identified. Most adolescents who choose to do drugs do not expect to be caught, and many enjoy the adventure involved in doing something that adults forbid.

Suspension and expulsion merely eject youthful offenders out of the classroom and onto the street. As one university student said, "Expulsion is getting rid of the problem kids and not getting rid of the problem in those kids." This is the lamentable result of applying a criminal justice rather than public health approach to teenagers and adults who choose to use illicit substances. Instead of using forms of punishment that damage offenders rather than assist them, schools should identify consequences for alcohol and other drug violations that allow most students to remain in school. Students caught in violation of the rules are not necessarily problematic users. Those who are most severely involved with drugs eventually drop out of school without having to be pushed out. Application of reasonable and humane sanctions may be sufficient for teens that have not demonstrated problems in living associated with substance use.

Deterrent punishment is also counterproductive because most teachers believe that it will further harm young people who need assistance. Compassionate professionals become natural "enablers" under these circumstances. Teachers and worried peers dare not report what they see for fear of severe consequences to the student in question or to themselves in the form of retaliation by that student. The "no-talk" rule prevails when deterrent punishment rather than assistance and ordinary discipline dominates institutional policy towards those who break the rules.

Now, back to prevention education. I believe that politically correct prevention education in the United States has failed so miserably because it is shaped by three erroneous assumptions about youth development and socialization.

The first is that young people try drugs because they are naïve. How can this be in a teen social environment replete with all kinds of information about drugs and their effects? This is the first reason why indoctrination fails, why early prevention messages are forgotten or disconfirmed when new teens enter secondary school. But indoctrination is not merely ineffective. Once young people realize that they have been conned, they may dismiss the real dangers they were warned about. If their prevention curriculum espoused the now discredited "gateway theory" or just ignored the fact that many people enjoy moderate use of some drugs other than alcohol and experience no ill effects, perhaps they lied about the down-side of using cocaine or heroin?

There is a widely prevalent view among adults that even after puberty adolescents remain in a biologically distinct stage of development. It is this belief that allows so-called experts to concoct irrelevant or even patronizing forms of prevention education that alienate and insult so many young people, and thus boomerang, to use a metaphor this country has given to the world.

Early in adolescence most youth develop the capacity to use reasoning in a qualitatively different way. What Piaget labelled as "formal reasoning" empowers them to think hypothetically and thus to question the world as it is. What adults say is no longer taken for granted, especially if contrary information and opinions are available. This is why attempts to "inoculate" elementary school children against later experimentation with substances flop so resoundingly once those children become adolescents.

Mid and late adolescence is more productively viewed as a social role rather than a biological process. And it is a relatively new social role in Western society, as documented in Thomas Hine’s fascinating history of adolescence in the USA, The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager. In his recent textbook David Moshman argues that adolescence is more accurately viewed as the first stage of adulthood. He suggests that the crucial differences between adolescents and adults are experiential rather than biological. In other words, adolescents are inexperienced adults. Adolescent and adult populations overlap significantly on critical indicators of personal maturity. Some adolescents manifest greater ability to plan ahead, have better impulse control, and demonstrate more effective interpersonal skills than some adults who never achieve these hallmarks of maturity.

Adolescence is also a time in which young people develop personal ideologies and hold tenaciously to the associated beliefs. Adolescent belief systems may be quite contrary to those instilled in childhood, as many of us have observed with our own children. Believing that getting high is not only enjoyable but even a valuable experience can be a core principle of personal ideology. Many adults believe this as well, especially when the drug is alcohol.

The second assumption, one that has the current blessing of the federal bureaucracy in Washington, is that adolescents use substances to erase negative feelings associated with personal deficits. The idea is that there is something wrong with adolescents in general, perhaps by virtue of being young. The earliest of these deficit hypotheses assumed that most adolescents were deficient in self-esteem and drank or used to feel better about themselves. Currently, a superficially more sophisticated assumption is that adolescents lack social and life skills.

The problem with this assumption is that most kids learn how to get along in their own social world, which is increasingly separate both physically and culturally from that of adults. If feeling good about themselves is associated with success in fitting into a peer group, which most manage to do, then it is silly to assert that all or even the majority of kids lack social and life skills. The meagre and highly qualified results achieved by life skills programs reported in the research literature are exactly what we should expect.

Many high school student leaders and athletes use alcohol and marijuana. This exposes yet another flaw in the deficit assumption, whether the deficit is supposed to be low self-esteem or lack of social and life skills. These are the most successful students in the high school social world. Together they form the charter membership of an elite reference group to which many ordinary students aspire to belong. It is especially unlikely that these popular students lack social skills or that the icons of high school athletics feel ignored and dismissed.

Stories about alcohol and other drug use by student leaders are common in the interviews. A graduating senior woman recalled, "The president, vice-president, treasurer and athletes used marijuana. Most consumption of illicit drugs was done at parties. The teachers and administrators knew the identities of the drug users, but they seemed to look the other way." Another woman student indicated that had it not been for marijuana she would never have had the opportunity to associate with the cheerleaders at her school. She said, "Smoking marijuana was the one thing that many students in my high school had in common. We would gather at the nearby burger joint and smoke out. The funny thing was that even if you were not part of the cheerleader squad, if you were a ‘pothead’, they would smoke you out."

When we ask older teens why kids use drugs, the majority responds that they drink or use to have fun or that they are curious about what it feels like to get high. Considerably less than half cite boredom, depression or peer pressure—explanations likely to find favour among many adults. Does wanting to have fun or feeling curious about an experience that is so widely discussed and stridently forbidden reflect deviance or personal deficit? I think not.

