Drug Education Was a Failure

Drug Education Was a Failure. And We Have the Statistics to Prove it

Think back to your formative years in high school and middle school. Chances are if your childhood was like mine you received some sort of formulaic drug education. A police officer or a gym teacher who was tired of your crap would have undoubtedly been the lecturer. More than likely that drug education was a crash course in all substances under the sun. Ranging from the relatively benign and commonplace to the obscure and dangerous.  Many of these you would likely never encounter again outside of those terrifying talks. From bong tokes to barbiturates you heard it all.Chances are your Phys-ed teacher (or Police Officer)… who I’m guessing wore his shorts a tad too high and his mustache a tad to bushy for the 21st century… systematically dissected these drugs, one by one. Each accompanied by the predictable crash and burn you would undergo if you tried them… everyone knows even one marijuana can be deadly. I’m willing to bet he also grouped the vile, illegal substances together as drugs, while alcohol and tobacco got their own comfy category and were referred to simply as alcohol and tobacco.The bombardment of anti-drug messages didn’t stop with your school education programs. Perhaps you have fond childhood memories of talking dogs or deflated best friends or Will Smith impersonators who bombarded you with these messages when you were just trying to watch Sailor Moon. Beyond inaccurate, this type of drug education is dangerous. It’s time to admit, that this sort of drug education was a failure. With the legalization of pot creeping up ever so slowly on the horizon, it seems only responsible that we do away with the scare tactics and update the curriculum we teach to our youth.

The Damage Done

Will Ferrell in Semi-Pro
An artists depiction of what Coach Mark might have looked like… mustache not present (image via USA Today)

One of the more prominent and egregious side effects of our draconian drug education programs that I can personally attest to is misinformation. Take for instance the not uncommon belief that marijuana is a dangerous drug… more dangerous than alcohol even. I remember the shock and betrayal I felt that that handsome Australian devil, Coach Mark, had misled me.As I entered university and began to conduct my own experiments with cannabis I soon discovered that far from finding myself begging for change in the gutters to get a bong toke, I was doing quite well.The truth is the scientific data for Cannabis lethality simply wasn’t there. Prominent scientific organizations such as the National Cancer Institute attest that an overdose on weed is an impossibility and moderate users of Cannabis experience little to no impairment of their lung capacity. As reassuring as these facts are, especially when combined with anecdotal evidence of Cannabis users who turned out to be successful they serve as an incomplete picture, especially with the potential risks to youth.

Weed and The Developing Brain

Kids Smoking a Joint
What your kids are undoubtedly doing RIGHT NOW! (image via The Globe and Mail)

Even today the brain is an area of science that still remains an area of great speculation. One thing that is well documented however is the effect of drugs on the developing brain. Even something as benign as cannabis can have negative effects when used by teenagers.

Particularly troubling is the effect of habitual weed smoking on teenager’s IQ. A longitudinal study conducted in New Zealand found that smokers who started during their teenage years experience a decline in IQ of as much as 6 points when compared to the regular population. That’s similar to the consequences of lead exposure. Perhaps the Police Officer and Coach Mark were right… young people toking up is no joke… and the problem may be getting worse.

The Consequences of Bad Education

A young man inhales on a joint
A recreation of what I was actually doing during band practice… Sorry mom (image via National Post)

The quality of past drug education has not been up to scratch. In many cases, these education programs have had little effect or often worse, a negative effect. A University of Michigan Study sheds light on the fact that rates of cannabis use among teenagers are on the increase in North America… dramatically so. In 1992, the percentage of 12th graders who reported smoking weed in the last year was 32.6%. In 2017, that number jumped nearly 13 points to 45%.This increase is prevalent in younger Americans as well with, 10th graders jumping from 21.4% to 30.7% and 8th graders from 10.2% to 13.5% over the same period (give or take a year). These rates of increase are startling and undoubtedly reflect a failure in drug education policy over the past 20 years. More kids are using weed and at a younger age too. And sometimes we can link an education program’s failures directly to increased drug use.Remember the DARE campaign with all its holier than though baritone cartoon lions, well-intending police officers and pencils carrying vile subliminal messages? They tried the hard-hitting just say no approach, with black and white moralistic thinking about drug use and police officers as community liaisons in classrooms.For all its shock and awe and government funding, the program was an abysmal failure and several studies actually showed that participants in this program were more likely to use drugs than the general population. The moral here is that you should be wary of cartoon lions and do NOT take misinformation lightly.

What  Can We Do Differently? A Lesson From Alcohol

Homer Simpson once praised alcohol as the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems. It is to this beverage that we must turn our attention and place our faith. While rates of Cannabis use among teens have been on the increase since the 90’s… alcohol cannot boast the same explosion in youthful popularity.

