Friday, June 22, 2007


(News-Herald, June 21)So how do you get rid of drug abuse, drug users and drug sellers, anyway? I’m not going to give one quick, easy answer and solve the problem in under 800 words, and I would be a fool to try. Behind any discussion of how to fight drugs is one painful fact; for every anti-drug technique ever mentioned, there’s some parent or friend who did everything right and still failed to rescue someone they loved.

Though no approach is 100% certain to work, there are definitely some ideas that are better than others. And in the war on drugs, there is one powerful truth— It is almost impossible to affect the behavior of people if you aren’t involved in their lives.

Here’s some total stranger sitting on the front porch. You can run up, holler “Stop that” and then run away. The chance that the total stranger will stop is close to zero.

Now here you are sitting on the porch with someone you know well, because you have been sitting together on that porch every evening of every day of your life. You’ve shared struggles; you’ve helped each other. If you ask that person to stop, whether it’s chewing gum, smoking a cigar, or speed-drinking a case of Bob’s Wine In A Bag, you might have a chance.

Many adult anti-drug initiatives fail because adults and teens are working at cross-purposes. The adult wants to feel that he has delivered an important message to the teen. The teen wants the adult to leave him alone to do as he wishes.

“Promise me you won’t do Naughty Things,” says the adult.

“Why, I surely won’t,” says the teen.

The adult walks away feeling virtuous. The teen goes back to ingesting his or her Inappropriate Substance of choice. Everyone is satisfied; nothing is changed.

You would think my generation would know better. But we love having teens sign pledges. Promise not to drink at Prom. Promise not to have sex. Promise not to eat raw sushi. But what teens take away from the pledge-signing is what boomers already knew perfectly well as teenagers—if you tell adults what they want to hear, they will give you stuff and leave you alone. We shouldn’t be surprised, for instance, that studies repeatedly show that abstinence programs have absolutely no affect on teen sexual behavior.

Some of this is hard to hear. The DARE program is enormously popular both nationally and locally, yet everyone from the US Surgeon General’s office to the US Department of Education has declared the program ineffective. One study in Illinois suggested that it actually encouraged students to try drugs.

Drug abuse is no different than any other part of human behavior. People who are not actively involved in your life are unlikely to change your behavior.

People in the illegal drug sales business understand this, and they use it in two ways. First, they become involved in the lives of their customers. Particularly in an area like ours, people don’t get their drugs from strangers—they get them from people they consider friends. Second, these sorts of criminals make it a point to keep people uninvolved who might want to stop them.

Teens instinctively get this. If I’m so scary and difficult that my parents just back away and actively ignore my life, they’re less likely to stop me. Getting out of bed at 3 AM to confront the teen who has just stumbled in drunk is hard. Getting a promise is easy; sticking around to hold someone accountable and facing the possibility of disappointment when they don’t—that’s hard.

For criminals, it’s just good business. If I come across as scary and really dangerous—well, people who don’t know my name, don’t speak to me, and pretend they don’t even see me on the street are actively staying out of my life, and their ability to affect my behavior is therefore minimal.

That’s why taking back neighborhoods by being vocally involved, by looking dealers in the eye and saying, “I see you, I know who you are, I know what you’re doing, and I’m not going away” can be so powerful. And that’s why pretty pledges signed for strangers in the midst of drive-by do-goodery aren’t.

The number one cause of teens drinking and drugging in Venango County is not boredom, unemployment or lack of a good arcade. It’s teens making the choice to use drugs and alcohol.

The number two cause of teens drinking and drugging? Teens without any adult actively involved in their lives who seriously suggests that they shouldn’t. This weekend in Oil City, some folks are planning to stand up; I hope they do well.

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