Telling teenagers to ‘just say no’ to drugs isn’t enough

The Arizona Republic - - Opinions - Your Turn Joshua Azevedo Guest colum­nist be­fore need Joshua Azevedo owns and op­er­ates The Path­way Pro­gram in Tempe with his wife, Valerie. Reach him at josh@thep­ath­waypro­

When I talk to teenagers about their drug use, I ask the sim­ple ques­tion, “Why do you use drugs?” The an­swer is in­vari­ably: “It’s fun!”

Teens don’t usu­ally vol­un­teer to try things they don’t think will be fun, so where are they get­ting the mes­sage that drugs are fun?

The re­cent Ari­zona Youth Sur­vey sug­gests an an­swer. Af­ter years of pub­lic health mes­sag­ing on the dan­gers of smok­ing, fewer than 17 per­cent of eighth, 10th- and 12th-graders said there was no or only a slight risk in smok­ing a pack of cig­a­rettes a day. The per­cent­age of teens who said they smoked in the past month has dropped con­sis­tently over the past three sur­veys. They hear the pub­lic health mes­sages.

But nearly half of those same stu­dents said there is no or only a slight risk in reg­u­larly us­ing mar­i­juana. Un­like smok­ing, the per­cent­age of teens re­port­ing us­ing mar­i­juana in the past month is the high­est the sur­vey has ever found.

We shouldn’t be sur­prised, based on the mes­sages teens hear about pot. Vot­ers de­clared mar­i­juana a medicine in Ari­zona, and the pot in­dus­try reg­u­larly makes out­landish claims about its sup­posed mir­a­cle qual­i­ties. More and more states are le­gal­iz­ing mar­i­juana for recre­ational use. And then there are the mes­sages they see on so­cial me­dia and from their friends and fam­ily.

Teens hear: Pot is fun and safe! Try it! But mar­i­juana is not the safe high its pro­po­nents claim, es­pe­cially for teens. It may not be as likely to kill as an opi­oid over­dose, but it has long-term con­se­quences on the young brain, ar­rest­ing men­tal de­vel­op­ment and in­creas­ing the like­li­hood of psy­choses.

It de­rails coping skills and fos­ters ter­mi­nal ado­les­cence. In coun­sel­ing, I see 18-year-olds, af­ter pe­ri­ods of mar­i­juana use, throw­ing tantrums like a kinder­gartener. One in six teens who smokes mar­i­juana reg­u­larly will be­come ad­dicted.

The ef­fect is slow but in­sid­i­ous, like a plane knocked three de­grees off course. A flight from Phoenix to LA will be close; a flight to Tokyo will be lost.

So, what’s the so­lu­tion? In my work with teens, I find the most im­por­tant part of help­ing them get off drugs is healthy peer sup­port, hon­esty about the ef­fects of drugs, in­clud­ing pot, on their lives, and a whole lot of fun!

As a so­ci­ety we should be giv­ing teens more op­tions for healthy fun, so­cial­iza­tion and re­lax­ation they be­gin us­ing so they don’t the “fun” of drugs or al­co­hol.

Ask­ing them to just say no isn’t enough. We need to tell them the truth about the harms of pot and give them some­thing that is bet­ter!

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