As I puttered around the house doing laundry and tidying the kitchen and fluffing pillows yesterday morning, my local NPR station was on in the background. The host was interviewing Barry McCaffrey of Clinton-era war-on-drugs fame and I found myself intrigued. I recall him taking a very different tack from the Nancy Reagan "just say no" campaign, but couldn't really remember many of the specifics, so my ears perked up and I slowed my tasks down in order to pay closer attention.
It is easy to pay attention to General McCaffrey, given that he is a career military man and speaks with 100% authority. He has very strong opinions on seemingly every subject in the Universe and speaks about them with no equivocation whatsoever. When callers or the host disagreed with him, he was not condescending, but so sure of himself that I wonder if he often causes others to question their own rationale. I found myself agreeing with him on a few issues and disagreeing about others, but glad I wasn't in the room with him admitting my dissent.
Until he began talking about the drug policy his task force crafted for the Office of National Drug Control Policy during his time in the Clinton White House. It started innocently enough, with him advocating for developmentally appropriate approaches to drug resistance education. Okay, fair enough. I can see the logic in that.
Saying, "You don't tell a 17-year old who is smoking a joint that they will get lung cancer or throat cancer. They don't care about that. You say, 'Hey, Stupid! You're going to get pregnant or drop out of school and never get a job!"
How is calling someone "Stupid" a way to change behavior?
How is belittling someone and trying to frighten them a way to motivate or encourage?
How is making someone think you see them as an idiot going to help you understand them?
As a former teenager who smoked a lot of pot (thank goodness my kids don't read this blog), I can tell you that by the time I had made the decision to engage in this behavior, I had already written myself off. I didn't need anyone else to. The reasons I used drugs were several:
1. There was a community of other potheads who accepted me into their group.
2. On some level I felt invincible (common among teenagers, and doesn't bode well for Gen. McCaffrey's fear tactics. I was sure I wasn't the one who would get pregnant or get caught smoking pot).
3. I was trying to escape some of the difficult realities in my life.
4. I felt somewhat hopeless about my life.
Luckily, stronger drugs weren't really available to me at that time. Couple that with the fact that I was a control freak and I had some pretty strong notions of which lines I wouldn't cross, which is why I never drank alcohol.
Also luckily, I had a few supportive adults in my life who may or may not have known I was smoking pot, but who believed in my ability to live my dreams. They encouraged me to get to college which afforded me a different way to escape the difficulties in my current situation. I saw that as a clean break and a way to reinvent myself somewhat and I was able to separate myself from the drug culture I had immersed myself in.
I certainly hope that General McCaffrey's drug policy is not standard operating procedure in most of the schools around the nation. I believe that the only way to really change the way we treat illegal drugs and alcohol is by understanding the reasons people turn to them in the first place and supporting them as they learn to deal honestly with the challenges in their lives. I understand that game plan isn't nearly as clearcut as a military man might like, but I am certain that berating and belittling and attempting to scare people is not the way to go.