In Richmond last week, Attorney General Sessions suggested reviving Nancy Reagan’s 80s anti-drug campaign to combat the 2017 addiction crisis. What a horrifying thought.
I’m a product of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program. Seriously. At my elementary school, a D.A.R.E. officer visited my third-grade classroom twice a week – to lecture us about the dangers of using drugs. After school, I saw the same anti-drug PSAs as everyone else. “This is your brain on drugs,” was the message, and I got it. I heard it all, loud and clear. So how did I end up addicted to heroin?
In the late 80s and early 90s, while the AIDS crisis claimed countless lives and the crack epidemic swept urban centers, the message from the White House was clear: “Just Say No.” It seemed simple at the time: don’t use drugs, and you won’t get high. Don’t use drugs, and you won’t get hooked. Avoidance was the method of prevention – not so different from “abstinence only” sex ed. Two decades later, however, we’re in the firm grip of an addiction crisis that claims nearly 350 American lives per day. And yet, we’re still being told to “Just Say No,” even though evidence increasingly shows that it doesn’t work.
For people like me – that is, people with substance use disorder, whether they’re in active addiction or not – the return to those three simple words raises a lot of red flags. Attorney General Jeff Sessions seems to be moving back to the zero-tolerance policies of the 80s and 90s. Last week, at a meeting with law enforcement officials, Sessions said, “Educating people and telling them the terrible truth about drugs and addiction will result in better choices by more people.” If that’s true, though, how do you explain someone like me? I had all the information, so why did I start using drugs at 15? Why wasn’t saying no enough?
My story isn’t unique – in a lot of ways. I am one of millions of people with substance use disorder in America. Unlike many people, however, I got the opportunity to access recovery supports, went through substance abuse treatment, and am now living a life in sustained recovery. I’m one of the lucky ones: less than 10% of people suffering from addiction will get treatment for their illness. It was never about education, for me. It was about getting help when I needed it – instead of being imprisoned, punished, and stigmatized.
Sessions is already known for his anti-drug, tough-on-crime position. This approach, a holdover from the Reagan era, puts thousands of people in prison for drug-related offenses. Besides the obvious – that someone with addiction needs treatment, not jail time – we now know that D.A.R.E. doesn’t work. I’m not the only example. Starting as early as 1992, a study from Indiana University showed that kids who had been through the D.A.R.E. program had higher rates of hallucinogenic drug use than those who had not been exposed to the program. A ten-year study by the American Psychological Association showed a similar result: D.A.R.E. doesn’t work, and in many cases is even counterproductive because it makes kids curious about these “forbidden” substances. In fact, D.A.R.E. lost its federal funding in 1998 because the APA study showed that D.A.R.E. kids actually had higher rates of drug use. Seriously! Clearly, just saying no and working on our self-esteem wasn’t cutting it.
“This is your brain on drugs,” was the message, and I got it. I heard it all, loud and clear. So how did I end up addicted to heroin?
So, what is going to work? I think we can start by acknowledging that drug use is not a black and white issue. If Sessions wants to halt our nation’s drug epidemic, it’s going to take more than just saying no. It’s also going to take more than subliminal media messaging. And guaranteed jail time for drug offenses? Nope. Instead of clinging to an outdated anti-drug program that is proven not to work, let’s look at something that does.
“Keepin’ it REAL,” which is an acronym for the program’s strategies “Refuse, Explain, Avoid, and Leave” has shown positive results. One reason why? Instead of police officers, the messaging about smart choices and drug awareness is created by kids, for kids. REAL, which was designed by research conducted at Arizona State University in the 1990s, works from the bottom up. High school students make video narratives for younger, middle school-aged kids about making good decisions about drugs. Peer groups discuss the content and talk about ways they would react if they were offered drugs, or put in an awkward situation. Involving kids, instead of lecturing them, shows good results – because, after all, in the moment of truth, when the blunt or the bottle makes its way into a young person’s hands, no cop is going to be there to remind them to love themselves. And the odds are good that scare tactics won’t matter in that moment, either.
Which is my way of saying: Mr. Sessions, we can’t go backwards when it comes to the addiction crisis. Old school methods, such as the D.A.R.E. program or “Just Say No” don’t do anything to help, and may actually make things worse. First, let’s acknowledge that many heroin addicts begin by getting hooked on prescription painkillers, which are legal, federally regulated, and prescribed by a doctor. And let’s treat people with substance use disorder as what they are: people with a chronic brain illness. Let’s admit that drug addiction is not a choice, and it’s not a crime. Let’s get people the recovery supports they need. And not overcrowd our prisons with people who need help instead of a heavy sentence.
And most of all, let’s not look back. If we’re going to save lives, heal families, and make our communities safe, we need to say yes to a better way to treat addiction than just saying no to drugs.
Ryan Hampton is an outreach lead and recovery advocate at Facing Addiction, a leading nonprofit dedicated to ending the addiction crisis in the United States.