The main problem with drug prevention is the same as it is with sex education: it ignores the elephant in the room that is pleasure.
We have conducted an online survey among Hungarian high school students about how they see drug prevention. More than 1100 students completed the questionnaire. The results were disillusioning: in most Hungarian high schools drug prevention consists of one-sided information (based on lecturing), most programs are run by police officers whilst interactive methods, giving students the opportunity to speak about their own experiences, are rarely used. This is exactly the opposite of what’s recommended by international organisations such as the EMCDDA or the UNODC.
It’s time to give up the outdated idea that the brains of students are empty vessels that you can simply fill with information about the dangers of drugs, and by doing so ensure that they won’t do drugs. This is not how teen risk behaviour works. We saw from the survey’s findings that there are some young people who fall in line and like these deterrent messages, but they have the opposite effect on young people who are nonconformist and eager to experiment. Especially when they hear something that does not tally with their own experiences. That makes the deliverer of the information untrustworthy. For example if someone says that cannabis use is the gateway to heroin use or that people go crazy on LSD. And if the adult person uses legal drugs him/herself, that makes it even worse. If the school does not promote critical thinking and civilised debate, students learn early on that feigned conformism is expected from them, not honesty. What was most striking for me from the survey is the cynicism with which students questioned the meaning and legitimacy of drug prevention.
The main problem with school drug prevention is the same as it is with school sexual education. I mean when they exist at all, because often they are missing from schools completely in our region. If they exist, both focus on delivering facts. Drug prevention often confines itself to presenting drugs and their effects and dangers. Sex education is often limited to describing male and female anatomy and how to avoid venereal diseases. But they rarely deal with the elephant in the room: pleasure. Because teachers and parents are afraid of nothing more than of talking about pleasure with teens because they believe that if drug use or sex is presented to students as enjoyable acts, this will drive young people to use drugs and have sex irresponsibly. It is much easier to wear the mask of paternalistic moralism or scientific neutrality than to address the essence.
Bigotry and hypocrisy will have a boomerang effect. Parallel realities will be created and the gap between the discourse on drugs in schools and the real behaviour patterns of students will widen. Is it accidental that unwanted teen pregnancies are the highest in the US in the Southern states, in the Bible Belt, where sexual pleasure is a taboo? Is it accidental that binge drinking is much higher in Northern European countries than in Southern European countries with a deep-rooted wine culture?
To address pleasure does not equal hedonism or nihilism, relativising or rejecting morals or values. On the contrary, you can only give meaning to values and ethical norms if you give meaning to pleasurable deeds that are to be controlled by them. Drug use, like sex, is a learned behaviour. The experience people gain from pot smoking or sex is not universal, it should be learned. It’s not surprising that some girls don’t achieve orgasm during sex because they have never learnt how to reach it – and boys raised by porn movies won’t learn how to give it to her. And teenagers who experiment with alcohol through binge drinking won’t learn what moderate drinking means. The situation is further complicated by what students perceive as the “normal” experience. If they don’t gain this experience they think there is a problem with them. They need to learn that pleasure is not standardisable and no size fits all.
I don’t say adults themselves should teach kids how to drink alcohol, have sex, or smoke pot. There is no need to. They will have their own experiences with peers. Experimenting is part of this age, and personal experiences, questions, desires, fears will be there to discuss honestly. And it is not only about being drunk or orgasms – in our digital consumer society so many more stimuli and temptations are out there than ever before. PR experts work day and night to invent new forms of eating, shopping, sport, and entertainment, with thousands of new pleasures and thousands of new risks. Pleasures are designed to become obsessions to bring more corporate profit. There is a reason to be concerned. But if we approach this only through risks, if we want to deter, we will not achieve what we want. We must deal with the pleasure these vices provide.
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Dancing with friends at a festival, enlightening experiences during a mushroom trip in the moonlight, laughing our heads off with pals after smoking a bong, being able to socialise without the usual social inhibitions – we can only understand through these positive experiences why people seek out mind altering chemicals. They are just as important as negative experiments, feeling down, or having a hangover. We should not always seek a hidden motive behind drug use, such as escaping reality or psychological problems. We must acknowledge the demand for pleasure, the excitement of exploration – and we must help young people to manage and control their own pleasures. To find the least harmful forms of pleasure making, to value moderation as strength and not weakness, and to integrate pleasurable experiences in their everyday lives. We must help them to have more self-knowledge and self-esteem. Finding out what function these pleasures have in their lives and how experiences are formed by their mindset and the environment around them (setting) helps to prevent accidents and dependence.
Honest discussion about pleasures is also important to recognise where drug use or sex is not being used as a tool for experimentation or recreation but as a way to numb the pain and escape reality. Because there are cases when there are serious problems beyond sex and drugs, that need to be tackled. If school education in our region would be about more than just filling the brains of teens with tons of useless lexical information in a competitive way, and instead helped young people to face the challenges of life – such as how to handle a relationship crisis or how to lead a healthy lifestyle – our societies would not be in the terrible mental state they are.