This new drug education program could actually keep teens safer

Published on October 31, 2019 · Last updated July 28, 2020
U.S. President Bush speaks to children after signing a proclamation for national Dare Day, Drug Abuse Resistance Education, in the Rose Garden of the White House on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 1989 in Washington. Chantee Charles, 13, of Arlington, Virginia, back row next to first lady Barbara Bush, one of three youngsters to speak at the event gave to the audience a tough lecture against the death penalty which President Bush favors. (AP Photo/Barry Thumma)

After watching drug casualties rise in the face of mixed-to-negative results from abstinence-focused drug programs like D.A.R.E., researchers have increasingly looked for new, more effective ways to get key facts to young people.

Educators and drug reform advocates at the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) have spent the past three years developing a teen curriculum that could save and change lives. In October, the group announced the launch of its “Safety First” curriculum, a free program for high schools that provides evidence-based drug education in 15 lessons.

The new 'Safety First' program teaches teens how to make safe, informed decisions, even when 'Just Say No' doesn't apply.

Unlike most previous drug and alcohol curricula, Safety First combines hard evidence with the principles of harm reduction to help students formulate healthy, real-life strategies to handle the use and abuse of alcohol, cannabis, and other drugs in our society.

That means teaching teens how to make safe, informed decisions on behalf of themselves but also their peers—even in situations where ‘Just Say No’ doesn’t apply. According to DPA officials, keeping today’s young people safe will require a frank look at how our laws and culture are changing.

“In the United States, we have this paradigm around drugs: it’s either abstinence or addiction,” explained Sasha Simon, the DPA’s Safety First Program Manager.

“We treat all drug use as abuse” from a public policy and educational perspective, she said,  even though alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, pharmaceuticals, and many other legal and illegal drugs are being consumed daily across North America.

People use all kinds of drugs, including caffeine

In the Safety First campaign, Simon said, “we’re embracing the fact that we, as a society, are drug users.” The activity-driven program teaches students how to inform themselves, in addition to giving them up-to-date science and a guide to the pros and cons of drugs like alcohol, cannabis, psychedelics, and stimulants (from coffee to cocaine).

Keeping teens safe in 2019 means being honest with them about the fact that laws are changing around cannabis and other substances like psilocybin. It also requires acknowledging that cannabis, like alcohol, is a popular drug.

To that end, Safety First has a two-part unit on cannabis, telling students how cannabis works in the body, how it could pose physical and legal risks to their young bodies (or anybody’s), and about the kind of decision-making they’ll be called upon to carry out.

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Who to trust online?

In one lesson, for example, teens learn to evaluate the quality and currency of online sources, and to find important health facts in a sea of politically charged, frequently updated information.

Another lesson reminds teens to ask themselves important questions well before Friday night’s party: if they have responsibilities or prior commitments that could be compromised by substance use; what legal or physical risks they could face; whether they’ve had enough food and water that day; and how they intend to get home safely that night, and with whom.

This may seem like a pretty straightforward approach, in terms of keeping young people safe — especially to adults who have been through the trial-and-error process of navigating alcohol and drugs without a map.

Piloting the program in NYC and SF

During trial runs with two high school classes in New York City and San Francisco, teens seemed to confirm the effectiveness of the new approach. Teens who completed the program were more likely to agree that one online source is not enough to understand the effects of a drug. They were more likely to put people into a recovery position if they seemed to be suffering from alcohol or drug overdose.

'Teens who completed the program were more likely to help a peer who seemed to be suffering from alcohol or drug overdose.

Will it catch on? There’s no guarantee. The Safety First program breaks new ground in a field where drug laws have limited what kinds of content instructors can share, and what health researchers can explore.

Because most of the alcohol and drug education programs schools have used in the past few decades, like D.A.R.E., have been grounded in abstinence, the research we do have showing what works (or, in many cases, what doesn’t) simply doesn’t include data on this type of curriculum. A successful prevention program requires funding not only to develop and implement that strategy, but also to study its effectiveness.

“We’re offering the program completely for free, and the DPA has taken on a lot of the financial burden for this,” Simon said. “We carefully evaluated a harm reduction-based curriculum, and that hasn’t been done before. There wasn’t a huge body of evidence on this.”

Teaching facts, not fear

Drew Miller, who teaches health education at Bard Early College High School in Manhattan, said that administering Safety First’s initial pilot was “a little overwhelming at first.”

“It was so different from what I’m used to,” Miller said. “But I’ve been realizing how valuable this is: it really changed my knowledge space [around substance use] exponentially, but also my values, in terms of what I’m teaching and how I’m teaching it.”

'The content is amazing. Everything is up to date and the activities are really engaging.'

Miller, who’s taught both physical education and health education in NYC’s public school system for several years, said that he and his 9th-grade classes were impressed with how the course was designed, too.

“The content is amazing. Everything is up to date and the activities are really engaging. Students are moving around the classroom, putting stickers on things they agree with or don’t agree with, measuring things, answering and asking questions, using critical-thinking skills.”

“It’s a dream curriculum, in my opinion,” Miller said. He commented that, at an NYC charter school where he previously worked, students “basically didn’t ever have health class,” so he hasn’t seen other programs in action in the city. One curriculum that’s been recommened lately for NYC schools, HealthSmart, seems “pretty solid,” Miller said. “But there’s no comparison.”

Unique ways to reduce use and harm

Dr. Khary Rigg, a medical sociologist and assistant professor at the University of South Florida, also praised the DPA’s curriculum by email, calling it “unique in that it meaningfully focuses on youth who have already initiated substance use, as well as discouraging kids from starting to use in the first place.”

“Research supports harm-reduction approaches to drug use as an effective way to reduce risks associated with using drugs,” Rigg said. “We need to be giving kids who are experimenting with drugs accurate information, especially about how drugs work on the body and brain, and how to stay safe if a decision to use drugs is made.”

“Unfortunately, some schools might shy away from this curriculum because it’s built on a foundation of harm reduction, but it will be their loss.”

Requests for comment from D.A.R.E. and New York City’s Board of Education on the Safety First program and harm-reduction education were not returned.

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Janet Burns
Janet Burns
Janet Burns is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn who finds drugs, tech, labor, and culture extremely interesting, among other things. She also hosts the cannabis news and conversation podcast The Toke.
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