Just Say What?


"Daddy, do I do drugs?" Francine is not quite 5, but already she is posing challenging questions. This one was prompted by an ad that ABC Video slapped onto the beginning of her Schoolhouse Rock tape. The spot cites the achievements of basketball player David Robinson, adding, "There's one thing David hasn't done. David doesn't do drugs."

This message is not meant to be taken literally. After all, it's sponsored by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, which has been supported by manufacturers of cigarettes, beer, coffee, and tranquilizers. A drug-free America is the last thing these companies want to see.

But the partnership's backers understand that legal, socially approved drugs are not really drugs. If David Robinson consumed any of their products, he would still be eligible to proclaim the advantages of a drug-free existence.

So you begin to see my problem. Francine takes drugs when she is sick, and occasionally she drinks Diet Coke. (If you don't think these are mind-altering substances, you have never seen a 4-year-old loopy from Dimetapp or wired on caffeine.) At Sabbath meals she still prefers grape juice, but someday she will probably switch to wine. When she is older, if she is like most adolescents, she will drink beer and coffee. She may even try marijuana or tobacco.

If I took my cue from David Robinson and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, I would tell Francine, "No, Sweetie, you don't do drugs. Only bad people who never amount to anything do drugs." But the truth is that almost everyone does drugs of one kind or another, and the vast majority suffer no lasting harm as a result. In light of this fact, inculcating habits of moderation and responsibility serves kids better than empty slogans like "Just Say No."

The complex reality of drug use was reflected in a fascinating study published by American Psychologist in 1990. Two U.C-Berkeley researchers, Jack Block and Jonathan Shedler, tracked a group of kids from preschool until age 18 and found that "adolescents who had engaged in some drug experimentation (primarily marijuana) were the best-adjusted in the sample." By contrast, "Adolescents who, by age 18, had never experimented with any drug were relatively anxious, emotionally constricted, and lacking in social skills."

Frequent drug users "were maladjusted, showing a distinct personality syndrome marked by interpersonal alienation, poor impulse control, and manifest emotional distress." But Block and Shedler observed that "problem drug use is a symptom, not a cause, of personal and social maladjustment." They concluded that "psychological differences between frequent users, experimenters, and abstainers could be traced to the earliest years of childhood and related to the quality of parenting received."

Which brings us back to Francine. She is too young for detailed information about drugs, but that doesn't mean I should reinforce the puritanical nonsense she has already begun to encounter. Soon enough she'll be in grade school, and my wife and I may have to decide whether to keep her out of "drug education" classes.

A recent report on NBC suggests that the mainstream news media are finally recognizing that DARE, the most influential model for drug education in America, has no measurable effect on a teenager's likelihood to use drugs. But DARE is worse than useless. By relying on scare tactics that depict a puff of marijuana as the first step on the road to ruin, it encourages teenagers to disregard all warnings about drugs. By insisting on abstinence instead of responsibility, it leaves kids ill-prepared to distinguish between use and abuse.

At a school where my wife taught, the fifth-graders who graduated from DARE had to write "personal statements" summing up what they had learned. One girl said she wanted to go to college and raise a family, so she would never drink beer or smoke marijuana–activities that she had been led to believe would foreclose the possibility of a decent and productive life.

What happens when this kid gets a little older and savvier, and recognizes that her DARE officer was full of it? Will she figure out for herself the difference between smoking a joint on the weekend and going to school or work stoned, between drinking a beer at the end of the day and tossing back a sixpack before getting behind the wheel of a car? If she does, it will be no thanks to DARE.