Drug Education

The article below was written in an American publication in 2008 and drew on previous articles from the 1990s – also included here. It is salutary to see that the comments about drug education in schools in the USA are still completely relevant to drug education in Britain today.

Parents should ask to see which drug education programme is being used in the schools which their children attend – and they should read them with great care, to identify any covert messages. To prevent drug use by young people it is vital that parents, schools and colleges all give the same message – drug use is unlawful, unhealthy, and unacceptable – NDPA

In a recent article about the debate on the legalization of marijuana between Robert Stutman, a retired DEA agent, and Steve Hager, editor-in-chief of High Times Magazine, which had been sponsored by the student union at the University of Kansas, a student later said that the debaters had appealed too much to the emotions of the audience, that she had wanted more concrete facts.

Another notable comment from another student said she did not smoke marijuana but was interested in the event because some of her friends did smoke. “I don’t look down on people that smoke,” she said. “I have never smoked and never will. It’s a personal choice, and it’s just how I am.”

It seems that many students think that marijuana use is a “personal choice,” without regard to its being against the law and school codes. Several highly qualified people who have reviewed school drug curricula have pointed out that the approach being used in most school drug education, which focuses on self-esteem and teaching ‘decision-making skills,’ implies that drug use is a choice for the student to make. Furthermore, with that psychosocial emphasis, indications are that there has been too little knowledge provided to students about drugs and the harms of their use, which is surely what drug education is assumed to be about.

Arlene Seal, Ph.D., who has a vast background in drug-prevention analysis and activities, wrote several excellent articles in the mid-1990s about concerns regarding the choice/decision-making approach being used in school drug curricula. Two of those articles are excerpted below, and also below is an excerpt from another article on the same subject, that one written in 1990 by a professor in education at Northern Illinois University.

Although there may have been some improvements in school drug curricula since these articles were written, apparently the basic “choice/decision-making” emphasis remains the same, as was indicated by the comment of the student in the recent article about the marijuana legalization debate held at Kansas.
If we are to be effective in youth drug-use prevention, we must pay more attention to, and have an input in, what is being taught (and how) in drug education in the middle and high schools, prior to students arriving at college.
Source: Nancy Starr, Drugwatch International. October 2008


by Arlene B. Seal, Ph.D., published in Prevention Pipeline, May/June 1991,
condensed from a longer article published in Dec./Jan. 1991 Adolescent Counsellor. (Dr. Seal has been a drug-education consultant for many years, was a Fulbright Scholar, and is Founder/President of Positive Moves.)

I am very concerned about the prevalence of drug education throughout the country that focuses on individual choice and decision-making skills. Most often these programs and curricula emphasize self-esteem or self-confidence as prerequisites for responsible behavior and ‘good choices or decisions.’ Although engendering important social development and life skills, this approach dilutes the fact that illicit drugs are dangerous and illegal.
Drug education for young people that relies upon ‘choices’ or ‘moderation’ about drug use carries subtle and misleading messages that say:

* Any age is old enough to have gained a perspective in life and an experienced frame of reference to make critical life decisions to choose what one wants to do.

* Laws are not important. One has a right to do whatever one individually feels or thinks is best for oneself regardless of authority or society.

*When one is able to make a choice equivalent to deciding whether or not to go out and play, it must mean that there is no real harm in drug use.

Furthermore, ‘choice’ implies that there are two or more viable options. Is there any ‘choice’ about drugs that is medically and socially acceptable other than no unlawful use? Use of illicit drugs is against the law because it is harmful to the survival and well-being of society. It is not a matter of choosing whether or not to use illegal drugs, but rather a decision whether or not to break the law.

Drug education, especially for children, that centers on choice has three inherent problems:

1. Choices or decisions cannot be made without a frame of reference.
Over the past thirty years, American society changed many of its rules and the societal frame of reference got lost in individualistic interpretation. How can young people possibly make critical choices in a society that is no longer clear about the rules it follows?

2. ‘Choice’ evades a clear message of right and wrong. There is no choice about murder, it is societally unacceptable. If one commits murder, one makes a decision to break the law with known consequences.

3. Giving children critical life choices relinquishes adult and societal responsibility. One does not tell a 5-year-old that cars can hurt or kill and then send the child off alone to cross a street on the first day of school. . . Is it realistic or responsible on the part of adults to give young people choices about drug use that is equally life-threatening? . . . .

One of the most positive things we can do, as parents and as a society, to help our children, ourselves, our country and our world gain long-term freedom from rampant societal drug use, is to be clear and consistent in the messages we give and the lines we draw. We must insist that all drug education transmit a non-acceptance for illegal drug use.


– Excerpts from an article by Arlene B. Seal, Ph.D., which originally appeared as a guest editorial in IDEA Newsletter, April 1993.

