Marsha Rosenbaum

Trump Misses the Mark: Real Drug Education Should Say 'Just Say Know'

It felt like Goundhog Day last week when the president and attorney general, in response to the overdose crisis, advocated a resurrection of “just say no”-style anti-drug advertising. It’s been 30 years since Mrs. Reagan’s famous advice and the proliferation of the DARE drug prevention program, which has been widely researched and consistently debunked.

Keep reading... Show less

Legalization of Marijuana: What Are We Saying to the Kids?

Last month Oregon, Alaska, and the District of Columbia joined Colorado and Washington as voters approved initiatives to legalize marijuana. Other states, including California, are likely to follow in 2016.

Keep reading... Show less

The Futility of Random Drug Testing

This article originally appeared in USA Today.

Though touted by the Bush administration as the "silver bullet" that will force teenagers to "just say no," random drug testing is of questionable effectiveness. It is also costly, counterproductive and violates basic American values. That's why the million-member California State PTA, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Education Association, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, and the majority of the nation's school districts oppose school-based drug testing.

According to the Academy of Pediatrics, "There is little evidence of the effectiveness of school-based drug testing in the scientific literature." In fact, the only federally funded, peer-reviewed study, which compared 94,000 students in 900 U.S. schools, found no difference in illegal drug use between schools with and without a testing program.

Before subjecting secondary school students to a policy as invasive as random drug testing, evidence of its efficacy should be more conclusive than anecdotes offered by a few enthusiastic proponents and a drug testing industry that stands to reap billions.

Drug testing is costly. With federal grants, individual schools, many of them strapped for funds, spend between $10,000 and $40,000 per year for testing. This money could be used more productively for sports, arts, drama, music and other extracurricular activities that keep teens engaged between3 and 6 p.m., when they are bored and unsupervised. The funds could also be used to hire credentialed counselors who could focus full-time on substance abuse and related mental health issues.

Drug testing, regardless of how it's packaged, is an invasive diagnostic procedure. Like other health issues, alcohol and other drug use should first and foremost be the domain of parents and physicians. If parents want to drug-test their own children, they can easily buy over-the-counter kits at their local pharmacies or see their family doctors, leaving schools out of it.

There is no quick fix for the complex issue of substance abuse. Quality drug education and after-school programs that help students thrive will best result in the kind of responsible decision-making that endures beyond the teen years and into adulthood.

A Frank Mother-Son Conversation on Drugs

A Mother's Advice on Drugs

September 7, 1998

Dear Johnny,

This fall you will be entering high school, and like most American teenagers, you'll have to navigate drugs. As most parents, I would prefer that you not use drugs. However, I realize that despite my wishes, you might experiment.

I will not use scare tactics to deter you. Instead, having spent the past 25 years researching drug use, abuse and policy, I will tell you a little about what I have learned, hoping this will let you to make wise choices. My only concern is your health and safety.

When people talk about "drugs," they are generally referring to illegal substances such as marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine (speed), psychedelic drugs (LSD, Ecstasy, "Shrooms") and heroin.

These are not the only drugs that make you high. Alcohol, cigarettes and many other substances (like glue) cause intoxication of some sort. The fact that one drug or another is illegal does not mean one is better or worse for you. All of them temporarily change the way you perceive things and the way you think.

Some people will tell you that drugs feel good, and that's why they use them. But drugs are not always fun. Cocaine and methamphetamine speed up your heart; LSD can make you feel disoriented; alcohol intoxication impairs driving; cigarette smoking leads to addiction and sometimes lung cancer; and people sometimes die suddenly from taking heroin. Marijuana does not often lead to physical dependence or overdose, but it does alter the way people think, behave and react.

I have tried to give you a short description of the drugs you might encounter. I choose not to try to scare you by distorting information because I want you to have confidence in what I tell you. Although I won't lie to you about their effects, there are many reasons for a person your age to not use drugs or alcohol.

First, being high on marijuana or any other drug often interferes with normal life. It is difficult to retain information while high, so using it -- especially daily -- affects your ability to learn.

Second, if you think you might try marijuana, please wait until you are older. Adults with drug problems often started using at a very early age.

Finally, your father and I don't want you to get into trouble. Drug and alcohol use are illegal, and the consequences of being caught are huge. Here in the United States, the number of arrests for possession of marijuana has more than doubled in the past six years. Adults are serious about "zero tolerance." If caught, you could be arrested, expelled from school, barred from playing sports, lose your driver's license, be denied a college loan, and/or be rejected for college.

Despite my advice to abstain, you may one day choose to experiment. I will say again that this is not a good idea, but if you do, I urge you to learn as much as you can, and use common sense. There are many excellent books and references, including the Internet, that give you credible information about drugs. You can, of course, always talk to me. If I don't know the answers to your questions, I will try to help you find them.

If you are offered drugs, be cautious. Watch how people behave, but understand that everyone responds differently -- even to the same substance. If you do decide to experiment, be sure you are surrounded by people you can count upon. Plan your transportation and under no circumstances drive or get into a car with anyone else who has been using alcohol or other drugs. Call us or any of our close friends any time, day or night, and we will pick you up -- no questions asked and no consequences.

