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Opinion: When it comes to youth and drugs, straight talk is better than scared straight

"When you give kids the information, they’re appalled by our policies and start to talk about drugs from a place of strength, not fear."
What young people need more than anything is straight talk on substance use, says harm reduction and recovery advocate Guy Felicella

For many years now, I’ve been going into schools across B.C. to talk to kids about drugs. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that what young people need more than anything is straight talk on substance use.

When I visit high schools and talk about my experiences with drug use, addiction, and recovery, I share with them what the drugs did for me at that time and how they were a response to the trauma and pain I’d experienced as a young person. I tell them about the people along the way who helped me. I talk to them about the policies and systems in place that make drug use dangerous, and about the approaches we should be taking to better understand and change our attitudes about people who use drugs. When you give kids the information, they’re appalled by our policies and start to talk about drugs from a place of strength, not fear.

This is the straight talk that young people need and want.

Instead, for decades the message to youth has been “Say no to drugs.” The result has been predictably sad. We’ve made drug use both enticing and isolating. This approach did two things: it raised curiosity in young people to try drugs and it drove the ones already using into isolation because the message that drugs are bad also means that people who use them are bad.

Decades of “saying no” has led to extremes in how we talk to kids about drugs. More recently, we’ve seen scared straight tours that claim to be successful in shocking kids out of their substance use. As someone who talks to kids about drugs regularly – and started using them myself when I was very young – I can tell you this approach just doesn’t work.

What young people tell me over and over again is that telling them not to use drugs simply doesn’t reflect the realities of their lives. And so they tune any all messaging that comes from adults about drugs.

That means they don’t hear the really important messages. The truth is, many kids are already using drugs. They need to hear that if they do develop substance use issues they reach out for help to the right people, instead of turning further to drugs. They need to and are interested in learning how to reduce the harms, what services are available, and how to access harm reduction like drug checking.

They also want to hear about how they can connect with one another, regardless of whether they use drugs. They want that connection without the pressure to use. I’ve heard ideas from young people that make way more sense than how we approach drug use now, like having designated non-substance users at parties who can support their friends, getting naloxone training and being the designated lookout person. It’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.

Young people also see how many of the social issues are intersecting. Truth and reconciliation with Indigenous people and anti-racism are incredibly important issues to the youth I speak with. When I share the racist roots of our drug policies, they’re horrified and shocked at how racism is so deeply ingrained in our laws.

The questions they ask cut right through the b.s. When I shared with one class that prohibition on the west coast started with laws in response to Chinese opium smoking, one student asked me, “Why do we have these laws and policies in place when they’re rooted in racism?”

Engaging with young people starts them to think critically about how we view and approach substance use. It’s empowering. That’s why these conversations need to be part of the curriculum. Young people are reading and hearing about overdoses every day, so we need someone who can teach these classes. Students always ask me where they can get more information – they want to learn and understand more. Schools can meet this need.

The straight talk is that young people feel supported when you tell them something truthful and talk about connection and support. Let’s empower youth with knowledge.

Guy Felicella is a Peer Clinical Advisor at the BC Centre on Substance Use. Follow him on Twitter at @guyfelicella.