Green Bay, Wisconsin: 1997
By the time I was in 5th grade, my family had moved two hours north to the much smaller community of Green Bay. This was the year my classmates and I experienced a special guest presentation by a uniformed police officer: the D.A.R.E. guy.
At the time, the majority of the boys in the room, myself included, seemed to think this was simply thrilling. As I would expect played out in similar moments throughout many other American classrooms during these presentations, when given the opportunity to ask the officer a question, the boys mostly focused solely on the gun on the officer’s hip, as opposed to the D.A.R.E. curriculum itself.
“Can we see your gun?” - “Have you ever shot anyone?” Our teachers blushed in embarrassment. The officer politely demurred.
Firearm questions aside, the man in uniform was at our school that day to deliver a message, one our school was apparently on board with.
The most charitable way of framing what the D.A.R.E. program was trying to do, is simply that they were trying to help kids like us avoid making the decision to use drugs that could in certain circumstances cause addiction, fatality, or could otherwise severely derail young and unfolding lives.
But unfortunately for my classmates and I, and for the broader youth of America who were subjected to the D.A.R.E. program (at least during its 1990s manifestation), the truth is that instead of being presented with a thoughtful, factually-grounded lesson on a very serious public health topic, we were instead given something far closer to propaganda.
One of the central messages I recall receiving from D.A.R.E. that day was that “drugs are addictive.”
This statement is misleading when interpreted charitably, and absolutely false when taken literally.
The truth is, like people, all drugs are significantly different.
Is it the case that certain specific drugs carry the burden of a high potential for chemical dependence or addiction? Yes, of course! Known heavy hitters such as Heroin and Methamphetamine, for example, are legitimately highly addictive.(7)
However, this is the point in the conversation where a touch of nuance becomes crucial. And unfortunately for the D.A.R.E. generation, the adult authority figures tasked with informing us about vital personal health decisions we’d be making just a few years down the line were simply unable or unwilling to speak with us about this extremely important subject in an honest manner.
You see, while it is absolutely true that Heroin and Methamphetamine are highly addictive, other drugs we were shown right alongside them are not.
Drug Policy Alliance, a non-profit, unambiguously clarifies that both Psilocybin and LSD, for example, are “not considered to be addictive nor [do they] cause compulsive use.”(8)
The D.A.R.E. officer had come equipped with a specialized briefcase. It opened up to reveal physical samples of a wide variety of drugs, sealed behind glass plating. I remember being fascinated by this. I’d heard the names of common street drugs on T.V. and in movies by then, but I’d never had occasion to see the real thing up close. It felt super exciting.
And remember just how powerful visuals are as a tool for learning. This is true at all ages, but perhaps especially true for children. When it was my turn to get a glimpse of the cop’s briefcase, the little baggie of Heroin and the little baggie of Mushrooms were right there together, separated by mere inches.
The D.A.R.E. officer’s message, as well as the highly impactful visual of the briefcase, were in part meant to lead us to believe that all of these drugs are equally likely to end in a life of addiction and misery for anyone foolish enough to try them.
The problem is that this is simply untrue.
The Mayo Clinic in Minnesota is currently ranked the number one hospital in the United States of America.(9)
According to the Mayo Clinic, “The risk of addiction and how fast you become addicted varies by drug.”(10)(Author’s emphasis added.)
To clarify, this means the advice the D.A.R.E. program gave my friends and I as children directly contradicts what America’s best medical professionals have to tell us about the comparative risk of addiction in different illegal substances.
The second central message my 5th grade class got from D.A.R.E. was that all these tantalizing pills, plants and powders in the police officer’s briefcase were so profoundly dangerous, that beyond the threat of addiction, the mere act of trying them even once would be essentially synonymous with suicidal behavior.
Doing drugs will likely kill you, we were led to believe. Period.
This too is a shockingly misleading and counterproductive way of framing the legitimate risk of engaging the host of very different substances that we were actually talking about.
As many of us are more aware of today than ever before, Opioids are far and away the number one most deadly illicitly used drug in America. According to the Centers for Disease Control, differing versions of Opioids now account for over 80% of overdose deaths in America.(11)
Imagine how impactful it might have been, imagine how many actual lives might have been saved, if the D.A.R.E. program had simply given us straightforward, accurate information about the very real dangers of very legitimately terrifying and often life-destroying substances such as Opioids and Methamphetamine, and then left it at that.
But instead, they confused, clouded, and under-cut their own legitimacy as providers of information, because they pretended that several other comparatively innocuous natural substances were just as addictive and just as fatal, even though they are not.
To return for the last time to the D.A.R.E. officer’s briefcase, the hovering 10-year-olds of 1997 could find Heroin alongside Mushrooms, Methamphetamine alongside LSD. These substances simply do not belong in the same briefcase. They certainly require significantly different types of conversations with children.
Psychedelic drugs like Mushroom and LSD are in no way to be taken lightly. These compounds create extremely powerful psychological experiences, and people with serious mental illness, like myself, should either approach these substances with extreme caution, or avoid them altogether.
However, just because a bottle of Kombucha technically has alcohol in it, that doesn’t mean we treat it the same as a bottle of Tequila.
Dr. David Nutt is a professor at Imperial College London who studies and teaches Neuropsychopharmacology. Dr. Nutt is an expert on the comparative health impacts of different types of commonly used drugs.
