A Revolution in Teen Drug Education

Most parents dread the moment when they need to talk to their kids about drugs. What is the right thing to say? Where do we find the latest information? How honest should this conversation be?

Unfortunately for parents as well as teens around the country, the dominant drug education curriculum centers around one message: Just Say No. Abstain not only from alcohol, but from marijuana and harder drugs.

While we agree this is the ideal scenario, it is simply not reality. More than half of high school seniors say they have tried illegal drugs (including prescription drugs not under doctor’s orders) at some point in their lifetime, and 68% say they have tried alcohol (itself a potent drug) at some point in their lives.

This is despite more than $1 billion in our tax dollars the federal government allocates for drug prevention each year.

President Trump is fond of the “Just Say No” model. “If we can teach young people — and people, generally — not to start, it’s really, really easy not to take them,” he said.

That flies in the face of all evidence. We need a new model, and the good news is, now we have one. The first-ever drug education curriculum for teens centered around harm reduction was piloted last month at Bard High School Early College Manhattan on the Lower East Side. The 14-week curriculum — called Safety First: Real Drug Education for Teens — strongly encourages abstinence, but also provides science-based information in case a student, or someone they care about, chooses to engage.

This may sound radical, but it’s actually quite similar to modern sex education. While it would be preferable if teens never had sex, we want them to be informed about contraception and preventing sexually transmitted disease, if they decide to. Safety first.

The ninth-graders at Bard High School Early College who are learning this curriculum in their required health class are savvy. They have a million questions and are extremely curious. They want in-depth information so they can make good decisions.

Through this new curriculum we are able to teach these intelligent young people about different drugs, including marijuana, psychedelics and stimulants, and how each of these affects their bodies and minds.

They learn critical tools for preventing overdose — now the leading cause of death for Americans younger than 50 — and about drug policies that could land them in jail for risky behavior. They also learn about marginalized and targeted communities across the country that have been hardest hit by the War on Drugs.

The fact that students examine these issues with one another under the guidance of a trained and licensed health educator, rather than with an unknown police officer or other outside “drug educator,” is revolutionary in itself.

The point of the Safety First curriculum is to establish trust between adults and young people, so that they don’t go underground with their explorations. We want them to hone their critical thinking skills so that when they are in a sticky situation, they can make responsible choices.

Nor should we limit such an approach to teens. Since most of us grew up with DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) and other abstinence-only drug education programs, we have become adults with little knowledge about the science and harms associated with drug use.

We blindly move forward under the hazy mystique of drugs, and sometimes only understand the reality after something really bad happens. This is what we’re trying to prevent.

Now that the initial pilot is complete, this curriculum will be rigorously evaluated to determine whether it had an immediate effect on the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of freshmen in relationship to substance use. Independent evaluators will deliver their findings this summer, which will impact a new version of the curriculum to be released in the fall. We hope to continue to refine the curriculum, then make it accessible on a national level.

Based on the responses and engagement in the classroom so far, this is exactly the kind of curriculum students have been wanting, and one the country has been needing.

Simon is Safety First program manager at the Drug Policy Alliance. Miller is the health teacher at Bard High School Early College Manhattan, the first in the country to teach this curriculum.