Don’t Just Say No

Berkeley researcher Dr. Joel Brown questions the effectiveness of the federal government’s antidrug education policies

By Jason Cohn, San Francisco Bay Guardian, August 5, 1998

LAST MONTH, WHEN President Bill Clinton stood side by side with Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and drug czar General Barry McCaffrey to announce a new $1 billion antidrug advertising campaign aimed at kids, Berkeley-based researcher Dr. Joel Brown knew his phone would soon be ringing.

Brown is one of the country’s foremost authorities on drug-prevention education and his outspoken opposition to what he calls “the failed policies and programs of the past” has made him the voice of change in the field. His pivotal 1994 study of California’s school-based drug, alcohol, and tobacco education programs concluded that the antidrug messages and programs – the very ones the federal government is poised to spend $1 billion on in the new round of television ads – have no positive impact on youth drug use and may even lead to more risky behavior.

Standing before a backdrop of young children in Atlanta in July, Clinton said, “We know that the more young people fear drugs, the more they disapprove of them, the less likely they are to use them.” But Brown argues – with substantial evidence to back him up – that basing antidrug messages on fear is simply ineffective. “These types of fear-arousing messages initially shock people – very initially – and after that they become nothing more than the butt of a lot of jokes,” Brown told the Bay Guardian. Images like the now infamous fried egg in a pan (“This is your brain on drugs”) may have a short “halo period” during which they might frighten some potential drug users, according to Brown, but then they take on a life of their own. “We have to consider the possibility that these ads and the programs connected with them are actually placing kids at risk,” Brown said.

Brown is in a better position to talk about how young people react to antidrug messages and programs than most experts in the field because his research has centered on extensive interviews with school-age children. Brown has shown that drug-prevention policies based on the “Just Say No” ethic of the early ’80s shortchange the very nature of adolescence, which is to seek and challenge. “Just Say No” requires students to accept on faith what they are told in school or see on television. The problem is that a great deal of that message is contradicted by observable reality, Brown said.

“For example, these programs tell kids that marijuana is as bad as heroin, which is as bad as alcohol,” Brown said. But having been told this, kids might observe a parent harmlessly drinking beer or wine with dinner or an older sibling smoking a joint with friends. Furthermore, kids learn about drugs from movies, music, the Internet, and what Brown calls an “informal underground network of informational transmission.” Young kids know, for example, that doctors use marijuana to treat glaucoma and nausea, that moderate amounts of alcohol can help people relax, and that psychedelic drugs are used to explore alternate realities.

“The equation of all substances as just being ‘bad,’ with no possible benefits, ends up with young people rejecting the messengers as well as the message,” Brown said. What is worse, he says, is that kids who exhibit the most need for drug counseling are the first to get kicked out of school, adding to the overall impression among students that educators don’t really care about them. The result is that, while drug-prevention education makes up only a tiny part of the total curriculum, its effects play a disproportionately large role in the alienation of young people from their teachers and adult society.

Brown says the reason the zero tolerance, or “no use,” policy has stayed in place despite its demonstrable failure is not the fault of educators but of policy makers who are more concerned with politics than science. His 1994 study, for instance, was commissioned by the California Department of Education. But the department immediately disavowed the study when it concluded that a decade of DARE and similarly oriented programs would likely lead to increased drug use among minors — a prediction borne out by subsequent research and current statistics. “The discussion about drugs focuses on who is tough and who can be tougher, while the children suffer,” Brown said.

Brown has been widely published and often quoted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, radio, and television news programs. Nevertheless his research is not often included in critical program and policy discussions, and he and his like-minded colleagues are regularly labeled drug legalizers, which he calls “a rhetorical device used to exclude some researchers from the debate.”

Frustrated by the difficulty of affecting ossified policy and finding acceptance within academia, Brown and a group of other researchers have formed a nonprofit organization, the Berkeley-based Center for Educational Research and Development, which works directly with school districts and family service centers to create progressive drug-prevention programs.

Brown, who carefully prefaces many of his statements with the insistence that he is not an advocate of drug legalization or drug experimentation for minors, said, “We’re seeking a new vision for drug-prevention education that combines honest, accurate, and complete information with the courage to trust the capabilities of youth instead of dwelling on their disabilities.”

Copyright 1998 The San Francisco Bay Guardian