Dare to Tell Your Kids the Truth about Drugs
I consider a loving, trusting relationship with my children to be one of the most important aspects of my life. My parents, in their effort to "protect" me, told me half-truths and mistruths. How betrayed I felt when I learned that they had not always been honest with me! This was a feeling I did not want my own children to experience.
I soon learned that if I told the truth and tried to prepare my kids for their eventual role as responsible adults, my message to them often conflicted with messages they heard via the media, movie images, commercials or others with different political or social agendas. These conflicting messages reached their ears even though they were home-schooled, and despite the fact we had no commercial television at home.
We struggled with how to protect our children from these lies and partial truths, without putting them at risk of losing respect for authority. How could we teach them to question the values that modern consumer society holds dear, without alienating them from the rest of the community?
Bombarded with psychologically manipulative advertisements, which often form rather than reflect social values, how could we explain why "needs" are different from "wants"?
Our public school was a mess, with a lack of discipline, rampant bullying and name-calling. My own experience with school made me want to be able to offer other options to our family. I didn't want my kids spending hours doing "busy work" while their minds yearned to soar. My desire was not to structure learning into tight time periods, but instead to allow constant access to their natural curiosity and hunger to explore our universe. As a home educator I felt I could teach my children truth and reason, with a strong emphasis on personal responsibility.
A dilemma presented itself when we began to discuss drugs with them. The confusion I experienced when trying to explain the drug war to my kids eventually led to a twenty-year involvement in drug education and drug policy reform.
Learning About Drugs
When I was growing up in the forties and fifties, there wasn't much talk about drugs, but of course they were everywhere, even then. Some of my earliest memories are the smells of cigarette smoke and coffee greeting me every morning. I probably owe my life to the antibiotic medications that I was given as a child, when I suffered recurrent upper respiratory infections, possibly brought on by the excessive smoke.
My family did not use alcohol at all, even to discuss it. It was just considered bad. When I graduated from a small mid-western school in 1962, I only knew of a couple of people in the whole school who smoked cigarettes and no one who drank alcohol. That was soon to change as I entered college in the sixties, with its "party till you puke" motto. It was a weak stomach, not high morals that kept me out of trouble with alcohol. Even though I yearned to fit in with the crowd, I didn't like being sick, which was inevitable if I drank even small amounts.
I watched as my friends and other students tried a plethora of legal and illegal drugs, even banana peels, in an attempt to get high. Some had problems many with alcohol. Most encountering problems had them because they didn't know what drug they were getting, had no idea of dosage or what to expect. I was astounded at their willingness to risk the unknown, given my own self-protective instincts which kept me from such experimentation.
It wasn't until the late sixties that I smoked marijuana after observing no ill health effects on the marijuana users I knew. I was pleasantly surprised as it relaxed me, but was not nearly as heavy or injurious feeling as alcohol. At this point I started to question the law. Still I naively believed there must be a health threat since the laws were so harsh.
During the '70s, I started to see negative effects of drug use on people I cared about. My grandmother was over-medicated on prescription drugs, a neighbor suffered cirrhosis of the liver from excessive alcohol use, an uncle had emphyzema from years of heavy smoking and a friend was dependent on over-the-counter nasal inhalers.
By 1980 I had my own children who looked to me to teach and protect them. To prepare them for the decisions they would face regarding these legal drugs I sought to better educate myself on the subject. I needed good information and found it at the University of Oregon, Drug Information Center (UODIC), directed by Mark Miller. Working with the academic staff of the UODIC and nationally ranked UO Health Education Dept., Mr. Miller developed the nationally acclaimed Drug Consumer Safety Education (DCSE) curriculum and presentations.
The unbiased health approach of the DCSE recognized that our society's virtually exclusive focus on illegal drugs has obscured a terribly important fact: that negative side affects (drug interactions and allergic reactions) are far more likely to be experienced by people improperly using the many legal, readily available drugs than people using illegal drugs. The general lack of awareness about problems of tolerance and dependence in regard to legal drugs makes it hard for people to participate in an "informed consent" process when they:
- go to the doctor for the more than 100,000 available prescription drugs
- go to the pharmacy for the more than 350,000 over-the-counter medications
- use alcohol, nicotine or caffeine
- are exposed to thousands of chemicals, compounds or impurities in commercial and industrial products found in insecticides, herbicides, food additives, cosmetics, household chemicals and industrial chemicals
- misuse and abuse the dozens of controlled substances out there
Don't get me wrong here. Drugs are wonderful tools. I'm grateful for pain medications on a regular basis. However, like most, I have also experienced serious complications from using both over-the-counter and some prescribed medications.
But a drug is a drug is a drug. All drugs can be dangerous for some people. A person can have an allergic reaction the first time they use a drug or the hundredth time. The basic guidelines developed by the DCSE curriculum evaluate a drug for its risks before using it, teach how to determine if one is having problems, and how to de-cide when/where to seek help if needed.