And please, Johnny, use moderation. It is impossible to know what is contained in illegal drugs because they are not regulated. The majority of fatal overdoses occur because young people do not know the strength of the drugs they consume, or how they combine with other drugs. Please do not participate in drinking contests, which have killed too many young people. Whereas marijuana by itself is not fatal, too much can cause you to become disoriented and sometimes paranoid. And of course, smoking can hurt your lungs, later in life and now.

Johnny, as your father and I have always told you about a range of activities (including sex), think about the consequences of your actions before you act. Drugs are no different. Be skeptical and most of all, be safe.

Love, Mom


Her Son's Response

November 15, 2006

Dear Mom,

It has been eight years since I entered high school on the heels of your advice about drugs: "Johnny -- be skeptical and, most of all, be safe." Although I'd like to tell you that I never needed your advice because I never encountered drugs, I'd prefer to be as honest with you as you have been with me.

Just as you predicted, I spent high school and college navigating a highly experimental teenage drug culture. While some of the substances that I encountered were illegal, like marijuana, cocaine, and Ecstasy, many were not, like alcohol, cigarettes, and Ritalin. Because you explained that a drug's legality does not mean that it is better or worse for me, I approached every substance with skepticism, moderation and common sense.

Our household mantra of 'safety first' guided me through a maze of difficult decisions, particularly in college where alcohol use and abuse is widespread. Because you didn't lie or exaggerate the risks of drug use, I took your warnings seriously. I always made plans for sober transportation; I refused to leave friends alone if they were highly intoxicated; and I was never afraid to call home if I found myself in a dangerous situation.

Of course you advised me not to use drugs, but as an expert in the field, you knew that I was likely to experiment. Most parents panic in response to this likelihood, but you and Dad remained levelheaded: You didn't impose rigid rules that were bound to be broken, and you didn't bombard me with transparent scare tactics. Instead you encouraged me to think critically and carefully about drug use. When I inquired, you armed me with truthful, scientifically based information from which I could make my own decisions. This was excellent practice for adulthood, and we built a loving relationship based on trust and truth.

Mom, your work does so much more than teach parents how to talk to their kids about drugs; your work keeps parents and kids communicating at a time when most kids shut their parents out. Our relationship is a perfect example. For never ceasing to communicate with me, even when I tried to shut the door on you, and for tirelessly keeping me, my sisters, and so many other kids safe, thank you.


The Truth About Drug Hysteria

Until a prison record, a dental procedure and a death were exposed as fiction, millions of readers ate up James Frey's firsthand account of the horrors of drug and alcohol abuse in "A Million Little Pieces." In the weeks following the expose and mama-Oprah's defense-turned-shaming, much has been made in the literary world of the lines between fact, fiction and memoir.

With drugs, journalism, even science, has taken a "say anything (shocking)" approach. The Frey fiasco is not the first time accounts, descriptions or research about drugs have been sensationalized or fabricated and proven false. Fiction, in fact, has provided the cornerstone for much of our national drug policy.

Nearly 70 years ago, during the "Reefer Madness" frenzy that followed the end of Prohibition, Harry Anslinger, then America's commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, ranted that "[marijuana is] as dangerous as a coiled rattlesnake … how many murders, suicides … and deeds of maniacal insanity it causes each year, especially among the young, can be only conjectured."

That year our misinformed marijuana laws passed easily, and despite subsequent government commissions refuting the notion of the "killer weed," we continue to live with another Prohibition that's just as pointless as the first.

Over the years, sensational stories about drugs continued to fill the pages of newspapers, some even winning prestigious awards. In 1980, for example, Washington Post journalist Janet Cooke wrote a disturbing account of an 8-year-old addict who had been injecting heroin since he was 5. The next year she won the coveted Pulitzer Prize in feature writing. The story, it was later revealed, was a fabrication.

Even "scientific" research has been sensationalized. According to sociologists Craig Reinarman and Harry Levine, in terms of sheer numbers and consequence, no media claims have been more alarming than those about crack in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The "crack baby" phenomenon was perhaps most frightening, with predictions of upwards of 375,000 impaired infants who would eventually reach school age and turn our educational system upside down. These claims were later refuted by researchers who published a comprehensive review of the research in the Journal of the American Medical Association: "[T]here is no convincing evidence that prenatal cocaine exposure is associated with any developmental toxicity difference in severity, scope or kind from … many other risk factors."

Meanwhile, thousands of babies were placed in foster care, and many more mothers and children were saddled with a stigmatizing label more often used to justify various forms of punishment and discrimination than to improve access to health care and treatment. Hype and alarm about the mythological crack baby was also used to justify new, even stiffer laws for adults who possessed even tiny quantities of cocaine, resulting in the costly mass imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of nonviolent offenders.

By the late 1990s, the drug scare of choice was ecstasy (MDMA). As director of the first federally funded sociological study of MDMA, I was shocked by the sheer number of sensational claims appearing in seemingly reputable publications. Perhaps most disturbing was an article published in the esteemed journal Science. Researchers claimed that even a low dose of ecstasy could cause irreversible brain damage leading to Parkinson's disease. After the media had pounced on the story and the federal government followed with a $54 million anti-ecstasy campaign, the research was found to be fatally flawed (the drug administered to the primates was not, in fact, MDMA at all) and the story was retracted.

