Just Say No to Reading This

You little rebel! So, you don’t like being told what to do, huh? Well, nobody does — especially today’s youth. In this case, you probably clicked on this story out of curiosity. Sometimes, people don’t do what they’re told out of spite, defiance, or because they think they’re smarter than the person telling them what to do. So why is it we’ve spent the last 34 years branding our “War on Drugs” message around, “Just Say No” and “Don’t Do Drugs?” Our intentions have been noble but I fear our strategy has fallen short of a cliché.

According to a University of Michigan study, 48% of U.S. high school students in 2015 had used illegal drugs by graduation. 64% had consumed alcohol in their lifetime and 31% had tried cigarettes. Interestingly, the use of cigarettes is down half of what it was in 2000.

Perhaps the decline in cigarette use was due in part to an aggressive national anti-tobacco marketing campaign launched that same year under the label, Truth. The adopted strategy of Truth was opposite those of prior campaigns which preached to teens and carried heavy tones of “life or death” messaging. Truth’s marketing campaign relied on pointing out the tobacco industry’s manipulation instead of talking down to youth. Chances are you’ve seen a Truth commercial on television, you’ve noticed they never directly “tell” teens not to smoke, instead encouraging them to make up their own minds about big tobacco. In contrast, the “War on Drugs” messaging, branding and marketing has changed little over the years.

The term, “War on Drugs,” was first used by President Richard Nixon in 1971, and intended to reduce the illegal drug trade. Many believe the War on Drugs was the wrong approach because it focused on enforcement instead of treatment, ultimately creating a profitable black market and spike in violent crime. A Rasmussen report overwhelmingly indicates 82% of Americans believe we are losing the war on drugs despite the fact government has spent over $20 billion a year over the last decade on counter-narcotics efforts.

“Just Say No,” was born out of a response given by Nancy Reagan in 1982. The story goes, a schoolgirl asked the First Lady what she should say if someone offered her drugs. The following year, D.A.R.E. was created by the Los Angeles Police Department. The program included uniformed police officers going into schools to warn students about the dangers of drug use.

Recognizable? Yes. Effective? No. This was acknowledged as far back as 2003 through research conducted by the General Accounting Office (GAO) and released in the review, Youth Illicit Drug Use Prevention: DARE Long-Term Evaluations and Federal Efforts to Identify Effective Programs, GAO-03–172R. In a nutshell, “The six long-term evaluations of the DARE elementary school curriculum that [they] reviewed found no significant differences in illicit drug use between students who received DARE in the fifth or sixth grade (the intervention group) and students who did not (the control group).” Yet we continue to pour money into this program each and every year. Why have the tactics and strategies for this war never pivoted like the Truth campaign? Surely, the battlefield is a different landscape than it was 34 years ago.

It’s no wonder many states are throwing in the towel on the War on Drugs. I would imagine it’s a matter of time before other states fall in line — if the federal government doesn’t do so first. Hey, if you can’t beat’em, join’em, right? Our counter-narcotic strategies have largely fallen short all the way around the board. So, now instead of telling our kids, “don’t do drugs,” we send the message some drugs (marijuana) is acceptable for recreational use by adults (sure, right). How many more youth will be drawn to experimentation if marijuana ever reaches the same level of advertising as alcohol and tobacco? For all who would argue, “We could tax it! Look at all the revenue we could bring in,” I would say, “No doubt, but at whose expense?” And why stop with marijuana? I mean, cocaine isn’t that much worse than marijuana if you think about it. Actually, legalizing cocaine would probably be the better choice because at least people would be more productive instead of laying around on the couch all day. Perhaps unemployment would even go down. Yes, I’m being sarcastic.

I guarantee everyone reading this has either been directly or indirectly affected by illegal drugs in some way, shape or form. Illegal drug use in our country is an epidemic. Why don’t we start treating it like an epidemic instead of changing the rules to accommodate the problem? I agree, the War on Drugs has been less than successful but I’m not ready to surrender our children’s future just yet. It’s time to find a better way of delivering the message other than, “Just Say No.”

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