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 first.
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 “[t]eens 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 [in the real world].”
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.