Homer Simpson Beer meme
Alcohol… the great teacher

The same University of Michigan Study measured a steep decline in the percentage of teens that reported they had been drunk in the last year. For 12th graders, the number has dropped over 17% from 52.7%  in 1991 down to 35.6% in 2017.Younger teens are less likely to get drunk as well, with the number of 10th graders getting drunk nearly halved from 40.1% to 20.4% and the percentage of 8th graders nearly divided by 3, from 17.5% to 6.4% in the same time period.This is despite the fact that alcohol is ubiquitous and omnipresent. Found everywhere from restaurants to grocery stores, if you live in North America and you’re attempting to shelter your children from exposure to alcohol, you’re going to be in for a bad time. Yet despite this exposure, statistics attest to the fact that even as alcohol becomes more ubiquitous,  consumption rates among youth are on the decline. Perhaps advocates of keeping Cannabis out of the hands of youth could take a few notes.

Building a New Curriculum: Science and Moderation

Science is a powerful tool for and its time it was recognized as such. Rather than moralization, and scare tactics perhaps its time to use this tool in drug education. Labeling Cannabis as a dangerous and vile intoxicant in the same category as heroin and cocaine is off the table.  A new solution might involve advocating responsible use, while simultaneously showing the damage underage toking can do. This could be the rational middle ground between the education programs of the past and future.Life experience is invaluable. However, learning from others mistakes and data can be a valuable tool as well. There are dangers to excessive use of any drug, pot included. Perhaps some general guidelines on safe use for those that choose to use could benefit our teens.Like alcohol, cannabis is here to stay and the fact that our youth is going to use it is a reality. While no one wants to assume that their child will be the one to smoke a doobie behind the portable while they’re supposed to be at band practice (sorry mom), pragmatism is key and excess can be damaging to mental health.Everything in moderation. There is a difference between healthy use and abuse. Undoubtedly this is an extremely grey area and varies from person to person based on a number of interrelated factors. Nonetheless, it would be valuable to give teens the tools to recognize when their consumption is excessive and negatively affecting their lives and when their ‘recreational activities’ are still in the realm of healthy behavior. Yes, drug use can be therapeutic. By not telling our teenagers the full story about cannabis use, especially in this age of information, we risk losing their trust.

Address the Reasons Why People Use Drugs

A deflated girl
One of the biggest failures of drug education is the failure to acknowledge that drugs feel great… or else why would use them? (image via archive for plebs)

Recalling my days in Coach Mark’s class… Bless his soul. He made it a point to list every minor side effect of barbiturates, speed and every other obscure drug I might encounter over the course of my life. I guess he pictured my life would look something like this. What I don’t recall , owever, was education on the reasons why people use drugs.Why do people do drugs? People do drugs because they are addicted to drugs. This sort of circular logic will not do in the 21st century but has reared its ugly head time and time again. An age old truth: drugs are not the reason why people do drugs. There are underlying psychological and biological factors at play.Addiction and unhealthy consumption aside… people do drugs such as Cannabis, alcohol and others, because they’re enjoyable. This is common sense… why would youth continue to experiment with cannabis in increasing numbers if they didn’t enjoy it? We can prepare our youth for this fact, or let them discover it on their own in a much unhealthier, less informed way. This is straight forward enough. The motivations for addiction on the other hand are a little more complicated.

The Addiction Paradox: Its NOT the Drugs

A key flaw with drug education is that is that it ironically focuses too much on drugs. Currently, drug education programs stop short at “drugs exist and they’re dangerous”. Educating youth on the motivations for addiction (from a scientific and psychological perspective) would go a step further. This would be a messy and complicated conversation to have, but one that is well worth having for our society’s collective mental and physical health.

The Canadian Center for Addiction and Mental Health
The Canadian Center for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) is at the cutting edge of drug research (image via Huffington Post)

The Canadian Center For Mental Health and Addiction (or CAMH) lists five interconnected causes of addiction. These include genetic predisposition, our brain’s natural reward mechanisms, negative environmental impacts, mental health issues and using drugs as a coping mechanism for past traumas. Bringing these risk factors for addiction to student’s attention would undoubtedly aid in creating a healthier, happier future. Adding this aspect of addiction to drug curriculum enables youth who are at risk to become conscious of their predicament. Nipping the issue in the bud early might save lives, and valuable resources.


Drug education is a powerful tool, but a dangerous one at that. The failures of past drug education programs combined with increasing rates of youth Cannabis consumption have shown that. With the 180 degree turn in drug policy in North America over the past 10 years, it is time to adapt to these new realities. It is required of us to look to the future for new ideas and solutions for the problem of youth drug use and education is a good place to start.[share-btn]