Regarding the use of Psychedelic drugs like Mushrooms and LSD, Dr. Nutt’s extensive research concludes, “It’s virtually impossible to die from an overdose of them; they cause no physical harm; and if anything they are anti-addictive, as they cause a sudden tolerance which means that if you immediately take another dose it will probably have very little effect.”(12)
So what to make of all this?
Some people will have read thus far and still conclude, “Ok sure, there are some differences in the risk factor of different types of drugs. But these are kids we’re talking about. Isn’t it just safer to make it simple and tell them, ‘All drugs are bad and dangerous, so don’t use them?’”
Well intended as this black-and-white-Nancy-Reagan-philosophy of the world may appear to some, the unfortunate reality is that this strategy simply left a generation of young adults wholly uneducated and unprepared for real life situations many of them would soon encounter.
The consequences are unfolding before our very eyes.
For what do we expect the average D.A.R.E. graduate to conclude, a few years down the line, when the messaging they got from their school and the American police force is first put to the test?
Many people choose not to try drugs. But many other people do. Often, a former D.A.R.E. graduate’s first experience will consist of smoking a small amount of Cannabis with their friends. Some people will love it, some people will hate it.
But either way, both will notice that they didn’t end up foaming at the mouth in the Emergency Room a few hours later.
Either way, both will notice that they didn’t wake up the following morning compelled to abandon their jobs and families in order to devote themselves to the fulltime project of assaulting local Grandmothers for Cannabis money.
Some of these D.A.R.E. grads will leave their first experience with a drug like Cannabis at that, they’ll go on with their lives and simply not be interested in regular drug use.
Some of these D.A.R.E. grads will embrace what Cannabis did for them, and will continue to use it, and it alone, without “gatewaying” themselves into any other genuinely sinister substance.
But here’s the thing. Some of these D.A.R.E. grads will have a bit of a light bulb go off in their heads.
“Wait a minute…” Some will ponder. “When I was a kid, they told us that Cannabis was deadly…that it would ruin my life…but here I am…and in fact, I feel like this has actually improved my life in X, Y or Z manner…”
“So…if they lied to us about Cannabis…maybe these Xanax pills my friend has been talking about aren’t so bad after all?”
Green Bay, Wisconsin: 1999-2005
When I was twelve-years-old, I became a skateboarder. I started teaching myself how to roll around in the driveway of my dad’s duplex. A day or two later, I ventured out into the street.
My parents had just divorced, and learning to skate quickly became something positive I could throw the entirety of my energy into. Once I learned the basics, and once I started connecting with a few other neighborhood kids who skated too, we started venturing out into different parts of our area, and over time, all over our city.
Street skateboarding is all about exploration and novelty. We are constantly searching for new “spots” (features of normal civilian architecture we use to skate on, even though they were not intended for that purpose.) One of the first spots we started frequenting regularly in these early years was Martin Elementary School. On one side of the building, there was a simple curb about 5-6 inches off the ground that we used to slide and grind on. On the other side of the building, over time, we worked our way up to ollieing (jumping with the skateboard sticking to your feet) down the then intimidating set of five stairs.
We were lucky that Martin Elementary was one of those rare street spots where the building’s occupants never seemed to mind our presence. Likely in large part due to the fact we were always there after school hours, no one ever came out from the school and yelled at us or threatened to call a trained adult with a gun to come scare us away.
But as we grew older and continued to progress, we started skating further and further into new parts of the city. It was then that we started experiencing our first direct confrontations with law enforcement.
Skateboarding is loud. Some adults become very angry when kids make noise in public.
Skateboarding sometimes results in minor property damage, such as scratched benches or handrails. Some adults become remarkably emotional when the benches and handrails around them become less than pristine.
Finally, skateboarding is dangerous. When some adults stumble upon the scene of us hucking our bodies down a set of stairs on a precarious chunk of wood on wheels, they simply panic and take it upon themselves to attempt to shut it down.
As we are often skating on private property, say, the loading dock in the back of the local grocery store, many business owners and employees freak out over a far-fetched, theoretical legal scenario, “If you break your neck on my property, you could sue me and then I’m ruined!”
In over twenty years of skating, I’ve never once heard of this actually happening in real life. But nonetheless, this seems to be the most common reason why many property owners, instead of just coming out and speaking to us respectfully as human beings, instead resort to calling the police on us. And to clarify, this became a regular part of our experience as middle and high schoolers.
In the many, many separate occasions where my friends and I had to navigate encounters with the police (over skateboarding) it was never once the case that the officer approached us in a calm, professional manner.
Every single time, it was some version of the same dramatic dynamic. The cop comes in, before even having spoken to us, already significantly emotionally escalated.
They were aggressive, mean-spirited, and threatening. We came to view them as little more than slightly older versions of the testosterone-fueled jocks we hated in high school. Accordingly, we would often argue with them, mock them, and sometimes successfully run or skate away from them.
As mostly, but not exclusively White teenagers in Green Bay, Wisconsin; we never felt in fear for our physical safety in these moments. But our formative experiences as adolescents with the American police we were grounded in having been constantly belittled, and threatened with tickets and even arrest over the course of many years, all over the grand offense of trying to have some good clean fun, riding around doing tricks on a piece of wood.
7. Heroin and Methamphetamine among the most legitimately addictive street drugs
8. Psilocybin and LSD are non-addictive drugs
9. Mayo Clinic in Minnesota ranked number one hospital in America
10. Mayo Clinic: Risk of addiction “varies by drug”
11. Opioids account for over 80% of drug overdose deaths in America
12. Mushrooms and LSD are non-addictive and not a risk for physical overdose