The Bloomberg administration announced yesterday that New York City students will be required to receive sex education in public middle and high schools. These sex education classes will teach about condom use and the appropriate age for sexual activity. I applaud the mayor's campaign to teach sex education in school. While many parents may hope that their teenagers won't be sexually active, the reality is that most teenagers will have sex and it is important that they are educated about the risks of pregnancy and sexual transmitted diseases like HIV.
The same principles and goals of sex education should be applied to another issue that parents have to deal with when it comes to teen safety -- and that is drug education. The same way sex education advocates acknowledge that not all teens will be abstinent and need to learn how to protect themselves and be safe, we need to acknowledge that not all teens are going to abstain from drug use and they also need to be provided honest drug education that will keep them safe. That's why the Drug Policy Alliance developed the "Safety First" program to provide parents and teachers will a fallback strategy for teens who say "sometimes" or "maybe."
While many schools already provide honest sex education that acknowledges the reality that some teens will have sex, our nation's drug education programs treat abstinence as the sole measure of success and the only acceptable teaching option. This simplistic and unrealistic "education" does not acknowledge the reality that 75% of teens will try alcohol and 50% will try marijuana before they graduate. Instead of giving our teens honest information about drugs, we have police go into schools and give them reefer madness.
Too many abstinence-only programs try to scare young people away from trying drugs by highlighting phony horror stories -- "If you use marijuana you may turn you into a homeless heroin addict." Yet, the vast majority of people who try marijuana never become addicted or go on to try harder drugs. This leads to many teens ignoring all the drug information relayed to them by people in authority. Once we lose our credibility, it is harder for them to hear the messages that they truly need to hear, like the most dangerous thing you can do is get in a car with someone who has been drinking or high.
Honest drug education would tell young people about the true effects and consequences -- good, bad and terrifying -- that can happen from a range of drugs like alcohol, marijuana and prescription pills. One area of substantial progress when it comes to young people and drugs is the campaign against cigarette smoking. This campaign treats teens with respect and gives honest information about smoking's consequences. Teens also can see the harm of cigarette smoking in the lives of their loved ones.
Ironically, one of the most harmful effects of marijuana for young people -- especially for young blacks and Latinos in New York -- is getting arrested by the police. Under Mayor Bloomberg, marijuana arrests have exploded, with more than 50,000 marijuana arrests in NYC in 2010 alone. Close to 90% of those arrested are black and Latino, despite the fact that white people are just as likely to use or sell marijuana.
These out-of-control marijuana arrests are happening despite the fact that under an ounce is supposed to be a ticket, not an arrest. The only time someone should be arrested with under an ounce of marijuana is if the person is smoking it or the marijuana is in "plain view." The police stop and frisk mostly young people of color and trick them to show them what they have in their pockets. Once the marijuana is pulled out, the police say that it is in "plain view" and they arrest them. Once someone is arrested there is a whole set of collateral consequences like loss of student financial aid, public housing etc. Young people knowing their rights and not pulling the small amount of marijuana out of their pocket is honest drug education that would be of valuable use to NY teenagers.
While it may be hard for parents to hear, large percentages of teens will have sex and will try drugs before they graduate. I admire New York and Bloomberg for recognizing the need for honest sex education. It is time for us to recognize that we also need honest drug education. We need to drop "Just Say NO" and replace it with "Just Say Know." We need our teens to know that the bottom line is that we love them and we want them to be safe.
Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org).