Blog Post

Real Drug Education Should Say "Just Say Know"

Marsha Rosenbaum

It felt like Goundhog Day last week when the president and attorney general, in response to the overdose crisis, advocated a resurrection of “just say no”-style anti-drug advertising. It’s been 30 years since Mrs. Reagan’s famous advice and the proliferation of the DARE drug prevention program, which has been widely researched and consistently debunked.

Even the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, formerly known as the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, which sponsored those “egg in the frying pan” ads, has changed its tune. Not long ago, they advised me to refrain from critiquing DARE because “it’s like beating a dead horse.”

Evidently the White House didn’t get that message.

In her suggestions for what Trump should have said about drug education and prevention, DPA’s executive director, Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno wrote: “Rather than resorting to fear-mongering we will equip our young people with knowledge, warning them about the risks of drug misuse in a realistic and scientifically grounded way. We cannot control all their choices, but by treating them with respect and giving them sound information, we can ensure they have what they need to make good choices…”
There is lots of talk these days about the value of prevention. Specifically, the Drug Policy Alliance has recommended that drug education should be:

Scientifically accurate.

Extensive research has shown that fear-based messaging designed to frighten teens does not deter them from experimenting with alcohol and other drugs. All information presented must be backed up by valid sources such as peer-reviewed publications. All websites should be balanced—neither advocating for nor condemning the use of a particular drug.

Realistic and honest.

It’s important to be honest about the real reasons people use drugs, including self-medication and simply “having fun.” Without acknowledging both sides, we lose teens’ attention. There are also very tangible risks associated with drug use, such as driving while intoxicated (on anything!), leaving a friend who is passed out, or simply using too much and too often. And of course, the reality of zero tolerance policies and the implications of getting caught up in the criminal justice system should be part of drug education.


Didactic, top-town lectures don’t work for teens. They need to participate in their own drug education by having the opportunity to share their experience and ask tough questions in a non-judgmental setting.


Some teens will have used, even sold drugs, or have family who have done so. Demonizing people who use drugs tends to isolate and stigmatize those who are most in need of support. Drug education programs must be careful not to isolate these teens and cause them to “tune out.”

Harm reduction-oriented.

Although, of course, abstinence and/or delaying use is the safest choice, national surveys show that a significant number of teens will choose to try alcohol, marijuana, or even other drugs. All programs, therefore, should contain information about actions that can reduce potential harm.  This is not “enabling.” It is accepting reality and taking action to ensure safety, which ought to be the bottom line.

The good news is that DPA already has a number of drug education resources—free of charge and available with a click—and more to come in 2018.

DPA’s drug education resources include reality-based, harm reduction information about young people and drug use, abuse, and treatment. Notable examples are our Drug Facts series, as well as “8 Tips for Talking to Your Teen About Alcohol and Other Drugs.”

Unlimited, free-of-charge hard copies of the popular booklet, Safety First: A Reality-Based Approach to Teens and Drugs, can be ordered online. (Spanish-language versions of the booklet are also available.) The booklet is also available for download in Chinese, Hebrew, Portuguese, Russian, Czech, Greek and Papiamento.

In the coming year, DPA will be piloting and evaluating our first-ever high school drug education curriculum, written by an educator and consistent with National Health Education Standards. Stay tuned for updates on this exciting new resource.

Trump and Sessions are clueless about what really prevents teens from getting into problematic patterns with drugs – and it’s not worn-out, ineffective slogans.

It’s long past time to bury “just say no” and replace it with “just say KNOW.”

Marsha Rosenbaum is director emerita of the San Francisco office of the Drug Policy Alliance, where she spearheaded DPA's work on youth and drugs and created the Safety First booklet.

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Harm reduction