There's a pattern here, observed as far back as 1967, when the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice cautioned, "In reviewing the claims made about the undesirable outcomes of amphetamine use (and of marijuana and opiate use as well) … one is struck by the lack of support for the claims advanced by reputable and well-intentioned persons, including government officials, to the effect that these drugs cause crime and accidents … [suggesting] that scientific and official reporting about drug effects may itself be subject to strong bias and may reflect preconceived ideas rather than an adequate appraisal of the evidence."

Oprah was not the first to be duped by sensationalistic stories about drugs. Indeed, Americans have a history of eagerness to believe the worst. The more interesting question is more fundamental and less about Frey's lies than about us. Why are we so willing to believe the worst and so uncritical when it comes to drugs and the consequences of using them? Why do we keep believing the hype?

Drug abuse is a bad thing, to be sure, and real-life drug problems are a nightmare for all involved. But until we become critical of sensational accounts, we'll continue to allow our fears, rather than our intellect, to guide not only our choice of reading material but, more importantly, our policies.

Drug Testing Gets Failing Grade

The Office of National Drug Control Policy descends upon Orlando, Fla., on Thursday to host the first of four "summits" around the country promoting random student drug testing. While Orange County has resisted what Drug Czar John Walters calls a "silver bullet," enthusiastic conference presenters will no doubt sound as though they have all the answers for preventing teen drug use, and backed with a federal budget upwards of $9 million, the push in on.

As the mother of four, a National Institute on Drug Abuse scholar and director of a drug abuse prevention program advocating science-based drug education for teens, I urge Florida's educators and parents to be wary of "feel good" promises and proceed with extreme caution when it comes to student drug testing, as it may be doing more harm than good. Consider the very real pitfalls:

Keep reading... Show less

California Cops Go To Pot

After decades of trying to make it go away, last month two California law enforcement agencies acknowledged that marijuana is a fact of life.

First, the California Highway Patrol announced that they would no longer confiscate marijuana from patients whose physicians have recommended it as medicine. The CHP reversed its policy after Attorney General Bill Lockyer defended California's Proposition 215, the medical marijuana initiative, which voters passed by a large margin in 1996.

Last spring, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Raich v. Ashcroft that federal marijuana laws trump state laws like Prop 215, leaving California's thousands of medical marijuana patients at risk of federal prosecution. But Lockyer ruled that while the feds might arrest people on the basis of federal law, California voters had spoken and the Supreme Court decision did not invalidate 215. Citing his decision, the CHP took the courageous step of announcing that absent other offenses they will leave medical marijuana patients alone.

The next day, the Los Angeles Police Department announced that it will no longer automatically screen out job applicants who have used marijuana. The LAPD has a long history of enthusiasm for the war on drugs (former Chief Daryl Gates once said that all drug users "should be taken out and shot"), and it relies on federal drug war funds. So this small step showed a certain amount of courage, too.

Obviously, the LAPD is not looking to hire current drug users. Its new policy simply acknowledges the fact that nearly 100 million Americans have used marijuana, 25 million of them in the past year, according to the latest federal government survey. The department deserves credit for recognizing that it is simply unrealistic to rule out a huge swath of the population solely for having once engaged in a common form of drug use that is considered normal in many conventional segments of society.

Of course, ardent prohibitionists and pundits will claim that these actions by the Attorney General, the CHP and the LAPD "send the wrong message" and that "flakey" California is going to pot. Is there any reason to worry that these steps will somehow signal moral laxity and encourage marijuana use?

The evidence is reassuring. In the 1970s, the Netherlands effectively decriminalized marijuana use. Thirty years later, the Dutch have tightly regulated, tax-paying shops that sell small amounts of marijuana to adults, while last year the U.S. arrested over 600,000 Americans for mere possession of it. Yet national surveys show that the prevalence of marijuana use in the Netherlands has remained about half that in the U.S.

In fact, there has never been a clear relationship between policy and use levels. In the 1970s, 11 U.S. states sharply reduced penalties for marijuana possession. Some people predicted the collapse of civilization, but follow-up studies showed that none of these states experienced any more drug use or drug problems than neighboring states that retained harsh penalties.

In 2004, England reclassified cannabis use as a minor offense. Last week the U.K. Department of Health reported that its annual survey of over 9,000 youth found cannabis use had declined since the reclassification.

The same is true in the U.S. The most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that illicit drug use among youth (most of it marijuana), was down in 2004. Indeed, marijuana use declined in each of the 10 states that have passed medical marijuana laws -- including California, where use among youth was down more than in other states without such laws.

It is increasingly clear that neither reducing criminal penalties for marijuana use nor allowing medical marijuana lead to increased use. In short, the "wrong message" approach sends the wrong message. No one wants more young people smoking anything. But a moral crusade against marijuana that denies sick and dying people a medicine they and their doctors have found therapeutic is not only bad medicine but bad morals. California voters said this in 1996, and California law enforcement officials are wisely saying this now.

Some will criticize California for its leadership on drug policy reform. But Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis long ago recognized that the individual states were vital "laboratories of democracy" where needed experiments in public policy could be conducted. With all the criticism directed at government these days, it seems only fair to notice when public officials take measured steps toward positive change.

