Just say no

“Just say no”– it’s a phrase we’ve all heard as children and young teens, sitting in school classrooms across the country as D.A.R.E. videos played on the TV screen. For many of us, it’s nostalgic as timed math tests, the Scholastic Book Fair and rectangular pizza from the cafeteria. It’s a common experience that bonds us all – from Generation X, to millennials, all the way up to Generation Alpha today.

Former First Lady Nancy Reagan was the original proponent of the “just say no” campaign, launching the phrase in the 80’s in the midst of America’s crack epidemic to encourage children to say no to trying drugs. The D.A.R.E. program was developed in 1983 as a partnership between the Los Angeles Police Department Chief Daryl Gates and the Los Angeles Unified School District. 

Recently, those of us at Orange Coast College got another taste of this infamous anti-drug slogan from OCC President Angelica Suarez, when two students tragically died in suspected overdoses. 

“Considering the potential cause of these tragic events, I urge you to stay away from illegal substances, the use of which can put you in extreme danger,” Suarez said in an email sent to the student body. “If you have friends who are thinking about trying these kinds of drugs, please remind them of the dangers.”

However, this message of “just say no” – the short way of telling people to just not do drugs – is rarely, if ever, that simple. 

Before we examine how effective this methodology has been in reducing rates of drug use amongst young people and overdoses, we must ask ourselves: what is the root cause of drug abuse and use? 

According to National Institute on Drug Abuse, there are many risk factors to forming a drug addiction, such as biology, which includes genetic factors, gender, ethnicity and mental health issues; environment, like family, friends and socioeconomic status; and development, which includes issues with critical development that results from taking drugs at a young age.

Mental health issues make it more likely for someone to develop a drug addiction: national studies have shown half of people dealing with a mental health problem will also experience drug addiction at some point in their lives, and vice versa. According to the National Institute of Health, college students have suffered increases in stress, anxiety and other negative effects during the pandemic. 

Someone suffering from drug abuse or addiction isn’t just lacking personal willpower or discipline to stop using drugs. Their brain has chemically changed in a way that makes them dependent on drugs, which makes the cravings similar to a feeling like hunger or thirst.

Trying out or experimenting with drugs isn’t a moral failing or an ethical issue, either. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, reasons young people may try drugs include wanting to fit in with friends; do better in athletics or schoolwork; relieve tension, stress, pain and depression; or just simple curiosity. 

Has D.A.R.E. and “just say no” even been effective in reducing rates of drug use, abuse and deaths? Not really. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the “just say no” campaign was ineffective in preventing teen drug use and ended up as a joke in popular culture. The National Institute of Health found the D.A.R.E. program to be similarly ineffective. Data from the Center of Disease Control and Prevention shows over 750,000 people have died from overdoses in the U.S. since 1999. 

Overall, the national “War on Drugs” has cost the United States an estimated $1 trillion since 1971. The Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy says the money put into D.A.R.E. (roughly $2 million a year) should instead be put into programs that have shown to be more effective. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has found more effective drug education programs to include factual drug education (including each drug’s effects and laws) paired with services like school counseling, peer-counseling and therapy. 

Why is OCC using this rhetoric that is outdated and proven ineffective? By infantilizing students on this matter, the school and The Harbour is putting additional lives in danger. 

In her email, Suarez references “the potential cause of these tragic events,” but that isn’t enough. Is there contaminated drugs on campus? If so, students need to know what it is so they know not to do it. It’s naive to think that students will just stop taking drugs because they’re told not to and it’s dangerous. 

According to reporting by EdSurge, college-aged students often think they’re invincible and engage in risky behaviors, making managing health risks difficult in student housing. They don’t think it  whether “it” is an overdose, or catching COVID-19 – will happen to them, until it does. Give the students the facts about the drugs and the potential risks so they know what they’re facing. 

In addition, the only way to fix what’s happening at The Harbour is to take student mental health more seriously, especially during this pandemic. OCC should begin by immediately requiring all students residing at The Harbour to have a session with school counselors. This won’t entirely fix the problem, but it’s a start.

Another idea to consider could be hosting weekly on-campus Narcotics Anonymous meetings for students who wish to be sober. This would allow students to build up a peer support network for their sobriety if they choose. 

Just telling students not to do drugs isn’t the answer. It’s a complex situation that needs a bigger solution. This solution will need to include more adequate supervision of students at The Harbour and an extension of mental health services to residents. OCC needs to take the right actions to keep students healthy and safe.

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