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How Should Young People Learn About Drugs?

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How Should Young People Learn About Drugs?

Did you know that the D.A.R.E. drug education program in the United States was founded by the same person who militarized the police with the establishment of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams? 

In 1983, Los Angeles Police Department Chief Daryl Gates was co-credited with establishing the first comprehensive drug education curriculum for public schools in the United States, famously instructing millions of young Americans to “Just Say No” when offered drugs and alcohol. Today, D.A.R.E.’s approach to drug education is widely considered to be an abject failure, with eight different studies conducted by such institutions as the California Department of Education, National Institute of Justice, and Indiana University casting doubt upon the effectiveness of the program as early as 1992. In some cases, studies found that students who went through the D.A.R.E. program actually had a significantly higher incidence of hallucinogen use than students who did not, according to a 1992 Indiana University study.

Today, the D.A.R.E. program is still active in 75 % of U.S. school districts and in more than 43 countries worldwide. Yet societal attitudes towards substance use are shifting in the diametrically opposed direction, with drug policy and industry evolving faster than an effective educational framework to support it. In the absence of a data-driven, evidence-based, and trauma-informed drug education pedagogy for digital natives, a new learning environment has emerged to platform the conversation about mind-altering molecules: social media. In this largely unregulated and increasingly anonymous environment, societies shifting attitudes towards drug use are presented in a cherry-picked and romanticized capacity that often ignores best practices and harm reduction

“Harm Reduction” is by definition a set of practical strategies aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use. It abandons the “just say no” approach and replaces it with a more sensible and nuanced model of drug education that seeks to mitigate the potential dangers of drug use by educating people about best practices for safe drug use, such as being cognizant of “set and setting,” testing for purity, and addressing contraindications. In the absence of harm reduction pedagogy targeted towards Gen Z, digital natives are increasingly getting their primary education about drugs from their peers on social media. 

Performative Drug Content on Social Media

This polarity of perspective between positive peer-generated depictions of substance use on social media versus negative portrayal by the majority of currently existing drug education paradigms presents a serious challenge to young people navigating the complexities of substance use. In a not-yet-published study conducted by researchers Rhana Hashemi, Judith J. Prochaska, and Erin A. Vogel at Stanford University at the University of Southern California titled “Adolescents’ Perceptions of Substance Use Messaging in the Age of Social Media: Resolving Cognitive Dissonance,” 27 of the 30 students interviewed had been exposed to peers using substances on social media through personal accounts and posts. Peer-generated substance use content on social media is often portrayed in a positive, fun light, which directly contradicts the messaging of government-sponsored drug education initiatives and other punitive approaches to drug education.

The study’s authors, who have given me permission to share their findings, state that, “In an exploratory study of Instagram posts with hashtags #ecig or #vape, almost all of the 84 posts analyzed were promoting e-cigarette use, while none were critical of usage. Almost half of these posts were generated from personal, rather than commercial, accounts.”

“Teens are spending 6-8 hours a day online, and peer generated content that portrays substances is rapidly circulating their feeds. The nature of social media is performative, and studies have found that posts that portray drug use are over emphasizing the positive benefits glamourising the use and downplaying the negative consequences,” says Rhana Hashemi, founder and director of Know Drugs, an organization that helps schools implement harm reduction education programs.

In addition to peer-generated content, viral misinformation, targeted ads from legal ketamine companies, scammers presenting as underground vendors, and romanticized notions of drug use are omnipresent across platforms like TikTok and Instagram. From sketchy life coaches praising the power of DMT and psilocybin mushrooms at their unlicensed “psychedelic retreats,” to underground vendors offering any number of “discreetly shipped” and highly suspect substances via Bitcoin and ketamine clinic operators on LinkedIn sharing client testimonials proclaiming a single ketamine session “more powerful than 10,000 hours of therapy,” comprehensive overviews of the risks of substance use are often overlooked on social media in favor of performative click bait and marketing tactics. 

In parallel to all this, digital natives are targeted with government-sponsored anti-vaping and anti-drug ads that lead to further cognitive dissonance regarding the realities of substance use. 

Navigating Drug Education with Harm Reduction

“Harm reduction is a possible solution for our messages to bridge the gap of trust and beliefs between what they learn and see from their friends, and public health experts,” says Hashemi. “Otherwise, the inconsistencies and rejection of abstinence-based drug education will continue to be compounded without taking into account social media networks’ role in peer-based information sharing and norm setting.” 

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While psychedelics like psilocybin mushrooms, MDMA, and ketamine have recently received widespread media attention praising their ability to treat and potentially mitigate PTSD, anxiety, addiction, and depression – disorders that significantly impact digital natives – a comprehensive framework for best practices including harm reduction, integration, and information about the potential for these substances to also exacerbate trauma or re-traumatize are often conveniently ignored in favor of attention grabbing headlines promising miracle cures to mental illness. 

It’s a significant problem that drug policy and the burgeoning psychedelics industry are evolving far more quickly than drug education on the world stage. The drug education approach offered by the emergent Know Drugs harm reduction education model for teens seeks to hybridize and credibly address substance use from a perspective grounded in objective scientific understanding and subjective personal use. There are an increasing number of reputable organizations and individuals working to address this credibility gap via harm reduction education, including DanceSafe, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, and The Rebel Educationist.

The chasm between digital natives and legitimate drug education is as wide as it’s ever been, yet drugs are arguably more popular and more attractive to society at large than ever before thanks to constant media headlines championing the therapeutic potential of substances such as MDMA and psilocybin. The explosion of psychedelic interest and drug content that has swept the world’s media often focuses on the benefits of psychedelics in a clinical, medicalized context, while ignoring the recreational and personal use that represents the vast majority of drug use in the world at large. 

As societal attitudes around drug use continue to shift to be more permissive and destigmatized, it’s essential that we act quickly to establish relatable and comprehensive drug education models for our youth. We need to bridge the drug education digital divide and stop preaching abstinence as a viable model of drug education, while also tempering glorified peer-generated accounts of substance use with harm reduction information. If we don’t empower digital natives with a data-driven, evidence-based, and trauma-informed lens for approaching substance use, then we are asking for unnecessary harm to befall them in their navigation of changing societal attitudes towards drugs. 

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