By Mike Estrada
From the Marlboro Man, official beer sponsors of the NFL and MLB, an increased fight for decriminalization of marijuana and constant commercials for painkillers, drugs have never been hidden from the eyes of children, so why is anyone surprised that they try them?
There is no hiding drugs from kids. Even as the number of high school teens using drugs goes down, it is never at zero.
So the question becomes, who educates them? “It’s so hypercritical that we get the parents involved,” said Stephen Ford, principal of Valencia High School. With over 20 years as an educator working with students, Ford spoke about the struggles some kids go through when they don’t have a stable home environment, including turning to their peers instead of parents or teachers.
“Some kids just want to get through the day when they have problems at home,” said Ford. He also added that the schools only have the kids for a few hours a day, and unless they really connect with a teacher, counselor or other faculty member, they aren’t likely to avoid drugs just because an adult said to. And unfortunately, having someone at home isn’t always easy, even two parent homes can be in a situation where both parents are working, creating more unsupervised time.
A 2018 study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse has shown that drug use by high school teenagers has been trending downwards, with the exception of marijuana which, “…remains unchanged among 10th and 12th graders compared to five years ago, despite the changing state marijuana laws during this time period.”
This falls in line with a survey done by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which shows that in California 38 percent of teenagers answered yes to trying marijuana, making it the highest used narcotic. However, illicit drug use by high school seniors across America saw a decrease to 12.4 percent, not counting marijuana.
One reason marijuana use remains constant could be the increase in vaping among students, and the ability to smoke THC, as well as nicotine, is even easier with electronic cigarettes. “90 percent of my interactions with kids when it comes to drugs are vape pens,” said Chad Powell, an assistant principal at Hart High School with over 20 years in education.
Studies by both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that in 2018, usage of electronic cigarettes increased among both middle school and high school students. High school students saw the biggest increase, 78 percent, going from 11.7 percent in 2017 to 20.8 percent according to the FDA.
Elizabeth Wilson and Sarah Delawder, assistant principles at Hart and Valencia High School respectively, both mentioned an increase in vaping among middle school students. The FDA cites a 48 percent increase from 2017 in regard to middle school students, going from 3.3 percent to 4.9 percent, meaning about 570,000 middle school kids are using some form of electronic cigarette across America.
So, what is the best option, should we follow the 1980’s drug campaign and “Just Say No” or should we educate kids on the affects that drugs have on them?
Education has been shown to help in another problem that plagues teenagers, teen pregnancy. And here we can draw a parallel from a study done by The National Center for Biotechnology Information on teen pregnancy rates that compared states that took different routes when it came to teaching kids; every state except North Dakota and Wyoming were included in the study.
21 states stressed abstinence only, seven emphasized abstinence education, 11 covered abstinence in the context of sex education and nine did not mention abstinence. Teen pregnancy rates of girls, ages 15-19, came out with these averages per 1,000 girls: 73.24, 61.86, 51.36 and 58.74 respectively. The best result, best being lowest rate of teen pregnancy, came from the 11 states that covered abstinence in the context of sex education, while the highest rate of teen pregnancies came from the 21 states that stressed abstinence only.
To add to that, states such as: Texas, Louisiana and Alabama do not require sex education and are among the states with the highest percentages of teen pregnancies, according to a 2016 HHS study.
It would seem that education is far more effective when it comes to helping minors make positive choices, even when it comes to subjects that are considered “adult” topics.
Having had over 15 years of working with students, education is the way to go according to Delawder, “Stimulating conversation is key, giving kids knowledge is key,” she said. She further stressed informing kids as a solution, mentioning that health class is necessary to graduate, and that kids are often uneducated when it comes to the drugs they are consuming, and that they might not be as likely to try them when they know the true effects they have on their health.
Powell held a similar opinion, asserting that kids need education, mentioning that a societal shift in acceptability towards drugs makes them look okay to minors.
Ford also believed that teaching was the more effective route, saying “my job isn’t to be a drug enforcer, it’s education,” emphasizing how important it is that parents be involved in their kids learning instead of solely relying on schools.
Regardless of the topic, an ample understanding leads to better decision making more often than a lack of education. For example, Stanford drug policy expert Keith Humphreys has expressed his disagreement of the D.A.R.E. program, specifically its fear mongering, saying on twitter, “Drug Abuse Resistance Education has been heavily studied and it just doesn’t work, period.” However, D.A.R.E. has seen a positive resurgence with it’s new “keepin’ it REAL” program which has turned away from the original scare tactics and now implements more science and education.
Conversations about things such as drugs and sex can be very uncomfortable, but if we are going to live in a society where any drugs are allowed recreationally, even if they are just for adults, we must be ready for the reality that minors are going to at some point in life come in contact with them. More and more studies are further proving that giving proper education, as opposed to advocating a “just don’t do it” approach, results in a decrease of drug abuse in teenagers. Add to education a positive and dependable role model in a kids life and those two elements together can help combat youth drug use in a powerful way.