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Douglas Capraro Douglas Capraro

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.

6 Substance

Talking honestly about the possibility of drug use is key.


For some people, the movement to decriminalize drugs might not seem like a natural fit with keeping kids safe. But that’s a misconception the Drug Policy Alliance works hard to correct.

Originally published in 1999, the DPA’s Safety First: A Reality-Based Approach to Teens and Drugs guide has helped to inform parents about protecting teenagers more effectively than discredited programs like D.A.R.E.. And the DPA is now updating its resource to reflect the changing US drug landscape.

Safety First author Marsha Rosenbaum, PhD acknowledges the inherent dangers of drug use and believes that abstinence is the best course of action for underage people. But she stresses that “to prevent adolescents who do experiment from falling into abusive patterns, we need to create fallback strategies that focus on safety.” That’s why she updated the 35-page guide to address the spread of marijuana legalization in the US and “help navigate this new territory.”

The updated guide, Rosenbaum said during a DPA teleconference today, will help parents approach the “marijuana conversation” by “learning all they can about the influences in their teen’s life, from the Internet and social media to music.” That has to be an improvement from an approach that only considers abstinence—as Jerry Otero, the DPA’s youth policy manager, put it: “‘Just Say No’ has led to ‘Just Say Nothing’.”

Rosenbaum served as the principal investigator on National Institute on Drug Abuse-funded studies covering many different drugs between 1977 and 1995. But her particular interest in helping keep adolescents safer around drugs was sparked by her own children getting older. ”My daughter,” she explained, “came home from school as a D.A.R.E. graduate and thought she knew everything there is to know about drugs.” Her daughter then claimed that a person who smokes marijuana will inevitably move on to heroin—a parroting of the long-debunked “gateway” theory that was a sad indictment of D.A.R.E.’s scare tactics.

Amanda Reiman, the DPA’s marijuana law and policy manager, added that “as we move away from fear-based strategies, we also don’t want to downplay the risks [of drug use].” This, she said, is addressed in Safety First’s new chapter on adolescent brain development—the section also emphasizes that, in spite of sensationalized news headlines, no cognitive impairment was tested to show that marijuana “shrinks the brain.”

Rosenbaum spoke about how such misinformation demonstrates the need to “get beyond the propaganda” and provide children with science-based facts. Opening up conversations between parents and their teens about the possibility of drug use is key, she continued. For instance, a parent who believes purely in a “Just Say No” approach is likely to neglect to warn a teen to avoid passing out on their back if they drink too much. “What has killed kids,” Rosenbaum said, “is asphyxiation.”

Safety First: A Reality-Based Approach to Teens and Drugs is available now for free in seven different languages as a PDF, or as a hard copy.