A result of my efforts to become really informed about drugs was to form the organization Mothers Against Misuse and Abuse (MAMA) with a mission to educate about drug consumer safety.
The Price of Paying Attention
Those of us who want youngsters to avoid problems with drugs might want to look at our own drug use. Ask yourself: does my behavior teach that all drug use choices are serious decisions, requiring careful consideration? Do I use drugs excessively and exhibit unacceptable social behavior? How do I help my kids evaluate the drug-taking behavior they observe in others; friends, classmates, family members and other adults?
While I felt we had found an excellent way to teach our youngsters about all drug use, it became increasingly hard to explain the law to them. I was seeing increasingly harsh efforts toward the prohibition of marijuana. The government had taken to spraying poison on marijuana crops. Marijuana, which I knew from personal experience was relatively mild when compared to alcohol, carried penalties for simple possession that were Draconian. I was astonished that the government would go so far to supposedly protect our citizens' health from marijuana use, yet use the taxes from the sale of other drugs with dangerous health effects (alcohol and tobacco) to provide basic services.
As my children grew up during the eighties, these laws became more and more severe. Not only would people go to jail for merely possessing small amounts of marijuana, but they were denied jobs and had their personal property taken away, even their homes. Then I got a phone call from a crying woman whose children had been taken from her because she cultivated three marijuana plants. Her call was followed by other calls with similar stories.
I was shocked, then outraged. How could anyone rationalize tearing a family apart to protect them from a growing plant? What's next, I wondered, the Fat Police to monitor our food intake?
If you believe what you hear and see in the media, the War on (Some) Drugs is designed to help protect the health and welfare of our citizens. One could conclude that the health threat posed by the few illegal drugs must be much worse than legal drugs, but I learned that nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, legal drugs cause far more deaths and health problems than illegal drugs. And the negative impact of prohibition itself, not the drugs prohibited, has been the origin of crime, violence and untold suffering for families across our nation.
Educating myself about the federal and state laws, I grew to believe that the laws about marijuana had less to do with protecting health, and more to do with power, control and money. How could I explain this to my children? In addition to my efforts through MAMA to educate about drug consumer safety, I now knew I must do what I could to change the law.
And so our children learned about government and the law as I took them with me to public hearings and meetings. I had to explain to them why legislators often didn't appear to be listening to the citizens who had traveled great distances to give testimony. My kids stood with me on street corners as I collected signatures for state initiative petitions to change the law. They helped me set up booths and information tables. They helped their father take care of our farm while I would be gone attending a conference or on a road tour, sometimes for weeks.
Truly educating your kids about the realities of this world demands that you pay a price. How do you explain the terrorism of the War on Drugs to a child when they see neighbors lose their property because they were growing a few marijuana plants? How to explain about the father of a friend who was locked up for years for non-violent drug crimes, sending his family into financial chaos and despair? How do you keep a child from losing respect for such heavy-handed authority and government?
As a person who spoke out against prohibition at the height of the "Just Say No" hysteria, I knew I could be targeted. I had to worry about police breaking down my door. I knew of cases where over-zealous law enforcement had set people up by "finding" drugs planted by police in the first place. I taught my children about this possibility when they were very young and I trained them how to hide. Really! After a friend told of being held naked at gunpoint while police searched her house for non-existent drugs, I was never naked again in my own home without something nearby to cover myself with quickly.
As the children matured they became more involved in the issues. My daughter Jennifer, now 21, started touring with me in 1998 when we traveled around Oregon, making public presentations and meeting with local groups, individuals and the media. We have toured in several states and Jennifer helps me staff MAMA's information tables and serves as technical support. She avoids the use of any drug, even caffeine, and volunteers a great deal to help others learn about complexities of drug use. Recently voted to the MAMA Board of Directors, she is the youngest board member in MAMA's 20-year history.
Our son Jacob, 23, will have an occasional beer (one) with his friends, and has educated them about the responsibilities and dangers of alcohol use. He and his sister hold strong feelings about the War on Drugs. One of his bumper stickers says, "I love my country, but I fear my government." He helps with musical events designed to register young people to vote and encourage thought about the effect of prohibition.
We chose to tell our children the truth. We told them our national drug policy is based on bad laws and we have worked very hard to change these laws. We introduced them to our sheriff and invited him into our home. We wanted them to see he was not a bad person, but we warned them that the police do enforce these bad laws.
We worked to educate our children and others to reduce the harm of drug use. We tried to set a good example for our children and the community when we did decide to use a drug, treating it as a serious decision, avoiding over-intoxication or objectionable behavior. We spoke the truth and stood by our values. It was not without consequence, negatively impacting our income and alienating us from some people in our community. But even though people might not agree with us, they grew to respect our position. And our children respect us for taking that position.