Prosecuting Mom and Dad

In the aftermath of a New Year's Eve party involving underage drinking, a dentist and his wife from the affluent New York suburb of Scarsdale have been charged with "first degree unlawfully dealing with a child," a misdemeanor, and are being arraigned Feb. 8.

The couple may serve a year in jail for allowing teenagers to imbibe in their home. This is not an isolated incident. In communities all over the country, from California to Florida to Illinois to Vermont, state and local "social host" laws such as the one used to charge the Scarsdale couple are furtively being passed in an effort to put a stop to teenage alcohol use, making criminals out of otherwise responsible, law-abiding parents all across America.

As an alcohol and drug abuse expert and the mother of four, I worry that out of frustration, fear, and desperation, criminal justice efforts to eliminate underage drinking, targeted at parents, may actually worsen the situation and reduce teen safety.

It is imperative to first look at the context of drinking in America. Alcohol has always been America's drug of choice – the substance we use to celebrate (Let's drink to that!), recreate (I can't wait to kick back and have a cold one), and medicate (Man, I really need a drink).

Although we may not approve, it's worth remembering that teenage alcohol use is nothing new. It's been a part of American culture since the first Puritan settlers in the 17th century, and has worried parents since that time. As City University of New York professor Harry G. Levine, an eminent alcohol historian, told me, "For 400 years, adult Americans have drunk alcoholic drinks – rum, ale, corn whiskey, lager beer, roaring '20s cocktails, gin, wine, scotch, vodka, and nowadays piña coladas in cans. And for 400 years, each generation of American parents have [sic] also worried about the drinking and drunkenness of their teenaged children and fretted about their incapacity to eliminate it, or even reduce it. None of that is new. But the riskiness of teenage drinking is greater now than in the past because of our reliance on automobiles."

Indeed, the most lethal aspect of underage alcohol use, by far, is drunk driving, with the National Highway Safety Administration reporting in 2003 that nearly 2,400 teens died in car accidents involving alcohol and far more were seriously injured. It is for this very reason that some parents, particularly in suburban communities where so many young people drive, have reluctantly permitted their teens to drink at home.

Alcohol use by a sizable number of teenagers is not likely to go away any time soon. In fact, last month's annual survey, Monitoring the Future, revealed that once again alcohol overwhelmingly topped the list of teenagers' drugs of choice, with 77 percent trying it at some point during their high school years and 60 percent having gotten drunk – 30 percent within the past month.  

In my work as a drug researcher and educator, I have spoken confidentially with hundreds of parents who have strongly encouraged their teens to abstain, assessed the reality of this request, and then reluctantly provided their home as a safe space to gather. (See Partying With My Parents.) These parents do not condone or promote drinking. Nor do they provide or serve alcohol at parties. But they understand that underage drinking will occur, whether or not they approve. The difficult decision they make has driving in the forefront of their minds. They confiscate car keys and keep an eye out for problems, believing their teens are safer at home where they can be supervised, than on the road.

I hate to see safety-oriented parents vilified, but worry even more about the teenagers they're trying to protect. When I ask young people how they'll respond to the proliferation of these local ordinances, which will effectively eliminate the availability of parentally supervised homes where they can "hang out," not one says they'll stop drinking. Instead, they say they will simply move the party to the street, the local park, the beach or some other public place. And they'll get there by car.

Before there are more car accidents and other alcohol-related problems, we should reassess our approach to underage drinking. Obviously, abstinence would be the safest choice. In the meantime, comprehensive alcohol education is imperative, as are crackdowns on drunk driving. But let's get real. There will always be parties, and while we encourage and promote sober gatherings, parents should have a fallback strategy that makes sure drinking and driving don't mix. Sending parents to jail for trying to keep their teenagers safe is not the answer, and it may ultimately do more harm than good.

A Teachable Moment

The recent death of a 14-year-old girl from Belmont, Calif. who had taken the drug ecstasy has shocked and surprised the San Francisco Bay Area, and people across the country.

Especially disturbing is that, in the opinion of the local coroner Robert Foucrault, Irma Perez's life could have been saved with professional intervention.

According to the paramedic's report, Perez had taken an excessive dose -- three "Valentine ecstasy" pills -- and possibly alcohol and/or other drugs as well. While her two friends suffered no ill effects, Perez had an extremely rare reaction. She experienced what emergency physician Dr. Karl Sporer calls "serotonin syndrome": rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, high fever and agitation.

Because adverse reactions are so rare with ecstasy, what caused Perez's idiosyncratic response? Did the pills contain adulterants? Did Perez have a pre-existing condition that made her especially vulnerable, such as a cardiac arrhythmia? Was she dehydrated or did she drink too much water, causing dramatic drops in sodium levels? We don't know the answers to these questions yet, but it is hoped the coroner will issue his report soon and make it public.

As a drug educator, I agree with Belmont-Redwood Shores California Superintendent John McIntosh that in this "teachable moment" we must provide information to both parents and teenagers. At this critical juncture, we need to be very careful about what we say so we can win back the confidence of young people. After more than two decades of exaggerations about drugs in general, and a recent scandal leading to the retraction of "brain damage" claims about ecstasy, adults have lost a great deal of credibility with teens.

