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