Our family is in agreement that there is still much to do to improve our national drug policy. The government has been disastrously negligent in providing consumers reliable information about the dangers of all drugs and education about how to reduce personal risk. Instead, our government has instituted harsh criminal penalties for certain drugs, while simultaneously being in bed with corporations that produce other drugs. One can't help but perceive a conflict of interest when the very government agencies charged with regulating drug companies are dependent on taxes from the sales of those products.
As a nation we continue to subsidize and collect taxes from the tobacco industry, yet we know that 1st and 2nd hand smoke will kill near 475,000 of our fellow Americans just this year. But when the tobacco industry was recently forced to give millions to the states, only a small percentage was set aside for tobacco abuse prevention and treatment. Thus national co-dependency continues. The same holds true for alcohol, a very powerful drug. Only a tiny percentage of taxes collected from alcohol sales goes to the prevention and treatment of alcohol abuse. Now these are both legal drugs, heavily advertised and readily available.
In America, approximately 275 people die EVERY DAY from using properly administered prescription drugs, but we do little to teach people to recognize if they are in trouble, and when and where to seek help. Doctors are pressured by patients to prescribe drugs they have seen advertised. Insurance companies, HMOs, pharmaceutical companies and doctors have entered into complex agreements to promote the prescription of certain drugs. Obviously money, rather than the best interests of the patient, dictates these arrangements. This is especially dangerous among the elderly, who are even less likely to have the tools and resources to educate themselves about ways to reduce the risks from prescription drugs.
Finally, we continue to spend billions of dollars each year fighting the War on Drugs. But we have failed to reduce the supply or abuse of these drugs, especially among children and other vulnerable populations. We have failed to protect the health of our citizens. We have failed to reduce the violence and crime associated with drug prohibition.
Politicians have used the War on Drugs to advance their careers, calling for ever more of the same failed policies and attacking those who question the status quo by calling them "soft on drugs". Those brave enough to speak out against the failed policy seriously jeopardize their careers. A clear example of this is what happened to former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, fired by the Clinton administration days after advocating for a study of the possible consequences of legalizing drugs.
Meanwhile, ordinary people are likewise afraid to speak out publicly against the War on Drugs. Many parents, especially those who depend on jobs in "drug free" workplaces, live in fear of speaking the truth to their colleagues, let alone their children. Advertisements, paid for by US taxpayers, even encourage parents not to be "too honest" with their children about their own past drug use.
Since the staggering tragedy on September 11th there has been media discussion regarding how to talk to your children about terrorism. As a parent and drug policy reform activist with a 20-year history, I am especially well-prepared to discuss this issue. But my enemy is more familiar than unknown foreign terrorists. My enemy declared war on me and my fellow citizens. My enemy is Drug Prohibition, and the crime and suffering it causes, and sadly, my own government is waging the war.
How can we stop this terrorism and develop drug policy designed to protect the health and welfare of our citizens? It will not be easy breaking away from the vast amount of money in the drug war industrial complex. Beside the money involved in the jail building, staffing and maintenance, the court system, and electronic monitoring, there are so many other political and economic interests with a stake in the status quo. There are the drug makers and sellers, drug-testing companies, drug treatment industry, even phone companies, which callously make excessive profits on jail phone calls to and from the literally millions of people incarcerated over the years for drug-related "crimes".
We can begin to make a change, though. We could start by:
Judging all drugs by the same scientific standard; Educating people to evaluate a drug to reduce the risks; Providing accurate scientific information and teaching people to recognize if they are having problems and where to seek help; Teaching people the skills they need to find happiness in life, such as adult literacy, parenting skills, decision-making skills, anger management, etc. Using tax dollars collected from sale of drugs for prevention and treatment on request for those who have problems.
I would like to believe that logic will prevail, that we will analyze our national drug policy and make these kinds of voluntary changes to better protect the health and well-being of our citizens, rather than lining pockets of corporations and giving so much power to politicians. But experience tells me these changes will not happen quickly, even though we are starting to see other more enlightened countries leading the way.
Faced with the current situation, parents are best able to protect their families by educating themselves, using critical thinking skills for their own decision-making, and setting a role model their children are proud to emulate.
My own children report that the process we DARED use to teach them about drugs has served them well. They are responsible and involved members of the community, both considerate and respectful, and the loving, trusting relationship with them that I so value is very strong.
Sandee Burbank works to bring common sense to public policy in a variety of ways. As Director and founder of Mothers Against Misuse and Abuse, she has worked for 20 years educating about drug use and advocating for drug policy reform. Sandee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. MAMA is a non profit organization and all donations are tax deductible. Reach MAMA at 2255 State Road, Mosier, OR 97040, 541-298-1031.