Whether you’re a mom, dad, grandparent, mentor or cool aunt or uncle, talking to teens about cannabis can feel like a landmine. In some ways, things were easier when I was growing up. Just Say No is a pretty clear and concise message. However, as history has shown, it does nothing to properly prepare or inform young people about the realities of drugs like cannabis. Interestingly, legal drugs like alcohol have gotten historically different treatments. I have written about the nuanced alcohol education I received, long before I was of age. And, while still just barely meeting the minimum, young people are taught (usually) where babies come from before they are of childbearing age.
Unfortunately, once cannabis started down the path to legality, and Just Say No was considered passé and unhelpful, we never really replaced it with anything. Save for a few progressive and forward thinking drug education programs like Safety First from the Drug Policy Alliance, there is a void in school based cannabis education. And, with cannabis consistently part of the news cycle and marketing ramping up as prohibition dissipates, many adults are wondering what the modern days “birds and the bees” talk about cannabis should look like.
In this three part series from Personal Plants, we will take on cannabis education, how to talk to young people about cannabis from a harm reduction perspective, and what to do if you discover a young person in your life is using cannabis (spoiler alert: banning them from seeing friends and participating in school activities is NOT the answer!). To fully and professionally cover this topic, I am welcoming Barry Lessin, an adolescent psychologist, harm reduction expert and Certified Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor to weigh in.
The goal of this series is to provide useful and actionable information for adults looking to introduce cannabis as a learning topic in a way that educates, doesn’t promote use among young people, and approaches cannabis from a fact based harm reduction perspective vs. the Just Say No messaging of yesteryear.
Abstinence based drug and alcohol education dominated the landscape in the 1980’s and 90’s. The belief was that even talking about sex or drug use in a pragmatic, non-propagandized way would surely lead to widespread sexual activity and drug use among our nation’s youth. In the mid 1990’s, I was trained by the Red Cross as an HIV educator. My job was to go around to high schools in the Chicago area and give talks about HIV prevention. My presence wasn’t always welcome, and more than once I was given the instruction, “give your talk, but don’t talk about condoms, we don’t want to encourage them.” Even as late as 2007 when I was a postdoctoral fellow in public health seeking grant opportunities, all grants for drug education development coming out of the National Institute of Health under then President Bush would only fund abstinence based drug education.
So, what happens when a teen leaves high school knowing nothing about cannabis, cocaine and heroin other than “don’t do it”? Well for one, they don’t know that these substances have very different sets of risks. Secondly, they have no idea how to handle being offered these substances. Third, and as research on D.A.R.E. showed, they may rebel against the lack of honesty and transparency and become even more likely to experiment. The answer is to evolve beyond abstinence only and have open and honest conversations about drug use, including the fact that not all people who use drugs become addicted, and that different drugs come with different sets of benefits and harms.
Most adults struggle to talk to young people about sensitive topics like sex and drug use. For one, our society has shunned honest and open discussions of these topics (thank goodness for Dr. Ruth!) and labeled such talk as “dirty” or “for mature ears only”. Getting over this feeling of “doing something wrong” is often the first hurdle towards having important, yet taboo conversations. Adults may worry that even having these conversations is somehow encouraging the behavior. But, the reality is, young people will all eventually be faced with the options of having sex and using drugs. Choosing not to teach them about it will not prevent these occurrences, only render them less prepared to handle them in a way that reduces harm. Schools weren’t “protecting kids” when they prevented me from mentioning condoms, only increasing the chance of those kids making harmful decisions later on.
The same can be said for drugs. The average age of first use of alcohol is 15, for cannabis it is 16-17. Denying fact based, honest information about these acts only forces kids to seek the information out elsewhere. And, as we all know, the internet is a playground for inaccurate and even dangerous information. As adults, it is up to us to swallow our discomfort and have the conversations. Because if we don’t, there are thousands of YouTube and TikTok videos that will have it for us.
Given that many teens experiment with drugs like alcohol and cannabis, and with sexual activity (even if it isn’t intercourse), reality based education means addressing both the harms and benefits of these activities. After all, telling a teen that there are no redeeming qualities to sex or drug use is pretty much lying. Instead, presenting information in a safety focused way, teaching them to maximize benefits and reduce harms is a more pragmatic approach. In the next article in the series, adolescent psychologist Barry Lessin dives deeper into the concepts of harm reduction and why they play such a crucial role in preparing teens for safer use of cannabis.