Following the 1986 Drug-Free Act, many people with the best of intentions but with limited understanding of the new direction required, implemented strategies, policies and programs within the initial context of treatment and law enforcement. While treatment and law enforcement are essential parts of national policies, these approaches cannot accomplish the drug-free goal. They are both REACTIVE approaches that begin only after the problem has occurred…. .
Critical to the long-term solution of preventing the problem before it occurs, is a PREVENTIVE approach that will change societal attitudes about the acceptance of drugs…..

This raises one of the most significant problems in current US drug education strategies and policies. Much of the continued use of drugs and some of the other major problems associated with drugs in the US, such as gangs and violence, can be attributed, in part, to the type of education implemented over the past two decades at all levels.

Today, about 59%-98% of drug ‘prevention’ curricula and youth programs (including ‘drug-free’ youth programs) are based on a ‘choice/decision-making’ model.

Drug prevention education based on teaching children that ‘it is their choice or decision whether or not to use drugs’ is actually COUNTERPRODUCTIVE TO THE GOALS OF A DRUG-FREE SOCIETY. In fact, teaching children that drug use is their ‘choice’ increases acceptance of drug prevalence and use by making both use and non-use viable options. More simply, choice/decision models violate the accepted federal standard of no use that is the litmus test for receiving federal monies, including drug-free school dollars.

Furthermore, since all drugs are illegal for children, teaching a child that s/he is the only one who can decide on behavior that is best for her/himself, burdens a child with responsibility relinquished by adults and society while it undermines the child’s respect for authority in any form—parent, teacher, school, religion, government.

Teaching children guided decision-making skills by responsible and caring adults is a process that takes place gradually over years (like an apprenticeship) while the child gains knowledge and a life perspective with which to make good choices and wise decisions—and to understand that there are non-negotiables in order to protect individuals and the well-being of society.

Promoting the concept that drug use is the choice of each individual is the premise promoted by drug advocacy groups. This concept is the pathway to an ultimate outcome of legalization of drugs.

By teaching children that it is their choice whether or not to use drugs, children are learning that drugs are acceptable in society while they are being indoctrinated to eventually vote for drug legalization.


by Lowell Horton, Professor of education at Northern Illinois University
from ‘ON TARGET’, March 1990 -reprinted in ‘National Chemical People Newsletter’, March – April 1990. Excerpts follow:

All 50 states now have laws requiring alcohol and other drug education. As often as not, these mandates are ambiguous and poorly conceived. While several good drug education packages are available, many others were rushed to the market with more interest in the bottom line than in outcome.

School leaders are required to exercise thoughtful consideration before approving programs for school districts. Many drug education programs send a mixed and confusing message to students. Others are clearly wrong. Here are some clues that your program may be worse than no program at all. (One of those clues with commentary follows.)

Drug education that is value free so students can decide for themselves. This overworked saw is still grinding in too many schools. The message from this transmogrification of teaching critical thinking is that we should simply present the facts in a non-biased way and allow children to decide for themselves whether they will drink alcohol, smoke pot or snort cocaine.

Further, this outrageous notion exhorts teachers to remain neutral without pointing out right and wrong. This absurd approach is totally inappropriate. Fourteen-year-olds do not have the ability, nor should they have the responsibility, for making unaided decisions about drug use. As educators, we do have legal and moral obligations to assist our students in making legal and healthful decisions. We don’t need to apologize for standing against drug use. Beware of mixed and hidden messages……

Administrators, teachers, community groups and students must work together to craft a program that will unequivocally contribute to the goal of a totally drug-free environment in the school and community.


From newsletter of The Chemical People of Erie County, Pa. Fall 2002 – The letter below, written by former Drug Enforcement Administration member Robert Stutman, was sent to nine major newspapers. Is it a reflection of what students did not learn in high school drug education and/or what they are not learning at college or what they are learning at college?

Dear Editor:
As the former head of the New York office of the Drug Enforcement Administration, as a current member of the Board of Directors of Educating Voices, Inc., an organization of people who care about this issue and are working to do something about it, and as someone who delivers about one hundred speeches a year on the subject of drugs in all types of venues, I believe that I was probably as sophisticated about drugs in America as most people could hope to be. However, with April 20th, the “Holy Grail” of the marihuana counter-culture quickly approaching, I felt obliged to speak out.

I debate the “Legalization of Marihuana” dozens of times a year on major college campuse. Recently, I have been aghast at the utter lack of knowledge and misconceptions on which our college students are basing their decisions as to whether they should use marihuana and indeed, whether it should be legalized. I have college students regularly tell me that “Marihuana cures cancer” and “I drive better when I am stoned on grass.”

Those ridiculous positions, not even advocated by leaders on the other side of the issue, are examples of the struggles and dangers we face as a nation. Unfortunately, most Americans are pretending drugs are not a major problem in the U. S. I wish they could spend time with me debating against the legalization of drugs with our college students, always in the minority in an auditorium full of students. April 20th will reinvigorate those Americans who want to make drugs available to our young people. When will the rest of us become reinvigorated?

Robert Stutman.

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