Safety First: Real Drug Education for Teens

At the Drug Policy Alliance, we believe accurate, honest, compassionate drug education is a right for all young people. The Safety First: Real Drug Education for Teens curriculum is a comprehensive tool for teachers that allows them to have honest conversations about drugs with their students, equipping them with the skills to navigate their risks.

Safety First: Real Drug Education for Teens

Safety First: Real Drug Education for Teens is the nation’s first harm reduction-based drug education curriculum for high school students. The free curriculum consists of 15 lessons that can be completed in a 45- to 50-minute class period. 

Each lesson is designed to engage students through interactive activities such as discussions and role-playing. The curriculum is aligned with National Health Education Standards as well as Common Core State Standards so it can be easily integrated into Health classes. 

For In-Classroom and Distance Learning

In 2020, we collaborated with Safety First pilot teachers, youth development specialists and education technologists to create a Distance Learning version of the Safety First: Real Drug Education for Teens curriculum. The current version of the curriculum was updated in Fall 2021, and is suitable for use in the classroom or online.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the varied learning and health needs of students, teachers and families, and DPA remains committed to providing harm reduction-based educational resources that reach everyone exactly where they’re at.

The Safety First curriculum:

  • Easily integrates into Google Classroom
  • Allows for asynchronous student learning
  • Contains learning activities that can be completed collaboratively as a class, at home individually, or with a family member, parent or household member
  • Encourages media and health literacy skills, relying on vetted learning techniques such as the CRAAP test
  • Maintains a trauma-informed approach

Register to Get the Curriculum

Students choose between two pitchers of identical-looking beverages to learn how it's impossible to tell what's in a drug just by looking at it, and why a harm reduction practice called drug checking can increase safety.

What’s included?

  • 15 lesson plans and accompanying presentation slides
  • Student assignments and answer keys
  • Extension activities and teaching modifications

View the Curriculum Guide
View a Sample Lesson
View the License Agreement

Safety First Lessons

1) What is a Drug?
Students examine their own beliefs about alcohol and other drugs by answering the question: “What is a drug?” They take a pre-class survey to assess their prior knowledge and skills.

2) Introduction to Harm Reduction
Students learn about harm reduction concepts and strategies, including abstinence, that will empower them to make healthy choices for themselves and others regarding substance use.

3) How Drugs Work
Students learn how drugs affect the body and the brain, and specifically the teenage brain. They further discuss the factors that contribute to physical dependence.

4) Drug Classes: Stimulants
Students learn about stimulant drugs, their effects, benefits and risks. They further discuss the harm reduction concepts particularly related to prescription stimulant drugs. 

5) Drug Classes: Cannabis – Part 1
Students play “Fact or Fiction About Cannabis” activity to see how much they know about the drug. They work in groups to research statements about cannabis, and use the CRAAP test to evaluate their sources’ credibility.

6) Drug Classes: Cannabis – Part 2
Students learn about cannabis’ effects, potential risks and benefits, including the effects of edible cannabis. Student then share and evaluate each other’s research on statements about cannabis.

7) Vaping & E-Cigarettes
Students explore the inner workings of e-cigarettes in-depth. They conduct research to examine the health effects of vaping, using the CRAAP test to evaluate their sources’ credibility.

8) Drug Classes: Alcohol & Other Depressants
Students learn about the effects of depressant drugs with a focus on alcohol. They learn how to perform the recovery position and give advice about how to reduce alcohol-related harms using practice scenarios.

9) Drug Classes: Prescription & Other Opioids
Students take an in-depth look at opioid drugs, their effects, risks, and benefits. They will learn how to recognize the signs of an opioid overdose and respond appropriately.

10) Drug Classes: Psychedelics
Students learn about psychedelic drugs, their effects, risks and benefits. They reflect on drug references in the media, specifically music, and how they influence teens. They also complete an activity that demonstrates the risks of illicit drug adulteration, and learn about the harm reduction practice of drug checking.

11) Mental Health and Coping
Students discuss how drug use can be a mechanism for dealing with mental health issues, specifically stress and anxiety. They learn how to locate resources that can help them cope.

12) Understanding Zero Tolerance
Students learn about zero-tolerance drug policies and their impact on students’ health and well-being. Students also learn about restorative justice practices.

13) Health & Policy
Students learn about drug policies and America’s war on drugs. They discuss how drug policies impact health, and learn ways in which harm reduction-based drug policies can help improve health outcomes.

14) Looking Back, Looking Forward
Students review what they have learned by playing the “Just The Facts” Kahoot game. Students reflect on what they have learned by writing a letter to their future selves about drugs and drug use.

15) A Healthy Future
Students discuss their advocacy assignment from Lesson 12. They take a posttest to assess their understanding of the content covered in the curriculum.

Sign Up to Download the Curriculum

The Philosophy Behind Safety First

Safety First is rooted in the principles of harm reduction. When it comes to drug education, a harm reduction approach discourages young people from using alcohol and other drugs. But it offers more than an abstinence-only approach, because it also provides teenagers with information to keep themselves and their friends safe if and when they do encounter these substances.

For example, abstinence-only education may tell young people that they should refrain from using drugs because they could overdose. Harm reduction drug education explains how to recognize the signs of drug overdose, how to respond and how to get help if they fear that a friend is overdosing.

Learn more about why abstinence-only drug education doesn’t work.

Is Safety First Evidence-Based?

In Spring 2018, we piloted Safety First with 88 ninth grade students at one New York City Department of Education high school, Bard Manhattan High School Early College.

In Spring 2019, we expanded our evaluation to a district-level collaboration with San Francisco Unified School District, piloting Safety First in five SFUSD high schools and over 600 students.

Highlights from the SFUSD evaluation include:

  • Increased student knowledge of harm reduction
  • Increased student knowledge of drug knowledge regarding alcohol, cannabis and opioids
  • Increased student knowledge of how to detect and respond to a drug-related overdose

Want more info? Download our Safety First Fact Sheet.

Other Drug Education Resources

The Drug Policy Alliance has a series of resources for educators and parents, including tips for talking to teens about drugs. Check out our other drug education resources.

Real Drug Education
HS Curriculum