The third false assumption is that kids use drugs because their peers pressure them to do so. Training in so-called "refusal skills" has been the antidote. But research in both the US and Britain supports the alternative explanation that kids are more likely to imitate spontaneously what they believe their peers are doing. Given the normalization of substance use, initiation is more accurately understood as self-initiated choice of a behaviour that is perceived to be normal or "cool," as they say.

The peer pressure hypothesis has particular appeal for many adults. After all, it makes adolescents themselves responsible for the problem and ignores the contributions of an adult society that adores drugs, whether illegal, pharmaceutical, or derived from a process of fermentation. Yet, insightful observers such as Patricia Hersch in her book "A Tribe Apart" have noted an atmosphere of mutual tolerance, a do-you-own-thing ethic of personal relationships among adolescents today. As a college student who had abstained from drug use remarked, "My friends offered marijuana because of courtesy…because they felt obligated since we were friends. However, they never teased me for not smoking." Another said, "Among my friends some people choose not to use (marijuana) and others do it. And nobody thinks less of any other person." These kinds of observations are common.

It is a commonplace observation that personal identity is the central theme of adolescent development. Identity can be understood as a myth about the self that is constructed out of life experience within a social context. Identity is the product of a process of personal socialization, in other words. For many children and adolescents the identity associated with home does not work in the peer group. Yet, peer groups are central to adolescent life. Most contemporary teens spend little time with adults. Patricia Hersch observed that adolescents today are rearing one other because the adults just aren’t there.

Members of all groups actively contrast themselves with members of other groups. This process of defining just how one’s group is distinctive helps fashion important facets of personal identity, especially beliefs and associated behaviour, but also the character one constructs as an expression of personal identity. For many young people to drink or use is to participate in a ritual that affirms group identity. It is often a way of saying, "We are different from adults. We do things that they forbid us to do." Unfortunately, the ways in which we go about prevention play directly into this process.

Specifically, we assault them with a moralistic, didactic, adult driven process of instruction that ignores real-life experience they can bring to the table. We tell them lies or half-truths that are easily refuted by their own experience. We patronize them with exercises designed to fix the deficits we assume they must have by virtue of being kids. Then, just to be sure that they will be good, we threaten them with punishment for doing something that they see as normal behaviour within their own social world, thus providing for many a delicious opportunity to get back at adults by doing exactly what they are forbidden to do.

Prevention can and should be reinvented. Not because a reinvented prevention would eliminate substance use in the adolescent population. The latter is not an achievable goal. Recognizing that drugs other than alcohol are here to stay is the first step out of the morass in which we find ourselves. Once this is understood, more realistic and pragmatic goals become obvious. Let me list a few.

· Reducing (rather than eliminating) over all use and delaying age of first use

· Fostering awareness of bad times and places for using drugs

· Reducing problematic use including bingeing, mixing drugs, using unknown or impure substances

· Promoting responsibility for self and others and related knowledge about (a) signs of abuse and dependency, (b) how to approach and assist people showing signs of problematic use, (c) awareness of helping resources in schools and communities

Prevention can address these and other pragmatic goals without giving permission to use as those who defend the status quo invariably charge. In any case, kids do not need to ask adults for permission to drink or use.

Prevention addresses choices young people make about living their own lives. Appropriate educational process and authentic relationships between teachers and students are essential. The experience of young people must be recognized and valued by the adult teacher or facilitator. This means that the process has to encourage participation and interaction. Predetermined, adult delivered curricula work against this principle. Worst of all, a lock-step curriculum ignores the significance of the teachable moment, that information or experience is best shared when it is relevant, when learners want to know.

More specifically, interactive learning is characterized by the following.

· A learning environment is interactive when the teacher stimulates discussion and creates a structure and associated activities wherein teens can ask for the information they need. Dialog is superior to top down teaching because it encourages active participation in the learning process. Adult facilitators can take it for granted that most teens have had their own encounters with drugs, even if they have abstained from use. They deserve honest, straightforward answers to their questions.

· The facilitator must be a credible and reliable source of information. Teenagers participating in focus groups in a California study conducted by Joel Brown and his colleagues frequently expressed doubts about the expertise of their prevention teachers. The facilitator must demonstrate at the outset an understanding of the culture of drug use, be able to use the drug words in use among teenagers, and accept that many of students associate alcohol and other drugs with positive experiences.

· The approach must be non-judgmental. The facilitator understands that participants will make their own choices about drugs. Safety rather than morality is the theme. Reduction in harmful involvement and development of rational decision-making skills are legitimate goals for teens that are heavily involved with drugs, but are as yet unwilling to accept abstinence as a solution.

· Ordinarily information is offered in response to questions asked by the students. Attempting to convince many teenagers that they should not use drugs is usually counterproductive. Instead, facilitators should concentrate on giving complete information on drugs including specifics such as what drugs are and their effects, keeping personal safety in mind, public policy and the legal implications of use, how to identify problem users, and the significance of personal development and social responsibility.

Adults who are successful facilitators in interactive learning situations are likely to be approached by students seeking help for their drug problem, whether it is with alcohol, tobacco, or illicit drugs. They cannot turn away at this critical moment. They must therefore know how to respond in an initial intervention and be connected to helping resources and agencies in the school and community. Ideally, there should be a substance abuse counsellor at the school to whom the classroom facilitator can refer problem users.

All schools should offer a Student Assistance Program for such students. This is the compassionate and socially responsible alternative to suspension and expulsion. The Program may be associated with the school or with a community organization. Both should be located in a place that protects the anonymity of students who are referred.

The barriers to the implementation of these proposals and identifying the kinds of adults who can make them work should not be underestimated. It may be that most schools as we know them cannot fully engage in some of the forms of prevention proposed here, especially in creating learning situations that are truly interactive. Community agencies independent of schools may be a more appropriate venue. But the issue, at least in my view, is not whether we do these things, but when and how.