I recently had a chance to go to Rangely, Colorado and talk with groups of kids, grades 6-12. It was a pretty great experience and taught me a few things as well.
1. They are interested in marijuana, but not for reasons you’d think.- This was Colorado, and so much like my home state of Oregon, recreational marijuana is legal. Their questions were more about the long term effects of smoking pot, the effects of the brain, etc… They wanted an honest comparison of marijuana to other drugs, and unlike in the 80’s where they tried scare tactics that didn’t work, I told them the truth (See my previous article on marijuana entitled, Just How Dangerous is Marijuana Anyway?). I also talked about the effects of marijuana on a developing brain and why the age limit of 21 isn’t just a random number we pulled out to punish young people.
2. They know way more than you think they do.- When I asked them about which drug is the one most used by people for their first experimentation (it’s now pain pills by the way) I got answers of crack, “E” (ecstasy), one kid said bath salts, and they kept going. They may not be aware of what a lot of those drugs are, but they are definitely aware of their existence. I told then I didn’t know whether I should be impressed or scared.
3. The move away from “Just Say No,” and DARE programs is working.- The most amazing thing happens when you don’t treat teenagers like they’re idiots. They seem to respond better to it. I told them what drug education was like as a teen in the 80’s, all the “Gateway drug” nonsense, and scare tactics used. They had a good laugh and asked me if I was serious about the “egg in the frying pan” commercial. Teens today, like teens in the past are trying to find their identity and are naturally rebellious. They’re trying to find their power and what works is telling them they’re smart, giving them real facts, not concocted nonsense hoping they’ll fall for it, and empowering them to make good decisions for themselves.
4. We’re probably more worried than we need to be.- The anti smoking campaign, however they did it, made the biggest inroads with young people by doing one simple thing. They got the message across that smoking wasn’t cool. Teens now days (a lot of them anyway) see smoking as ridiculous, not rebellious or being an “outsider.” They seem to be getting the same message about drugs. Here in Oregon, for instance, something like 80% of the high school juniors DON’T smoke pot. The percentages of people that will eventually move into addiction aren’t going to vary, but with less young people doing it, the overall numbers drop. We didn’t get those numbers down by trying to scare them, or with more stringent laws. We got there by having a real conversation with them and stopped trying to tell them we know what’s best for them (maybe we do, but they aren’t buying that anymore than any teen ever did), and letting them make their own decisions.
5. The majority of them are going to be fine.- Here’s a fact. Your teen, if you have one, at some point is probably going to be offered some kind of substance. The way to help them avoid pitfalls is through empowerment. Not punishment, threats, or worn out scare tactics. Empower them to make decisions, and let them fail. The thing that got the biggest nods of agreement from the kids I talked to, especially the older ones, was that as teenagers, and like all teens before them, that they were fearless. That fearlessness when channeled in the right direction is a beautiful thing to behold. That “you can’t tell me what to do,” attitude is amazing when it’s them stepping up to prove they can be something better than what someone else says they are limited to or are supposed to be. My message to them was that of all things in life, that one thing to be smart about and not try and play chicken with, was addiction. At least most of them seemed to get it.
Changes in legalization of marijuana has had little impact on the use of that particular drug on teens in the states it has passed in. Those that are determined to try it, still do. Those that aren’t interested, didn’t all the sudden become interested because it became legal. Teens today have access to way more information then we ever did, for better or worse. When I spoke to them I didn’t tell them horror stories about what happens with addiction. I told them they were all intelligent young adults who were perfectly capable of looking that up online. The only appeal I had to them was to believe what they read in other peoples stories, not to dismiss what they read about in terms of how bad addiction could get, but to accept that things can and do get that bad. I left the decision in their hands.
I closed trying to tell them all roughly the same thing “I can’t tell you to never use drugs or alcohol. I won’t try and scare you cause you’re too smart for that. I will tell you that addiction is like playing Russian Roulette, eventually someone gets the bullet. You need to ask yourself if it’s worth risking everything you want in life for that. I’m guessing that for some of you the answer is no. For those of you that do want to play, and think just like I did at your age, that I’m full of crap, here’s the reality. Most of you will have nothing happen and be able to say ‘I told you so’. Some of you will wind up in jail or worse. Some of you will end up darkening my door or the door of someone just like me and get to try and pick up the pieces of what’s left of your life…and some of you are going to die. And here’s the thing if you die from addiction, no one is going to remember you. Your family will grieve and move on. Your friends will not sit around drinking toasts and telling stories about your stupid ass. They are going to move on with their lives. You will fade into distant memory. I don’t remember the names of the people I’ve worked with who died. I’m too busy trying to help those still living. Your death will serve no meaningful purpose, not even as a cautionary tale for others. If you want people to remember you, try doing something worth remembering. Channel that angst and fearlessness and make an impact on the world people will never forget.”
A psychology professor once told me kids need three things: love, limits, and guidance. The end. Treat them like idiots and they’ll act like that. Empower them, love them, keep them from wandering too far off into danger, and stay out of their way. They’ll be fine. They are fine. I can safely say, that despite the rumors, my experience tells me that we have raised some pretty open minded, intelligent youth, who when it comes to drug use, seem to fairly capable of making the right decisions as long as we let them.
At Recovery Works NW, while we don’t work with teens, we do work with a number of young people, and they are amazing. Every day we get to come to work and work with some of these young people who struggled, but swung that anger and fearlessness in the right direction, and our now moving ahead full speed. Watching that is a thing of beauty. If you or a loved one is struggling, please call us. We’re here to help and love doing it.