At first glance, you may assume I am going to be writing about money—marijuana excise tax, to be exact—but I am not. I am going to be writing about actual education, the kind that takes place between teachers and students, youth-serving organizations and participants, and parents and children. The kind of education that is changing—in a good way—as a result of legalized marijuana.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E). program, which operated under the philosophy of “Just Say No” and the ill-fated War on Drugs, was offered to education establishments. The D.A.R.E program typically enlisted uniformed police officers trained in the curriculum to speak to students about the dangers of doing drugs. Mandated zero tolerance policies accompanied these types of programs in public schools and eventually contributed to what has become known as the school to prison pipeline. A 1998 report from the National Criminal Justice Reference Service stated “D.A.R.E. does not work to reduce substance use. The program’s content, teaching methods, and use of uniformed police officers rather than teachers might each explain its weak evaluations.”

In all fairness, program creators then did not have as much accurate information at their disposal as we do today. Educators and curriculum writers had not yet learned how important it is for students to learn prevention information from a trusted adult, that it’s much healthier to keep nonviolent offenders in school rather than suspending them, and that protective factors play a large part in preventing drug use. Earlier educators in this field did not have the technological capability to dive deep into adolescent brain development to the level we can today. Despite the ineffectiveness of such programs, many schools and youth-serving organizations had to rely on them. At times, educators employed these methods out of complacency, but more often than not, it was for a lack of better options.

Now, the legalization of recreational marijuana has forced educational systems to rethink prevention and intervention approaches to youth marijuana use. The passing of medicinal marijuana laws and the push for recreational use laws in many states has propelled educational organizations out of complacency and into the search for better practices. Schools and youth-serving organizations now realize that they can no longer talk about marijuana in the same breath as heroin, methamphetamine, or cocaine. There is a clear and concise call for a change in dialogue and approach, and educators are stepping up to answer that call.

The youth prevention programs of the past were not only ineffective but also insulting to the intellect of our youth. When we assume that young people cannot comprehend how their brains are developing, the functioning of the endocannabinoid system, or the differences between recreational and medicinal marijuana use, we discredit them. This is a generation that withstands far greater academic rigor and surpasses higher educational expectations than generations past. They are a generation that must endure countless standardized tests in their academic career, that can navigate the complexities and dynamics of social media, and that can even be called on to teach adults how to use SnapChat. They deserve more than to be told to “Just Say No.” They deserve to be educated and informed about exactly how recreational marijuana use during adolescence can affect their still-developing brain. They have the right to develop compassionate understanding of those youth who need medicinal marijuana to treat disorders such as childhood epilepsy and the knowledge to understand the differences between medicinal needs and recreational use.

Across many US states, educators have been seeking programs that use reality-based education to empower youth to make informed decisions. This elevation in educational practices would likely not be happening if not for legalized marijuana. Educators, including me, have reinvented, upgraded, expanded, and collaborated to devise new and improved approaches.   Legalized marijuana gave us the nudge that we needed to reevaluate our youth marijuana prevention practices and led to the founding of the Marijuana Education Initiative, by two Colorado educators.  One of the unexpected outcomes of recreational marijuana legalization has been a positive change in educational practices. The opportunity for informed discussions about youth marijuana use and its impacts has arrived. People, young and old, are seeking information about the endocannabinoid system and the differences between THC and CBD. Parents are looking for ways to have informed and honest conversations with their children about youth marijuana use. Public and private schools are searching for programming that goes beyond resistance training and that uses science-based information to empower youth to make informed decisions. School administrators are looking for alternatives to marijuana-related suspensions, and departments of juvenile justice are looking for less punitive ways to redirect adjudicated youth to educational and counseling services.

Regardless of how one might feel about marijuana legalization, we can all agree that an elevation in best practices in adolescent prevention, intervention, and diversion programs provides a positive step forward for the youth of today. Unexpected outcomes are not always negative outcomes. Sometimes they can turn our thinking on its head and transform complacency into action.

Sarah Grippa

Marijuana Education Initiative

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