Our task is to replace exaggeration and scare tactics with balanced, science-based information. In a perfect world, teenagers would "just say no" to alcohol and other drugs. But after abstinence-only messages, reinforced by increasing zero-tolerance policies (such as expulsion from school and arrest), the National Institute on Drug Abuse survey, "Monitoring the Future," found that in 2003, more than 45 percent of eighth-graders had tried alcohol, 17 percent had tried marijuana and 3 percent had tried ecstasy. Missing from our educational efforts is a fallback strategy of harm reduction for those teens that like Perez and her friends, say, "yes" despite our efforts.

In addition to providing sound information about alcohol and other drugs, young people should learn to recognize signs of distress and know that they can and must get help. This was not what happened in Perez's case. For five hours, her friends tried on their own to help, using makeshift methods, such as giving her a bath. Perez finally lapsed into the coma from which she never recovered.

Sadly, the experience of Perez's friends is not uncommon. They realized something was wrong and got scared, knowing they would "get into trouble" if the police came. In their naiveté, they hoped she would simply come out of it. This scenario is played out all too often, because it's possible to overdose on almost any substance, especially alcohol, the most popular drug among young people.

Many in law enforcement, such as Commander Trisha Sanchez of the San Mateo County Narcotics Task Force, agree that the message we send our teens should be clear. The use of alcohol and other drugs is a poor choice, but if you do experiment and there is a problem, you will not be punished by calling for help.

As a parent, I understand that providing "harm reduction" information can be uncomfortable. We worry that acknowledging the possibility that teenagers might experiment will send the message that we condone the use of alcohol and other drugs and that this message will, in fact, open the door.

The reality, however, is that as a society we regularly medicate and imbibe with a variety of legal and illegal substances, so the door is already open. Our job is to keep our kids alive, even if they're not completely drug free.

Stop Pointing Guns at Our Kids

As the mother of a teenager, I share the outrage experienced by parents of Stratford High School students, who were recently terrorized by Goose Creek, South Carolina police. In an effort to purge the school of drugs, law enforcement was called in by the administration. After rounding up the students, pointing guns at them, and searching their lockers, no drugs were found. The students, however, were scared to death.

The use of weapons on the Stratford High School campus is testament to the failure of our efforts to stop young people from using drugs, and the frustration experienced by school officials.

No parent wants their teenager to use drugs. We should understand, however, that teenage experimentation is not surprising in a country that aggressively advertises alcohol and anti-depressants on prime time TV, rendering these and other kinds of drugs a part of American culture. Teens who experiment with alcohol and other drugs are not necessarily bad kids, nor are their parents necessarily failing to do their job. It's just that in reality, America is not drug free, and neither are our teenagers.

Although the incident in Goose Creek was isolated, it was no more successful than any other attempt to keep young people from experimenting with drugs in the last 20 years. As parents, it's one thing to read about our country's War on Drugs. It really hits home, however, when our own children are subjected to the violence that has characterized this failed policy.

We tried "just say no," which entered our vernacular in 1980 when marijuana use had already peaked and was on the decline. Still, with Reagan's new "tough on crime" posture and the First Lady's pet project, anti-drug funding (and sentiment) increased sharply.

The Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program reached children in 80 percent of school districts across the country.

The private sector got involved in the crusade, with the Partnership for a Drug-Free America filling the airwaves with images and warnings. Who could forget the egg-in-the-frying-pan "this is your brain" commercials?

By the early 1990s, an American teenager had to be living under a rock to have missed anti-drug messages.

But then a strange shift began to occur. Despite universal school-based prevention programs, anti-drug ads, intolerance of illegal drugs, and a "lock 'em up" attitude, national surveys indicated that teenage use of alcohol and other drugs was increasing.

Teens, it seemed, were becoming bored, rather than frightened, by fear-based messages about drugs, and bone-tired of admonishments to abstain. Obviously the message wasn't effective, with half of all teens experimenting with illegal drugs, and 80 percent trying alcohol before graduating from high school.

As a response to increased alcohol and other drug use among teenagers, and to let them know we meant business, "zero tolerance" policies were implemented in secondary schools across the country. Students were regularly suspended, or even expelled for possession or use of a range of substances, including Tylenol and Midol. Drug-sniffing dogs were unleashed on campuses in an effort to locate drugs, and to further "send a message."

The tentacles of the growing urine testing industry reached teenagers when the testing of athletes became de rigeur in the mid-1990s. Recently the Supreme Court ruled that student drug testing is legal for all extracurricular activities, and the Office of National Drug Control Policy is pushing the testing of all secondary school students (to the delight of the drug testing industry, and with no evidence that it actually works to deter drug use). For many American teenagers, the Fourth Amendment of our Bill of Rights has become an historical artifact. Not to mention that in America we are all supposed to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, not the other way around.

But there is another way. While government agencies continue to devise increasingly harsh policies to no avail, real parents in the real world living with real teenagers, myself among them, are looking at pragmatic alternatives to zero tolerance.

Today's parents, like those in Goose Creek, are skeptical of policies that demonize and frighten their teenagers without ensuring their health, well-being, and safety. If total abstinence isn't a realistic alternative, we want our teens to be educated about drugs by giving them scientific, honest information, not exaggerated claims designed (unsuccessfully) to scare them. We want school policies that protect students without jeopardizing the future of those who make immature mistakes. We want counseling and support, rather than humiliation, suspension, expulsion, or, as in the case of Stratford High, violence.

