Op-Ed: Teach Youths To Make Responsible Drug Choices

The tragic alcohol-related deaths recently of two women in Harrisburg highlight the need for our community
to re-examine how we educate children about drugs and alcohol.

I live in Pennsylvania Place, where one of the victims died, and I was a friend of the other. Days before my
friend fell at the Walnut Street Garage, we talked about playing tennis in the warm weather.

Police reports indicated both women had been drinking heavily before they died. I believe both of these
tragedies can be attributed partly to the failure of drug/alcohol education in America. Its dogmatic approach
has left young people who came of age during the war on drugs ill-equipped to make informed choices -- or
even to recognize "drugs."


I shake my head when people in bars tell me they do not do drugs -- while they drink a beer. When young
people do not recognize alcohol as a drug, they underestimate its potential for damage. Binge-~rinking is
drug abuse.

As a student at George Washington University in 1999, I served as director of the nonprofit Students for
Sensible Drug Policy. This experience helped me to understand that the problem with drug education is
rooted in an abstinence-only approach.

Drug education should be approached with the same attitude as sex education. Abstinence is only half of
the equation; education about responsible behavior also is needed.

Just as some prefer that all young people abstain from sex, communities recognized -- particularly after the
onset of the AIDS epidemic - that education about responsible behavior is needed in addition to the
abstinence message.

Not all kids will "just say no" as the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program urged my classmates.
Despite being criticized by the U.S. surgeon general, the U.S. Department of Education and the General
Accounting Office as ineffective, DAR.E. is the most popular drug-education program in America.

Last year, alcohol abuse at colleges resulted in 1,700 deaths, 1.3 million injuries and assaults and over
97,000 sexual offenses. With rates of alcohol abuse at alarming levels, young adults need to know how to
recognize alcohol poisoning, which is the most common life-threatening drug-related crises they are likely to

Lacking sound information about the effect of drugs from adults left my classmates to learn as they went,
from older peers or the hard way. I want better for my children. Here are ways in which we can improve:

  • Parents. Keep open the lines of communication and be prepared to start a conversation with your children. If talking about drugs makes you feel uncomfortable or you lack the correct information, you can start at www.safety1st.org.
  • Congress. Lift the prohibition on funding anything except abstinence-only programs and fund pilot programs that encourage responsible behavior. Doing so is not admitting defeat in the so-called war on drugs. It is simply providing our children better ability to protect themselves, which should always be our highest priority.
  • Colleges. Consider a social norms campaign. ''The Joumal of Studies on Alcohol" confirmed that most college students overestimate peer drinking. For more information, visit the National Social Norms Resource Center at www.socialnorms.org.
  • State legislators. Follow the lead of Califomia, and form a statewide Task Force on Effective Drug Education.
  • High schools. Look into the Beyond Zero Tolerance campaign developed by Rodney Skager, Ph.D, who has researched drug education for over 20 years. It is a reality-based education model that incorporates three mutually reinforcing elements: education, intervention/assistance and restorative consequences (www.beyondzerotolerance.org).

Now is the time for our community to discuss how we can better prepare young people to address these
issues. The May 1 Safe Schools Conference at the Hilton Harrisburg &Towers is an opportunity to say we
will not let drugs take more friends away.

Looking back, I wish my parents and schools better educated me to recognize the signs of drug
dependency and the difference between use and abuse.

The battle to keep our children and students safe is

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