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More Than ‘Just Say No’

I was a student of the DARE program with its Just Say No campaign and This is Your Brain on Drugs commercials. It was a pretty easy program for me to follow considering I lived in a safe environment; it’s really easy to say no to something you aren’t exposed to. However, for students who live in housing projects with a street gang or drug dealer living across the hall or down the street, saying no could be a death sentence.

It takes a tremendous amount of courage for a 13 or 14-year-old to say no to older and intimidating bad actors. Arming students whose living environments are dangerous to simply say "NO" is not a winning strategy. But what if those students weren’t home alone in the hours after school ends? If they had the means to participate in extracurricular, the students might be removed from a bad situation when they are most vulnerable to things going wrong.

Research shows the brain is in a critical development stage during adolescence. Because the frontal cortex is not fully developed and able to make rational decisions and understand the consequences, middle school students frequently engage in risky behaviors.1 The belief they can stop taking a drug “anytime I want” is louder than the alarm bells ringing in their brains. By helping students participate in school extracurricular activities, they are not only removed from a bad situation but are also provided mentorship from coaches and teachers who challenge them to think about the consequences.

We continue to fight the War on Drugs with an education campaign targeting teenagers but this continues to ignore how the teenage brain is naturally wired to take risks at this age. In April 2022, the Journal of American Medical Association reported, “The overdose mortality rate among U.S. adolescents 14 to 18 years old rose by 94% between 2019 and 2020.”2 While the number of teenagers using drugs has decreased, the potency of drugs has increased dramatically with the introduction of fentanyl in many illicit drugs. The risk is no longer the possibility of addiction but the greater chance of death.

It’s time we take a new approach and remove teenagers from the risk; support school extracurriculars so teenagers are engaged in healthy activities with solid support systems.

1 Futures Without Violence, (5 July 2022)

2 U.S. News and World Report, (13 July 2022)

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