Embedded in Salon’s interview with writer Hannah Friedman is a perfect expression of what’s wrong with life skills/health classes in our schools, when Friedman is asked whether it’s an issue that she doesn’t condemn the drug use she portrays in her young-adult book:
I talk in the book about the research I did when I first started experimenting with marijuana. I really educated myself. I talk about the pros and cons, and I think I portray educated experimentation.
When I was in the DARE program, there was a very cartoonish characterization of drugs. Everything was bad. They showed videos of a joint and a heroin needle chasing kids around a playground. So when I saw people smoking marijuana, and they weren’t evil or violent, I came to doubt all of that information. If you teach abstinence-only sex ed and kids see that some of their experiences are contrary to what they learned, they’re going to think that everything that was taught to them was wrong. It’s dangerous to give kids half-truths.
Yes yes yes yes yes. It seems to me that whereas there’s a broad consensus on the left that abstinence-only sex ed doesn’t work, fewer people are criticizing the DARE program’s propagandistic approach to drug education. After my eight years in the California public schools and now, in college, it’s pretty easy to see that DARE didn’t work, or at least not for most people. Anecdotally speaking, I’d say that most of my peers have drunk alcohol underage or smoked pot. Some of them have tried hallucinogens, or cocaine. Scare tactics in fifth grade didn’t stop that, often for the reasons Friedman explains very well: DARE teaches that there is this amorphous entity called “drugs,” and they’re all very dangerous and very evil and very scary. If you get a little older, see a few more things, and realize that weed isn’t as dangerous as speed (rhyme intentional), you’re probably going to get curious and smoke a joint or two. Or several.
Plus, hell, this is teenagers we’re talking about. They’re going to try things out—particularly weed and alcohol, and possibly prescription drugs, because that’s what’s available to them. It doesn’t matter whether these things are illegal, and it doesn’t matter whether kids have been brainwashed against them. Just as abstinence-only sex ed doesn’t teach kids about contraception but neglects to realize that kids will invariably have sex anyway, abstinence-only drug ed thinks that by telling kids that all drugs are unilaterally bad, they can avoid having to tell you more nuanced information about safety that you otherwise have to learn through life experience and self-education. That’s not a good way to learn when you’re playing with mind-altering substances, and it makes kids careless.
I won the DARE essay contest at my elementary school, with a rhyming acrostic poem. It’s a pretty embarrassing artifact, but when I rediscovered it in a folder of my old schoolwork a little while ago, I was struck by the fact that the prevailing sentiment of the poem is “drugs are bad. Resist peer pressure.” Apparently I didn’t learn much about different kinds of drugs, what they look (or smell) like, what their effects are, which ones have significant risk of overdose, that sort of thing. By the time you’re in high school—or maybe even middle school; I led a sheltered life—those are pieces of information that are going to become very relevant. As Friedman indicates through the frankness of her memoir, it’s naïve to pretend that adolescents won’t run up against a situation where drugs (including alcohol) will seem very tempting indeed. And so it’s time life skills caught up.