To those of us who care about the many issues surrounding Prohibition, the release this week of the book, "Marijuana Myths, Marijuana Facts" by Lynn Zimmer and John P. Morgan, is a hopeful sign. Perhaps it will be a jumping-off point from which we as a society can at last begin to debate whether the truth has any place in our discussions about drugs and drug policy.
There are times, it seems, when the sole justification for the drug policy of a nation is to avoid "sending the wrong message to our children." In fact, our leaders are zealous, even evangelical, in their constant, mindless repetition of the phrase. But what messages, really, are we sending?
To answer that question we must first admit to ourselves two harsh realities. First, there are very few teenagers in this country who do not currently have access to illegal drugs. And second, teenagers are not stupid. If you know a teenager, ask him or her whether the drug war is working. Most likely, they will tell you exactly what you already know, that they can (and sometimes do) procure illegal substances, often from merchants who are no older than they.
In spite of this, we as a society have elected to attempt to frighten young people away from drugs by constructing absolute worst-case scenarios, even implausible and patently absurd hyperbole, about the risks and effects of drugs and their use. And because we know that our children are more likely to be confronted with the most widely used substances, we have saved our biggest lies for marijuana.
What we fail to realize is that it is marijuana's very ubiquitousness which pokes holes in our overblown prevention efforts. And that once punctured, our credibility is deflated with regard not only to the relatively benign marijuana plant, but also to heroin, inhalants and cocaine.
Dr. Joel Brown, in his study of California's principal drug education curriculum (In Their Own Voices: Students and Educators Evaluate California School-Based Drug, Alcohol, and Tobacco, Education [DATE] Programs, online at http://www.lindesmith.org/tlcbrow.html), found that young people are turned off by what they see as hypocrisy and dishonesty in drug education. According to Brown, "When you tell a 10 year-old that all substance use is abuse, he will most likely believe you. But when that child reaches adolescence, his experience will tell him that he's been lied to. Especially where no effort has been made to distinguish the relative risks of different drugs."
Teenagers can understand that medicine is not recreation, they know that the police cannot enforce the drug laws, they see that marijuana doesn't usually lead to heroin addiction, and they know that authority figures will say anything at all, true or not, to frighten them about drugs.
We can all agree that children ought not be ingesting substances for their psychoactive effects. But what messages are we sending by refusing to allow truth to interfere with our prevention efforts? Plenty of messages, to be sure. But the one that we're not sending is that we're willing to take our kids seriously, to acknowledge their experiences and to respect their intellect, that we're willing to look them in the eye and say, "here are the facts, and here are our concerns, and this is why we want you to wait until you're older before you start to make these decisions." Because in the final analysis, lies are not education. And our children, like it or not, are smart enough to know the difference.
Adam J. Smith