As September nears, I've been thinking about when I began high school last year. There was a range of new social challenges. While we discussed topics like sex and drugs in middle school, in high school they were suddenly center stage. It was jarring -- and considering that I transitioned from a predominantly Black, public school to a predominantly White, private one, I was really in for a culture shock. I decided not to be afraid of changes, but to meet them with understanding and compassion -- especially my peers' use of drugs.
Most of my friends are Black or Latino and none of us experiment with drugs. In fact, a recent study conducted by the ACLU on marijuana arrests for Black and White young adults found that between the ages of 18-25, Whites use drugs at noticeably higher rates than young Black people -- but because we are more often the targets of police profiling, we were 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. That statistic took on meaning for me when I developed relationships with White peers, many of whom used not only marijuana but other drugs, including prescription drugs, LSD and cocaine. This wasn't the case for my Black friends, yet if most of us close our eyes and think of a drug user, we envision someone who is Black.
But even when racism isn't a factor in how we respond to drug use, because of how we talk about drug use in the wider society, some of my friends and many adults talk about my peers who get high in the worst ways. Or, more accurately, they talk about just one of the person's chosen activities -- getting high -- but never the actual whole person. This is the wrong approach.
The truth is that drugs are drugs, neither good nor bad and no society has ever been drug-free. Drug use can help us and drug use can harm us. But one thing that is true about everyone who's using drugs is that they're people and they deserve to be treated with respect -- particularly in cases where someone is at risk. Maybe if a student is using a lot of drugs the problem isn't so much the drugs but what's driving their use. Focusing on the drug use only -- or relying on stereotypes -- doesn't allow a deeper conversation. Drug user becomes lazy shorthand for what may be a range of other issues, from depression to peer pressure to simple teenage curiosity.
We should see all people, including drug users, in the fullness of their humanity.
When I think about one of my peers who uses drugs everyday, I wonder, what's happening in her life? People say using drugs is a way to escape reality, but does this peer also do it in order to fit in? I don't know the answer, but I do know that to paint drug use with a broad brush is not helpful. Some people, probably some of our parents, use or have used drugs socially. Some only experiment lightly. Some use drugs fairly regularly and without incident. And some -- about 10-20 percent of drug users -- become addicted.
My point is that in working with teens, we have to be nuanced in our thinking, open to different approaches and aware of broader social realities. But students are approached as though all drug use is the same and as though we don't each have a story of our own to tell. And we're approached like it's equally safe for all of us to discuss drug use. Admitting drug use can make us feel ashamed, and for Black people, at greater risk of social penalty, it can just plain be unsafe.
As teens, we should be asked questions that lead us to real-world solutions, like: Are you happy? How is your home life? But more, we should be offered life-saving information in case we do experiment because while no parent wants their child to get high, information that is science-based like what drug-mixing can do to a person, can save a life. Kids should also understand the dangers of what gets put into street drugs, and how dangerous they can be because of the adulterants. And when it comes to my Black friends, we should know not only this information so we can use or share it, but also our rights when we encounter law enforcement--which is often most dangerous for us.
This is the kind of reality-based drug education we need, along with parents and teachers who accept that my generation is just like theirs--with kids trying things and pushing boundaries. Because while abstinence may be the hope, keeping young people alive should be the goal.
Nisa Yasmine Rashid, 15, is a Sophomore attending high school in Brooklyn, NY and is interning with the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)