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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Rethinking Drug Education

Dan Reist

Reprinted from the "Schools" issue of Visions Journal, 2009, 5 (2), pp. 19-20

It’s a familiar pattern. A story breaks in the media about some new drug being used by young people. Soon the buzz is about how this new drug is the most harmful and most addictive drug yet discovered. And then someone suggests that schools should solve the problem. But can schools really provide the solution? And, if so, why aren’t current drug education programs addressing these new challenges? Perhaps we need to rethink our whole approach to drug education.

A brief background on drug education: Well-meaning roots, iffy results

Formal school-based drug education started in the United States during the late 19th century as part of the Temperance movement. This movement was based on a belief that the ills of society were the result of drinking alcohol. All students were taught that any use of alcohol (and to a lesser extent, tobacco and opium) was physically harmful and immoral.1

In the 1920s, alcohol was banned in the United States; this period of time was called Prohibition. Banning alcohol, however, led to violence, corruption and organized crime, and there was little respect for the law. So, Prohibition came to an end in 1933. Ending prohibition was an admission that alcohol could be used socially. This undermined the foundation of alcohol education at the time and it was largely abandoned.2

Following Prohibition, the attention shifted from alcohol to illegal drugs. US government agencies began suggesting that the real problem was drugs such as cannabis, which, they said, led to killings, sex crimes and insanity. These new crusaders felt that real knowledge might encourage people to try drugs. They promoted drug ‘education’ based on sensational claims and scare tactics.3 This approach remained popular for many years and continues to be used today, despite evidence that it is not effective.4

The next generation of drug education—the affective approach—was not much better. This affective approach assumed drug use resulted from a personal weakness or deficit, and it aimed to enhance individual self-esteem or improve decision-making skills. But most people use alcohol, not just those with low self-esteem or poor decision-making skills. It should be no surprise that this approach has not been able to demonstrate effectiveness, since it is based on a false assumption. 

The current wave of drug education seeks to help young people resist social pressures and decide against using drugs. Governments around the world have given more funding for drug education over the last decade to help young people learn the skills to remain drug free.5 The best of these programs might stop or delay the onset of drug use in a small percentage of students under perfect conditions. Programs delivered in normal classrooms have not shown effectiveness.6

Drug literacy—a clear goal for effective drug education

Drug education is provided because the use of alcohol and other drugs is associated with considerable risk and harm. On that everyone agrees. But the history of drug education suggests that providing such education is driven by political and moral concerns. Whether or not drug education works has not been a core issue.7

Getting the most out of drug education requires careful attention to two critical factors: identifying an achievable goal and using an effective approach.

Drug education has suffered from a lack of clear goals. Public opinion and legal status don’t reflect actual levels of harm and the messages they deliver about drugs are inconsistent. For instance, some drugs, like heroin, are demonized, while other forms of the same drug are found in many painkillers. Likewise, young people are told not to drink alcohol, yet everywhere it is promoted as part of the “good life.”

In this context of mixed messages, the only consistent goal for drug education would be drug literacy. This means that drug education should provide students with the knowledge and skills they need to avoid harm from alcohol and drugs in the real world. We can still teach them to avoid certain substances or to only use substances at certain times. The goal, however, must be to help students successfully navigate through competing claims of good and bad, so they can survive and thrive.

Evidence for connectedness—a clue to more effective approaches

After more than 100 years of drug education, you would think we’d be clear about what approaches are effective. But the nature of education; the political, social and economic factors related to drugs; and problems in evaluating approaches have contributed to our current confusion.
Still, there is one growing consensus: evidence is showing that greater levels of harm are experienced by people who are less connected to their community or peers.8

This evidence regarding connectedness indicates that current drug education programs are likely to be ineffective. These programs over-emphasize peer pressure as being an external force. They encourage individuals to be strong and resist the influences of their peer group, thus promoting isolation rather than connectedness.9

To encourage connectedness, drug education programs could help students to explore the complex social factors that influence their behaviours and to reflect on their connections to their peers and communities. Likewise, an education approach that encourages students to think critically and to interact with each other will help them gain drug literacy while making connections with fellow students.

iMinds—education for the real world

Students need to explore the many questions that surround substance use. Why do we use psychoactive substances? What are the risks and harms, both physical and legal of using substances? How valuable are ethnic, cultural or faith-based reasons for not using substances? What is the relationship between personal happiness and community well-being? Exploring these and other questions prepares students to be real participants in their world.

At the Centre for Addictions Research of BC (CARBC), we are developing a new set of lesson plans and support materials called iMinds. 

iMinds is designed to help students in grades six through 10 understand behaviour, substance use and mental wellness. We designed the program using the best available evidence. We want the program to engage students in real issues and be easy for teachers to deliver. We’ve tried to develop a resource that fits well within the curriculum students already have. And teachers are not expected to be content experts (in fact no one is), but, rather, facilitators of the learning process.

iMinds engages students at each step of the 5-i model: identify, investigate, interpret, imagine, integrate. Students explore how they handle themselves, their social situations and environments. The learning exercises provide structures rather than content. The students themselves fill in the content. For example, to explore influences on behaviour, students are not given a list of influences, but are prompted to come up with influences on their own for categories such as family, environmental or personal factors.

What the future may hold for drug education

The ultimate goal is now clear: students need to gain the knowledge and skills for making smart decisions about substance use.

Maybe one day, when a new drug appears, we will ask what it is that makes this drug so appealing. Instead of simply expecting schools to solve this new problem, we will draw upon the drug literacy education our schools have provided. Being more literate, we—including the media—will be able to develop broader community responses that address the full range of issues involved.

For further information on iMinds or current pilot testing, contact [email protected].

About the author
Dan is the Director of the Communication and Resource Unit for the Centre for Addictions Research of BC at the University of Victoria
  1. Beck, J. (1998). 100 years of “just say no” versus “just say know:: Re-evaluating drug education goals for the coming century.” Evaluation Review, 22(1): 15-45.

  2. Lender, M.E. & Martin, J.K. (1987). Drinking in America: A history. New York: Free Press.

  3. Anslinger, H.J. & Tompkins, W.F. (1953). The traffic in narcotics. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.

  4. Coggans, N. & Watson, J. (1995). Drug education: Approaches, effectiveness and delivery. Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy, 2(3), 211-224.

  5. Midford, R. (2000) Does drug education work? Drug and Alcohol Review, 19(4), 441-446.

  6. Gorman, D.M. (1996). Do school-based social skills training programs prevent alcohol use among young people? Addiction Research, 4(2), 191-210.

  7. Gorman, D.M. (1998). The irrelevance of evidence in the development of school-based drug prevention policy, 1986-1996. Evaluation Review, 22(1), 118-46.

  8. Joint Consortium for School Health. (forthcoming). Effective substance use education: A knowledge kit for teachers. In preparation.

  9. Bruce, B.K. (2008). Globalization of addictions: A study in poverty of the spirit. New York: Oxford University Press.


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