Our children's safety should be top priority when it comes to educating them about drugs. Pointing guns at their heads is not the answer.

Marsha Rosenbaum, PhD, directs the Safety First drug education project at the Drug Policy Alliance in San Francisco.

The Ecstasy Debacle

Earlier this month, with little fanfare, highly touted researchers from Johns Hopkins University made a stunning announcement. Data from their experiments with the now infamous drug, Ecstasy, published a year ago in the esteemed journal, Science, turned out to be fatally flawed. It seems the vials had been mislabeled, and the drug that killed 20 percent of the study's laboratory monkeys and baboons was not Ecstasy at all, but a completely different substance.

As a research scientist myself, having conducted the first federally funded sociological study of Ecstasy users, I am happy about the recent news that one dose of Ecstasy does not, as the widely publicized Science article had claimed, cause irreversible brain damage leading to Parkinson's disease. What bothers me is the turn of events that enabled our government to consistently use faulty research to shape bad drug policy.

Ecstasy's story began nearly 30 years ago, when it was first used legally in the 1970s as an adjunct to psychotherapy. Psychiatrists were impressed with its ability to help couples communicate, to enable trauma victims to heal, and to soothe chronically ill patients facing death. MDMA (Ecstasy's chemical name) crossed over into recreational circles in the early 1980s and shortly thereafter became illegal. Its use remained relatively quiet until the early 1990s, when it became associated with underground dance parties known as "Raves."

Ecstasy became popular with growing numbers of young people, and at its peak in 2000, nearly 12 percent of high school seniors admitted to using it at least once. As problems, largely associated with look-a-like pills, overheating and dehydration, were reported, the frenzied print and electronic media ran 1,000 fear-producing stories.

At this point the Johns Hopkins team had released a study showing massive changes in brain chemistry resulting from the use of Ecstasy. Though now considered methodologically flawed and never replicated, the "brain damage" claim resulted in panic.

The federal government couldn't move fast enough, quickly enacting anti-Ecstasy legislation and promoting its $54 million educational campaign to alert young people and their parents to Ecstasy's dangers.

While states enacted laws targeting users (such as in Illinois, where possession of 15 pills resulted in a mandatory 4-year sentence in state prison), federal legislation was initially stalled but subsequently pushed through as a tag-on to the 2003 Amber Alert bill.

The RAVE (Reducing Americans' Vulnerability to Ecstasy) act held event promoters liable for their patrons' drug use. Since the presence of medical staff and other safety measures at dances or other gatherings constituted awareness that drugs might be used there, sponsors faced an impossible dilemma. They could eliminate "harm reduction" measures such as pill testing and chill-out rooms and risk patrons' health, or maintain them and risk their own arrest and prosecution.

As an educator, the credibility of the Ecstasy educational campaign had me worried from its inception. Drawing from the Johns Hopkins "serotonin" research (now refuted by a recently published, much larger and better controlled study) web sites and television spots carried frightening "this is your brain" images showing a normal brain alongside an obviously damaged Ecstasy user's brain. Although those images turned out to be phony, the National Institute on Drug Abuse director loudly proclaimed to worried parents and politicians that the government finally had the science to show young people that Ecstasy could have dire consequences.

So much for science, and so much for convincing young people that the government is telling the truth. Indeed, the recent Science retraction is just another nail in the coffin of credibility when it comes to what adults tell young people about drugs. Although those "this is your brain..." ads (along with the drug-use-equals-terrorism spots) have now been pulled, as my 25-year-old daughter, a graduate of the DARE program, remarked when she heard the recent news about Ecstasy, "Now I'm convinced that any information about drugs coming out of the government is automatically suspect."

The problem, of course, is much bigger than this one piece of research, and bigger than Ecstasy. It provides just one example of the way in which science is manipulated to promote partisan public policy. That's what ranking member of the House Committee on Government Reform, Representative Henry Waxman, learned when he began to investigate the administration's use of scientific information. Regarding more than 20 issues, including substance abuse, his shocking report concludes, "The Bush Administration has manipulated, distorted, or interfered with science on health, environmental, and other key issues."

As the mother of a teenager and a young adult, my main concern, like that of most parents, is the safety of my children. It would help if, along with the retraction of the faulty Ecstasy research, the policies that came in its wake -- the RAVE act and the "this is your brain" education campaign -- were retracted as well. Indeed, NIDA's web site has now pulled some of its information on Ecstasy and says it is being revised.

If young Americans are ever to believe what our government tells them about drugs and other policy issues, we must be sure that our messages are based on sound science rather than political ideology. Then, and only then, will young people have the kind of trusted information they need to make sound health decisions.

Marsha Rosenbaum, Ph.D. directs the Safety First project ( of the Drug Policy Alliance ( in San Francisco.

Keeping Kids Off Drugs

The emotionally charged issue of keeping teenagers off drugs has prompted a variety of programs and policies. The problem is that we don't know whether they work. For more than 20 years we have carried on a huge experiment on our teenagers. Beginning in the early 1980s with Nancy Reagan's simplistic "just say no" mantra, we have tried persuasion, encouragement and scare tactics. We started by subjecting our kids to school-based prevention programs (such as DARE), and provocative (if ridiculous) commercials (such as the egg in the frying pan).

