Opinion: What went wrong with anti-drug talk to high school kids
February 25, 2015
I thank Dr. Whyman for recognizing his talk at Incline High School was not the strong anti-drug message he hoped it would be. In his Feb. 12 column, "A learning lesson from local high school students," he stated the unfortunate takeaway message of his talk to mostly 15- and 16-year-olds was that pot, which is illegal, is not as bad as alcohol, which is legal.
One student told me, "The pot smokers were happy leaving the presentation." This student felt it was probably because a professional had supported their choice of drug.
Of course Dr. Whyman did not say it's OK for teenagers to smoke pot. He said the opposite! But adolescents often glom on to select information, information that, in this case, could harm them.
So the question is, what does Dr. Whyman believe went wrong with the talk? In his column, he enumerated three lessons learned: 1) Teaching is hard work, 2) nuanced comment and medical facts can be misconstrued, and 3) The message needs to be clear that all drugs are bad.
Those are good lessons, indeed. However, from Dr. Whyman's column, it's not clear that he truly learned his lesson, especially number three. I believe comparing pot favorably to alcohol was his fatal mistake with this young audience. The moment you compare, you've lost the battle with the adolescent mind.
No matter how strong one's personal experience or how great one's professional credentials, it's simply inappropriate for a high school audience to hear arguments supporting why marijuana should be legalized or that an illegal drug is not as harmful as alcohol.
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Rather, drug awareness in the schools must unequivocally communicate that no drug is okay. Period. Any attempt to make marijuana appear not that bad (e.g., it hasn't killed anyone but alcohol has, as communicated to students) undermines the anti-drug message.
Another way to look at this is to ask yourself, what purpose does the comparison serve? As evidenced from Dr. Whyman's talk, his point that pot is bad for the teenage brain didn't resonate with students.
Rather, they felt pot is not as bad as everyone makes it out to be. They likely thought this because any comparison forces you to see one thing as more favorable than another and in the teenage brain, if it's more favorable it must be okay.
Comparisons in no way help teenagers in a "don't do drugs" talk. It would be far better to simply explain each drug's unique hazards.
We will never know the harm caused by the talk of an esteemed authority figure as Dr. Whyman that left the impression that pot is OK. And while it's commendable that Dr. Whyman recognized his misstep, it's not clear he's learned enough to avoid the problem in the future.
In the last sentence of his column, Dr. Whyman repeats his mistake. He wrote, "no one leaves my next lecture before saying, Yes, Dr. W., I understand that all drugs are bad for me, some more so than others.'"
Those last five words are all about the comparison. Had he put the period after "me," I would believe he understood this critical distinction and therefore what went wrong with his talk.
Debbie Larson is an Incline Village resident.
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