Utilizing Comprehensive Drug Education to Prevent Youth Substance Abuse

School lecture

Rather than falling back on “Just say no” and scare tactics that have not worked, parents, educators, and opinion leaders must find better ways to prevent drug abuse among young people. Crucially, leaders, teachers, and family members must educate young people about drugs and alcohol. The best way to prevent a young person from experimenting with mind-altering substances is to teach them about drugs, to help them understand why drugs are harmful.

The vicious cycle of generation after generation of drug experimentation and addiction has to end somehow, and it ends with young people getting better information from their schools and parents on the harmful nature of drugs.

Why Drug Education is So Important

To see the stark need for drug education for young people, all one must do is take a cursory look at drug misuse statistics and rates of addiction and harm among youths. Some facts to consider:

According to the Monitoring the Future Survey, a program organized by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, rates of marijuana use (including vaping of marijuana) are up significantly. About 43% of young people use cannabis, a 7% increase from just five years ago, and the highest rate of youth cannabis use in the past 35 years. Marijuana vaping doubled between 2017 and 2018. Approximately 9% of youths experiment with Adderall, cocaine misuse among youths is up 5%, and about 27% of young people binge drink alcohol.

“The majority of adults who meet the criteria for having a substance use disorder started using substances during their teen and young adult years...”
Teenagers at the party, offers a drug

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15% of high school students have used hard drugs (cocaine, inhalants, heroin, methamphetamines, hallucinogens, or ecstasy). About 14% report having used opioids at least once which is highly concerning given the tens of thousands of annual fatalities caused by opioid overdoses. The CDC also points out that preventing drug use in peoples’ younger years can drastically reduce risks for addiction later in life. Quoting their findings, “The majority of adults who meet the criteria for having a substance use disorder started using substances during their teen and young adult years. Youth with substance use disorders also experience higher rates of physical and mental illnesses, diminished overall health and well-being, and potential progression to addiction.”

The Drug Identification and Testing in Juvenile Justice Systems program put forth a concerning report on the effect of drug abuse on young people who have already had interactions with the criminal justice system. The report showed how substance abuse sets young people up for failure, citing such life hardships as delinquency, social harm, economic consequences, damage to the family, involvement with unhealthy peer groups, deteriorating mental health conditions, onset of sexually transmitted diseases, other physical health harm, and difficulty in academic and workplace settings. All of these harms go hand-in-hand with youth substance abuse.

Even with just a brief glance at the data, one can quickly see that drug experimentation in one’s younger years is quite harmful, setting young people up for even more harm as they grow into adults.

Data and Facts are More Effective than “Just Say No”

For many decades, the primary intervention and prevention strategies that schools, parents, and community groups utilized to stop kids from using drugs was a “Just Say No” abstinence model that encouraged youths to literally “Just say no” to drugs. Unfortunately, this model has not succeeded in preventing young people from experimenting with drugs, primarily because it does not teach youths why they should say no to drugs.

Dad teaches son about drugs

Many young people are inquisitive, exploring, questioning, and adventurous by nature. One’s younger years, particularly adolescence and early-20s adulthood is a time of risk-taking, lesson-learning, and experimentation with life. That’s why young people need to be given the data and the facts on why drugs are so harmful, why they should never experiment with them, not even once.

Adolescence is a crucial time to teach young people about drugs because one of the most reliable predictors of whether an adult will become addicted to drugs is whether or not they used drugs in their adolescence and early adult years.

And last but not least, research shows that young people respond best to research-based, evidence-based prevention and education efforts, rather than an overly simplistic “Just say no” campaign. Quoting the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “The term research-based or evidence-based means that these programs have been designed based on current scientific evidence, thoroughly tested, and shown to produce positive results. Studies have shown that research-based programs … can significantly reduce early use of tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs. Also, while many social and cultural factors affect drug use trends, when young people perceive drug use as harmful, they often reduce their level of use.”

Drug abuse and alcohol misuse among young people can be prevented. Prevention begins with young people being informed on the facts and the painfully harsh realities about drugs and alcohol.

One Region’s Approach to Drug Education

In West Virginia, a state that has been more than devastated by drug addiction, Governor Jim Justice just announced a new drug education program to be implemented in three school districts. The Game Changers program is quite different from previous prevention models. Quoting Desirae Vasquez, an addiction professional and liaison with Game Changers, “The Game Changers approach is a prevention programming that is different from ‘just say no’ campaigns and scare tactics because it harnesses real-life skills known to be effective by keeping children and teens healthy, helping them choose not to use substances and to get help early if they need it.”

While the Game Changers program is still in its pilot stages and while West Virginia is the first state in the nation to implement the program in schools, this is a model that will likely take off across the state and nation because it seeks to empower young people through education and create positive interactions with peers and adults. Perhaps most importantly, the program encourages young people to discuss drugs with adults by creating a safe space in which to communicate about these previously taboo subjects.

Addiction Treatment; What to Do if a Student Becomes Hooked on Drugs

It’s of the utmost importance to educate, inform, and communicate with young people before peer pressure sets in. And as one study showed, both parents and schools can be immensely effective in accomplishing this when the right programs are implemented. (Resources for parents and educators include NIDA for Teens, NIDA educational materials, and youth.gov).

But for those young people who become addicted to drugs and alcohol despite prevention and education efforts, such individuals will need the help of residential drug and alcohol addiction treatment programs. Such programs can help address the underlying issues as to why people start using drugs. Such programs can also teach people how to create and maintain healthy coping mechanisms and tackle the hardships of life without using drugs and alcohol.

If you know someone struggling with an addiction to drugs and alcohol, please ensure they get into a drug addiction treatment center as soon as possible.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli; ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP, LCDC



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.