Obviously, our teenagers did not stop using drugs. In fact, year after year, government studies have indicated that by the time they graduate from high school, half of American teenagers will have admitted trying an illegal drug and 8 of 10 will have used alcohol.

Frustrated by our inability to get them to stop using drugs, we added threats and punishment to our repertoire. To show we meant business we instituted "zero tolerance" policies that included invasive and offensive procedures such as drug testing, sniffing dogs and locker searches. When caught, even for the silliest offense (such as the Maine high school student who brought Tylenol to school to alleviate menstrual cramps), students have been stigmatized, barred from extracurricular activities or expelled from school.

As the mother of a teenager and a young adult, I wish we'd done the research before instituting these draconian policies.

In April the surprising results from the largest national survey of student drug testing appeared in the American School Health Association's well-respected Journal of School Health. For educators and others who thought drug testing would be the panacea that could deter their students' substance use, and certainly for the ever-expanding, multibillion dollar drug testing industry, the news was crushing.

The study found that drug testing, (costing from $10 to $70 per student), while humiliating and alienating them in the process, does nothing to deter drug use. In school districts that tested students for drugs, 37 percent had used marijuana during the past year, and 21 percent had used "hard" drugs. In comparable schools that did not test for drugs, 36 percent of students had used marijuana and 19 percent had used harder drugs -- a wash at best.

Now that the results are in, I'm hopeful the National School Boards Association will retreat from its pro-drug testing posture. And just for the record, I hope the U.S. Supreme Court justices, who ruled in a 2002 case that it was constitutional (and clearly stated that they believed it effective) to test students wanting to participate in the choir, the chess club and any other extra-curricular activities, will find a way to reverse their misbegotten decision.

Whereas policymakers may not be looking critically for evidence before making decisions, the good news is that real parents dealing with real teenagers in the real world seem to be paying attention. Recent news from the California Parent-Teacher Association suggests that parents fed up with zero tolerance "horror stories" will lead the way in making pragmatic, science- based decisions.

After deciding last year to partner with the Safety First project of the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates honest drug education and an end to counterproductive scare tactics, in May the mom-and-apple-pie institution went even further.

When California PTA Vice President for Community Concerns, Julie Bauer, reviewed research findings, including those from the comprehensive National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, she learned that school connectedness has a direct relationship to lowered health risk behaviors, such as drug use.
At the annual PTA convention held in early May, she did something about what she had learned. Noting that "suspension or expulsion of students that use alcohol and drugs, without behavioral intervention, mentoring or rehabilitative referral, is ineffective and unsuccessful in curtailing substance abuse among students," she introduced a resolution, urging the California state PTA to "support in-school suspension, after school interventions, positive behavior mentoring, student assistance and other programs that offer counseling and education as preventive disciplinary response to student drug abuse."

In other words, rather than throwing students out of school for making bad decisions, let's offer help, keep them busy, locate constructive punishment for rule-breaking within the school context, and try to increase their connection to teachers, administrators and other students.

Though there was much discussion and some dissention, in a show of common sense, pragmatism, and courage, voting members of the PTA overwhelmingly approved the "Alternatives to Zero Tolerance" resolution.

With parents taking the lead, we hope that high level educators (and Supreme Court justices) will follow with evidence-based policies, and stop using our teenagers as guinea pigs.

Marsha Rosenbaum, Ph.D., directs the Safety First project of the Drug Policy Alliance in San Francisco.

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Drug Education Should Dare to Be Different

Twenty years ago this week, the program called Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or DARE, was born. It was the brainchild of then-Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates and the L.A. Unified School District. As DARE moves out of its teenage years, I offer the same advice I gave to my son, who also turns 20 this year: "Happy birthday, now grow up and get real."

DARE has received more attention than any other drug education program, reaching students in 80 percent of school districts across the country. It has also been singled out, because of negative evaluations, as one of the worst examples of school-based drug-use prevention in the U.S.

Yet in terms of content ("drugs are bad") and message ("just say no"), there is not much difference between DARE and other drug education programs.

The singular goal of DARE and other school-based education has been to prevent teenagers from using drugs. This may sound straightforward, and it is, of course, what all parents want. Yet with national surveys indicating that more than half of American teenagers admit trying an illegal drug before they finish high school, and 80 percent using alcohol (itself obviously a drug), the reality is that the majority of teens are not just saying no.

The DARE generation has become cynical about the mixed messages they have heard. Though they are implored to abstain, they live in a nation that hardly qualifies as drug-free. Teens see adults regularly drinking alcohol. They notice aisle after aisle of intoxicating over-the-counter pain relievers, uppers and downers. They see prime-time television ads for antidepressants. They know that if they misbehave in school they may be required to take Ritalin. And they also know that many of their parents tried marijuana (and other drugs), got through this phase unscathed and now admonish their own kids to "just say no."

"Know your audience" ought to be the watchword of every bearer of information about drugs because teens have become more tired than frightened by the barrage of scare tactics. Most teens -- along with the National Academy of Sciences -- simply do not believe that marijuana causes the use of harder drugs, that it leads to mental health problems or aggressive, violent behavior, or that it is somehow qualitatively worse than alcohol. Even the Office of National Drug Control Policy recently had to pull its "drugs and terrorism" ads when it became evident that such exaggerated claims had become a joke to many teens.

