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Why “Just Say No’ Just Hasn’t Worked—Trying to Control the Uncontrollable

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Message Bret Stephenson
One of the greatest fears related to our teens is their propensity to use and abuse drugs and alcohol. "Just Say No" has been one of the most visible anti-drug campaigns yet has failed to live up to its logical hope: that it is easy for kids to simply refuse the call of altered consciousness. Ponder this: the US has spent more than $250 billion dollars in the past 20 years on drug prevention. In the past few years, I've yet to find one person who works with kids who thinks things are getting any better after such a hefty investment of tax dollars.

D.A.R.E., the most recent cornerstone of the anti-drug industry, has actually backfired. Study after study confirms that all D.A.R.E. has really accomplished is to expose our children to drugs at an early age, prompting more use and addiction than kids who never heard of the program. Think about it: would you rather your kids know everything about drugs, or nothing about them (like the 40's and 50's)? Personally, I want my daughter naïve enough so she can't even spells 'drugs.' Why? She's much less likely to engage in drugs if she knows little or nothing about them.

So why do these logical, common sense approaches backfire? The same reason Prohibition failed so miserably. They fail to take into account the universal propensity to alter one's consciousness occasionally. Did the failure of Prohibition and subsequent birth of bootleg liquor and organized crime prove all Americans are alcoholics? Of course not! But Americans have an addiction rate 10 times higher than Italy or France, who allow their children moderate use of wine. Hmmm".Teens, as well as adults, have a driving need to alter their consciousness. This can be done in appropriate or inappropriate ways. Why do small kids roll down hills? Being dizzy is an altered state. So is a ride on a roller coaster, fresh powder, or going without sleep for too long. Much that we experience in life alters our consciousness.

A hundred years ago all drugs were legal in America, yet we had no epidemic of drug abuse. The paradox around drugs seems to be this: the more we try and control them, the less control we achieve. Compare what we've gotten out of our $250 billion investment to what Holland (and other countries) are doing. A while back Holland decriminalized heroin and simply quit trying to control marijuana. Our American mind recoils at this thought, but what happened was a 40% drop in national crime, fewer addictions to young users, and more people quitting. Imagine what the US could do with 40% of its crime expenditures used elsewhere. The average hard-core drug user commits 50 robberies and 85 burglaries per year.

The concept of punishing drug users has also failed miserably. The majority of prison convicts in America are for drug related charges. California is now the third largest prison system in the world, and the prison population has increased seven-fold since the 70's. From 1984-1994, California opened 21 new prisons but only one new university. We simply have to ask ourselves if this approach has worked, and why we believe it will magically do so in the future. In 1998, the majority of California's "3-Strike" offenders doing 25-years-to-life were for marijuana, not murder.

Another reason American teens use so many drugs and alcohol is to numb out their feelings of abuse, neglect and drama as the family system in the US continues to deteriorate. But remember, teens and all other children learn from watching adults. America leads the world with a $97 billion annual expenditure on prescription (legal) drugs. The top three types of drugs are anti-depressants, anti-ulcerants, and anti-psychotics. Is the mental health of adults getting better after all of this? Not that I can tell.

Then, we medicate kids in record numbers to moderate their behavior. Almost 5% of every American boy is on Ritalin or some other mood-altering prescription, and at the current rate fully 10% of all US children will be medicated by 2010!! The lunacy to this is that when our medicated children become teens, we then try desperately to teach them NOT to use drugs to moderate their behavior.

Teens are very adept at seeing the double standards of behavior (legal chemicals) we parents and adults model for them. What are they supposed to think, or how should they act, when they witness the fact that tobacco kills 500,000 annually; alcohol kills about 105,000 Americans yearly, including DUI's; prescription drugs kill about 100,000 people each year; and aspirin causes more hospitalizations than illegal drugs?

People ask me all the time what the cure for drugs (or gangs) is. The answer, I've come to believe, is Prevention. I've spent most of my past columns trying to explain how a treatment approach isn't working and we need to prevent the problems rather than always hoping we can fix them later. What would this look like?

For example, the $250 billion dollars mentioned above has failed to deliver as promised, and this year we'll toss yet another $20 billion into "Just Say No" approaches. That same amount of money would pay for 80,000 - 150,000 youth to college or trade school; one year of out-patient treatment for 350,000 kids, or wages for 1,000,000 mentors or reading tutors at a few hours per week.

The final main reason teens use drugs & alcohol is due to extended adolescence, the fact we have no closure to adolescence and make them wait too long to join the grownup club. How many of us actually waited until we were 21 to drink, smoke or have sex? When teens were initiated into adulthood earlier than the present, they didn't have to wait as long and were content with the setup.

Don't read this wrong. I'm not a proponent for allowing our kids to use drugs. Kids using drugs inhibits their developmental growth, stagnates their emotional growth, and teaches them how to avoid dealing with reality sober. We need to find healthy ways of letting them experience altered states (sports, guided imageries, sweat lodges, etc.). Most native cultures also did not have addiction problems because they mostly used their medicine plants for ceremonial reasons, where in modern American we tend to use recreationally.

Mostly we need to quit hoping they'll stop if we adults don't. We need to quit wasting resources on models that obviously do not succeed. We need to prevent the problem rather than hoping we'll solve it after it's broken. If you recall Einstein's definition of insanity, it goes like this: "Doing the same thing over and over again yet expecting a different outcome." Why in the world would we practice insanity on our children?

Bret Stephenson will be presenting on this topic at the Futurehealth Winter Brain Meeting, February 3-7, 2006, in Palm Springs, CA. Bret is an adolescent specialist who's experiences with teens from more than 100 countries and six international youth conferences has altered how he looks at and works with American teens. Utilizing archetypal, cross-cultural and universal models that have worked for millennia, he successfully works with at-risk and high-risk teens in a variety of settings. Bret is author of Slaying the Dragon: The Contemporary Struggle of Adolescent Boys-Modern Rules in an Ancient Game. More information can be found at or his nonprofit site at
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Bret Stephenson is an adolescent specialist who\'s experiences with teens from more than 100 countries and six international youth conferences has altered how he looks at and works with American teens. Utilizing archetypal, (more...)
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