Pubdate: Fri, 29 Sep 2017
Source: National Post (Canada)
Copyright: 2017 Canwest Publishing Inc.
Author: Marni Soupcoff
Page: A10


You're about to legalize a drug that poses more serious risks to young
people than it does to adults. You want to make sure young people know
about these risks so that they don't see legalization as a green light
to start or continue using the drug. (The drug will still be legally
off limits for those under 18 at least, but this doesn't tend to mean
a lot in practice.) What do you do?

Launch an educational campaign, of course. That's why, in anticipation
of Canada's legalization of marijuana in 2018, Health Canada has put
out a new tender. They're looking for a contractor to create marketing
events - geared mostly to teenagers and young adults - that will raise
awareness of the health and safety risks of cannabis. Which is a good
idea... if the department, and the firm they hire, do their homework

Creating successful anti-drug campaigns is tricky. The Drug Abuse
Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program has been used in U.S. schools
since the eighties and has proved popular and pervasive. Even as a kid
in Canada, I knew about D.A.R.E. because so much of its material and
messages made it into the pop culture I consumed. But the evidence
shows, embarrassingly, that D.A.R.E. never did much, if anything, to
reduce students' drug use. (Some credible research even suggests that
D.A.R.E. created a boomerang effect of increased drug use by suburban
students who went through the program, and slightly increased drinking
and smoking among students who were exposed to D.A.R.E.)

Emphasizing the danger and harmfulness of drugs, and showing kids how
to "just say no," seems, intuitively, like an effective way to keep or
get young people off drugs. But it turns out it's not. You could
imagine an anti-marijuana campaign making this mistake if its creators
didn't do sufficient research before jumping in to their
event-planning and messaging. And about these events... Research shows
that successful anti-drug campaigns tend to have a lot of interaction
between the instructors and the students, and tend to take place in
many sessions over a long period of time. Neither of these criteria
are likely to be met with the one-time, large-scale, public events
Health Canada seems to be imagining.

It's not that Health Canada shouldn't try to educate young people
about the real risks of marijuana. It's just that they should be smart
about it, so that they don't throw away millions of dollars on heavily
hyped concerts that achieve nothing but headlines.

Truth is a good place to start. As German Lopez wrote in a useful 2014
Vox article, one big reason D.A.R.E. failed is that "teens were simply
too good at catching and dismissing clear exaggerations about the
detrimental health effects of relatively harmless drugs like
marijuana, and that helped discredit D.A.R.E.'s overall efforts."
(Lopez notes that one D.A.R.E. fact sheet warned that marijuana use
causes insanity and has no medical value.)

When Health Canada delivers its message that, like alcohol, cannabis
is not without risks, it needn't, and shouldn't, overstate or
oversimplify its case. But it should try to emulate campaigns that
have worked. Lopez cites an anti-drug campaign expert who says that
associating drug abstention with independence is effective.

This approach seemed to do the trick for two U.S. media-based
anti-marijuana campaigns in the mid-to-late-2000s that were
successful in reducing marijuana use. One of them, Above the
Influence, included an ad that begins with a normal looking young guy
telling the camera, "I smoked weed and nobody died."

Not only did nobody die post-cannabis, we learn as the ad unfolds,
nobody did anything at all… except sit on Pete's couch for 11 hours.
"You wanna keep yourself alive?" the guy says. "Go over to Pete's and
sit on his couch 'til you're 86…. Me? I'll take my chances out there

It would be a mistake for Health Canada to dictate the creative
details of whatever endeavour its contractor ends up producing. I
suspect health bureaucrats make terrible YouTube videos and plan lousy
concerts. But it would be smart for Health Canada to insist on an
imaginative plan that avoids the many pitfalls into which unsuccessful
anti-drug campaigns have fallen in the past.

The adolescents and young adults that the government is trying to
reach don't need condescension or fear-mongering. They need
understandable but evidence-based and realistic information about how
marijuana could negatively affect their brain development and lives.
Nobody aspires to spend their time on earth on Pete's couch.
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