What young people need, rather than a short, stand-alone program, is drug education that will equip them for a lifetime of making health decisions involving a range of substances available to them.

With budget shortages threatening school districts across the country, we should incorporate the subject of drugs, using sound science, into already established high school courses such as biology, chemistry and physiology. Some new high school textbooks, such as Holt, Rinehart & Winston's "Sociology," have quality subsections about drugs, sexuality, violence and other social issues. Teens with concerns, questions or problems about drugs should be able to use student assistance programs staffed by knowledgeable counselors; the trouble is there aren't enough of them.

We should, of course, keep students busy and engaged between the end of the school day and dinner, which are peak drug-taking hours for teenagers. Our teenagers will ultimately make their own decisions, just as we did. Isn't that, after all, what we baby boomers wanted when we urged them to be creative, critical thinkers who could deal with this complex world on their own?

What students need is drug education that incorporates their intelligence and resilience and goes beyond the simplistic "just say no" message.

This article originally ran in the L.A. Times. Marsha Rosenbaum directs the Safety First project of the Drug Policy Alliance in San Francisco.

Just Say Know To Drugs

As the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program moves out of its teenage years and turns 20, it's putting on a new face. In response to a series of negative evaluations during the mid-1990s, the popular program that started in Los Angeles in 1983 went to work to reinvent itself.

Recently, findings from the new DARE were released. In this program, seventh-graders learn that using drugs is socially inappropriate, not the norm, and dangerous. They are then taught how to "just say no." According to researchers, preliminary evaluations are "promising." I wish, as the mother of a teenager, I could be more encouraged. Evaluations tell us one thing -- that students can regurgitate information. Young people say what they think adults want to hear -- especially about drugs. As with the old DARE, exposure to the program has little to do with what teenagers actually do when confronted with alcohol and other drugs in real life.

DARE didn't work to prevent drug use before, and it is highly unlikely that it will work now. Not because it used cops in the classroom. Not because the lessons weren't sustained. Not because its creators and supporters weren't committed enough. DARE never stood a chance.

The notion that drug use is socially inappropriate in America today, and not the norm, is ridiculous on its face. Despite proclamations about the value of being "drug-free," Americans regularly imbibe and medicate with a variety of substances such as alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and over-the-counter and prescription drugs. The Journal of the American Medical Association reported that eight out of 10 adults in the U.S. used at least one medication every week, and half took a prescription drug. Nearly one in two American adults uses alcohol regularly. And more than one-third have tried marijuana at some time in their lives -- a fact not lost on their children.

Today's teenagers have also witnessed the increasing "Ritalinization" of their fellow students. As they watch prime-time commercials for drugs to manage generalized anxiety disorder, they see more of their parents turning to anti-depressants to cope. Some psychologists argue that given the nature of our culture, teenage experimentation with substances is normal. It doesn't mean they're bad kids or we're bad parents, simply that we live in America, which is hardly "drug-free." Our attempt to ensure abstinence by emphasizing the dangers of drugs has backfired over and over again. Teenage, by definition, is a time of exploration, experimentation, risk-taking and rebellion. Tell a teenage boy that an activity, any activity, is risky, and he is likely to feel challenged rather than deterred. Girls push the envelope, too, often believing that negative implications are uncertain and so far in the future as to be irrelevant.

In her book "Generation Risk," Corky Newton, a tobacco-industry executive, quotes a teenage girl: "When you're a teenager, everybody is, like, 'Oh, don't smoke, be smart.' You're just, like, 'What happens if I smoke? I'm not going to die that second.' Pretty much everyone dies. If you develop cancer, by that time you're already 65 and gross-looking anyway."

Finally, in desperation, our willingness to emphasize and inflate drugs' dangers through prevention programs such as, but certainly not limited to, DARE has produced skepticism. Young people have heard risk and danger messages all their lives -- at home, in school, and on TV. They know adults will say just about anything to convince them to abstain, and they believe little of what we tell them about drugs. Indeed, a majority of American teenagers dismisses our admonitions and experiments with illegal drugs by the time they graduate from high school. A whopping eight out of 10 will have used alcohol before their 18th birthday.

It's time we get real about teenage life in America and structure our drug education programs accordingly. Whether we like it or not, alcohol and marijuana are part of teenage culture. Telling them it just isn't so, when they see it firsthand, is contributing to our credibility problem. Best to acknowledge the reality and work within it than to deny its existence.

Our first job, as parents and educators, is to begin to dig ourselves out of the deep credibility hole we have created out of our fears and our zeal to prevent our teens from using alcohol and other drugs. There are plenty of dangers associated with substance use. We don't need to invent or exaggerate them.

Students need honest, science-based, comprehensive drug education. They should learn to "just say know" when it comes to any choice involving their health. We ought to be equipping students with research skills rather than simplistic resistance techniques. In the end, teenagers will make their own decisions. Even the most vigilant parents can't keep their kids under surveillance at all times. The new DARE should follow the lead of modern sexuality education, urging abstinence, while acknowledging the reality of teenage life and providing a backup plan that provides sound information, respects young people's intelligence and volition, and ensures their safety.

For more on reality-based drug education visit