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Maia Szalavitz Maia Szalavitz

Trying to Scare Teens Away From Drugs Doesn’t Work

Colorado is displaying human-sized "lab rat cages" in an effort to warn teens off marijuana. Like most such attempts, it's a waste of money.

7 Substance

Giant human-sized “lab rat cages”—complete with scaled-up water bottles—are popping up all over Colorado, which is trying to prevent marijuana legalization from leading to increased use among teenagers.

Let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that in places where commercial sales are already tolerated, like the Netherlands, general use is well below US levels. (For example, lifetime marijuana use among 10th graders in the US is 36%; the Dutch rate is 27%).

Will scaring teens with messages like “Could marijuana really cause schizophrenia? Volunteers, anyone?” and “Studies have shown that weed can shrink the teenage brain, lead to schizophrenia, cause long-term memory loss and reduce IQ. Anyone up for more testing?” actually deter use?

I’ll give the campaign’s designers props for admitting that the data is uncertain and contested—but if the history of over-the-top anti-drug campaigns is anything to go by, the effort is most likely to have no positive effect at all. (The Boulder School District refuses to open the city to the cages because it says that more effective prevention is already available.)

For example, in 1997, President Clinton launched what he said would be a $1 billion dollar five-year anti-drug media campaign. To avoid scaring off conservatives with that budget figure, he asked the media to donate ad space and time at 50% off. Then, to mitigate media costs, in what seems shocking now but was accepted at the height of the drug war, networks and major newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post got “credit” for additional donations by planting government-approved anti-drug propaganda in news stories and altering storylines in dramas to get government’s perspective across.

Did it work? Well, no. An evaluation published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2008 concluded that “the campaign is unlikely to have had favorable effects on youths and may have had delayed unfavorable effects.” The main unfavorable effect was that exposure to the ads at one point was linked to increased marijuana use at the next survey round (the kids were surveyed four times between 1999 and 2004).

Colorado teens most need to learn that right now, smoking frequently could make them miss out on key developmental experiences that will serve them for the rest of their lives and that will be far harder to accomplish if they fail to do so now.

Melodramatic scare tactics like those used in the “Don’t be a lab rat” campaign are known particularly for their ineffectiveness and potential to backfire (the “boomerang” effect). Take the Montana Meth Project, which was launched in 2005 when that state was discovered to have one of the highest rates of illegal methamphetamine use in the country. With help from a friendly software billionaire, $25 million was spent to ensure that Montana teens would see the ads three times a week—either on billboards, radio, TV or in print. They depicted meth users as filthy and violent—willing to kill their parents or prostitute themselves for the drug.

What were the results? One study found that the percentage of people seeing “no risk” at all in meth use jumped from 3% to 8% and the proportion who thought the drug had “great or moderate” risk fell from 93% to 87%, although the author notes that this part of the data was based on an unrepresentative Internet sample. Another study, which used more reliable state data from the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, concluded that “When accounting for a preexisting downward trend in meth use, effects [of the Montana Meth Project] on meth use are statistically indistinguishable from zero.”

While it is sometimes possible to use fear to motivate adults to change behavior—graphic warning labels on cigarette packages do appear to motivate quitting, for example—the results with youth are far less promising. The most effective youth antismoking ads either promote fighting back against the evil corporations that sell to kids—evoking activism and rebellion, not fear—or focus on short-term negative consequences like bad breath that are common and observable, not far-off and uncertain events like lung cancer.

Let’s face it: The real problem with teen marijuana use is not a high school kid smoking a joint on a Friday night—it’s a kid who can’t get through the school day without one.

So how should Colorado work to influence teen marijuana use? They might want to take another page from the sensible Dutch, who recognize that the real risks associated with cannabis aren’t linked with casual use, but addiction. As an EU page that cites a Dutch high school prevention program as a “best practice” states bluntly, “Experimental substance use is part of the lives of secondary school students.” The goal of the program is to get them to know the risks and “behave responsibly”—even if they don’t abstain.

That means teaching about what the real risks of are—like driving while high or allowing drug use to interfere with friendships, schoolwork, extracurricular activities and relationships with family. It means teaching about risks for addiction—like family history and mental illness and not having other ways to deal with stress beyond drug use. It also means reaching out to the at-risk kids in non-stigmatizing ways and helping, say, those with impulse control problems improve their self-command or those with tendencies toward anxiety and depression get appropriate help to prevent or treat those conditions.

Let’s face it: The real problem with teen marijuana use is not a high school kid smoking a joint on a Friday night—it’s a kid who can’t get through the school day without one.

And the real risk to the teenage brain from marijuana is not necessarily pharmacological—it’s that while other kids are learning how to cope with their emotions and manage relationships, teens with marijuana problems are training their brain in avoidance. The real danger comes from missing the experience of conquering psychological, intellectual and social problems without drugs when your brains is at its most plastic and receptive.

Given this, what Colorado teens most need to learn is not that marijuana might potentially someday maybe perhaps lower their IQ or increase their risk of mental illness—but that right now, smoking frequently could make them miss out on key developmental experiences, ones that will serve them for the rest of their lives and that will be far harder to accomplish if they fail to do so now.

Research shows that kids who take any kind of drug to get high with peers before they turn 18 have a 25% chance of developing addiction—but these odds drop to 4% if they start using when older. While this may be due in part to the fact that the most troubled kids start using at the earliest ages, it also probably reflects that if you make it to 18 without taking alcohol or drugs, you’ve likely learned to manage your impulses and handle your emotions pretty well. Working to delay use might help here.

Kids are smart enough to know that America’s decades-long history of marijuana use suggests that they aren’t “lab rats”—if their parents and older siblings and even grandparents survived periods where about 50% of the population tried it, odds are that they will, too. But they are also smart enough to recognize that some of their friends and family do suffer from addictions—and that understanding and ideally avoiding this is a worthwhile goal.

Teens are generally more afraid of missing out than of marijuana. That’s the place to begin if you want to reduce drug-related harm—not by focusing on experimentation and exaggerating the potential risks.

Maia Szalavitz is one of the nation’s leading neuroscience and addiction journalists, and a columnist at Substance.com. She has contributed to Timethe New York TimesScientific American Mindthe Washington Post and many other publications. She has also published five books, including Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids (Riverhead, 2006), and is currently finishing her sixth, Unbroken Brain, which examines why seeing addiction as a developmental or learning disorder can help us better understand, prevent and treat it. Her last column for Substance.com was about how including the “pleasure measure” of the effects of a drug can help create more rational drug policy.