Given what most of us have been taught…

…the impulse to take decisive action to keep our children safe from problematic drug use is understandable. Almost all of the current public discussion around drugs and young people starts from a self-blinded position that ignores the realities of teenage life and does nothing to protect our kids from the real risks associated with drug use. This is especially so as accidental opioid-related overdose deaths continue at epidemic levels. But, the Trentonian columnist Jeff Edelstein’s July 5th article “Should 12-year-olds learn how to save heroin overdose victims?” simply promotes a stigmatized view of people who use drugs and it is not the type of education our young people really need.

Well over half of all high school students will try a drug by the time they graduate. Yet, despite the national reality of pervasive substance use, we do little to prepare youth for the choices they need to make. Either we tell them to say no, or we just say nothing. Too often, the schism that exists between what we tell our children about drugs and their own lived experiences provokes cynicism, mistrust and even more curiosity. So much so, that once they are out on their own, many kids seem primed for overindulgence.

Mr. Edelstein proposes that it would be better to keep his daughter in the dark rather than prepare her for the drug related challenges that lie ahead. He would double down on the kind of drug education that has gotten us into this mess in the first place. Education that denies young people honest, sometimes lifesaving information about drugs and policies that make them targets for police action, causing disruptions and ruptures in family ties and social and community relationships.

Saying that anyone who uses drugs is dirty, bad or somehow lesser than those who do no can be quite damaging for a young person who is essentially doing something that most young people and many of their parents will engage in, given the prevalence of use of drugs including alcohol in our society. Drug-related stigma is a powerful, shame-based mark of disgrace and reproach that can be a real obstacle to a young person reaching out for help.

Talking to our children about drugs is indeed tricky. As a parent myself, I know first-hand how challenging it is to know exactly what to do or say. We mustn’t however, resort to using cynical tropes that drug users are “bad people” and that are fueled by ignorance, misinformation, and fear, reflecting society’s mistrust, discrimination, racial prejudice, and stereotypes.

There is no “free pass” from an accidental overdose. You either die or you live. We need to stop relying on this kind of language and playing with our children’s lives. Instead of shaming or scaring them into abstinence or pulling the wool over their eyes, we need to provide our children with honest education about drugs, do everything that we can to ensure their safety and prevent problematic drug use. A reality-based approach is informed by restorative practices and harm reduction and acknowledges that problematic drug use doesn’t emerge in a vacuum. Such an approach provides youth with help they need to deal with the many of the other challenges they face. This is the kind of drug education that may actually slow or stop the problems that we face in Trenton and other parts of our country.

Naloxone saves lives. Just imagine if it were your child. Wouldn’t you want as many people possible trained to help her. With International Overdose Prevention Day coming next month, this might be a good time to remember that every accidental overdose death can be prevented. Every single one. #JustSayKnow


Jerry Otero (aka Mista Oh) is the founder and chief troublemaker in charge at Cre8tive YouTH*ink a NYC-based anti-racist creative arts youth development collective, dedicated to the healthy development of the next generation of youth leaders. Trained as a psychologist, his life’s work covers the spectrum of human relationships with drugs. He is proud of his service at the Drug Policy Alliance, the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids and in NYC public high schools. He is also the producer and host of the Morning Show with Mista Oh on WBAI NY 99.5 FM.

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