In the 1980’s, the Partnership for a Drug Free America ran a commercial that showed a rat confined in a cage drinking from a cocaine-filled water bottle. In ominous tones the commercial told us that the rat would choose the cocaine water over regular water to the point where the rat starved to death. This commercial was based on actual research and was part of the larger effort in the 1980’s to raise concern, and hysteria, over drug use.
A researcher, Bruce Alexander, observed that the rat in the cage experiments were always conducted with one isolated rat. He wondered what would happen if the rats were given access to drugs in an enriched, social environment. He created Rat Park, a place in which rats were housed together and given access to great food, toys, and rat camaraderie. It was Rat Party. In this experiment, both the solo rat and those in Rat Park were given access to plain water and to morphine-laced water.
In the isolated cages, the solo rats turned to the morphine water bottle. In Rat Park, rats largely ignored the morphine-laced water. They had better options.[i]
This research raised the question if addiction and drug abuse has as much to do with environment and connection as it does with the nature of the drug itself. The reality is that large numbers of people regularly use a range of drugs (alcohol, marijuana, Xanax, cocaine…) recreationally and that most people don’t get addicted. Those who get in trouble and have their lives derailed by drug abuse are more likely to be disconnected and in an impoverished, stressful environment. They are also more likely to have experienced trauma and abuse as children. Frequent drug use becomes a way to cope with loneliness and reoccurring negative emotions and to get numb.
Our punitive response to addiction often makes things worse. We stigmatize drug users and lock them up; we put them in a cage and isolate them; we make it harder for them to get jobs. We create the conditions for ongoing drug dependence and crime.
I grew up in Rat Park. I went to school in pre-Prop 13 California, a time in which we had well-funded schools and recreational programs. I participated in science labs in elementary school and enjoyed frequent field trips. I learned to play the guitar in a free summer school program and played sports in free city-sponsored rec programs. I was fortunate to grow up in a caring family. While drugs and alcohol were around me, I viewed them as a distraction. In the jargon of youth development, I grew up with strong “protective factors.”
As more and more local governments and states permit legal marijuana businesses and collect revenues from those businesses, we have the opportunity to invest those revenues in young people and to increase the protective factors that surround them. We have the opportunity to build Rat Parks. In doing so we should take into account the history of the War on Drugs and prioritize investments in black and brown communities that were targeted by law enforcement and which experienced great trauma as a result. These communities typically experience the highest rates of poverty and have the greatest need.
In making these investments, we can create enriched environments and over time reduce substance abuse among young people and adults. Investments alone aren’t enough. We need to remove stigma and change policies that treat those struggling with substance abuse as criminals. Our actions to decriminalize marijuana are a great first step. It’s time to apply these lessons to opioids and other drugs as well.
[i] I first learned about the Rat Park study in Johann Hari’s book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. I am aware that some have questioned the validity of the research. However, it's important to note that there is extensive, parallel research on the positive impact of enriched environments and relationships in the field of youth development. The Search Institute (www. search-institute.org), for example, has spent decades identifying critical assets in the lives of young people and how those assets protect young people from a range of risky, destructive behaviors, including substance abuse. As with Bruce Alexander’s research, the Search Institute stresses the need to create positive healthy environments and caring relationships for young people to thrive.
On January 25th, 2018, Youth Forward, Public Health Advocates and the California Urban Partnership held a legislative briefing at the State Capitol on the health effects of marijuana use. Presenters shared research on medical uses and adverse health effects and discussed policy recommendations for state and local governments. The Sacramento Bee covered the briefing. To access the presentations click here.
A few weeks ago I had the good fortune of speaking with a class of Latino, African-American, and Asian students at Florin High School (Go Panthers!) in South Sacramento. I want to thank the students and their teacher for an enlightening and energetic 90 minute dialogue about the Big Wide World of Weed. Wow!
Here are a few things that stood out in the conversation:
When I asked the students about why some young people become heavy users of marijuana and others don’t, the first word that came up was “stress.” Young people smoke weed to calm themselves and to deal with stress and anxiety. A young man said that young people who smoked weed all the time had given up on life; they had checked out. They didn’t see a future for themselves.
This insight by the Florin High students mirrors the findings of a recent study published in the Journal of American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. The researchers found that children and young people with anxiety disorders were more likely to be frequent marijuana users. Persistent users were also more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders, and, no surprise were more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system.
From what I’ve been learning, it seems fair to say that a significant percentage of young people who are heavy users of marijuana rely on it as a coping mechanism; they are “self-medicating.” They are using weed to take the edge off of anxiety and to get through the day. Unfortunately, the more they use, the more they dig themselves into a hole. The more they check out and are more likely to struggle in school and life.
In seeking to reduce marijuana use among young people, we need to find ways to provide greater social-emotional health supports to children and youth. We need to improve the overall environment for children and youth so that young people see a future for themselves and have positive alternatives to drug use.
When I asked the Florin High Students what would help, one young man talked about a program he participates in called Improve Your Tomorrow. This program helps young men of color to graduate and to go to college through building skills, confidence and knowledge. It’s helped him turn his life around.
We need to replace weed with hope, with caring relationships, and with real investments in children, youth and families.
In the mid and late 1990’s, a couple colleagues and I were helping organize parents to improve schools in South Sacramento. As we met with parents and formed parent organizing committees, we encountered a real disconnect between the schools and their families. In these schools in which most teachers were white and most families were of color, some teachers viewed the parents of their students as uncaring or even dysfunctional. Parents often experienced the school to be unresponsive and intimidating, and some were told that they were to blame for the low achievement of their children.
In each school, we came across a few teachers who did home visits. These teachers were different. They had a different view of families in the neighborhood and felt supported by their parents. Parents adored them. These teachers and parents worked together as team to foster a sense of belonging in the school and to improve student achievement.
We became determined to spread what those teachers were doing throughout the school. Working with parent leaders and teachers, we developed a training approach and secured a small amount of funding from the district. In a few years, this model began to spread across the country, mostly by word of mouth and through the support of teacher unions. Teams of teachers and parent leaders traveled to other states to provide training. Today, 20 years later, the organization we created, Parent Teacher Home Visits, supports home visit efforts in 20 states.
During the formation of the strategy, two concepts in systems change work helped guide us: positive deviance and appreciative inquiry. These concepts represent an alternative to the usual top down approaches by helping groups create change from the inside out.
Positive deviance is a process first utilized in efforts to improve child nutrition in Vietnam during the 1990’s. Child health workers found that while most children in a very poor region suffered from malnourishment, there were some children who were healthy and well nourished. The workers set out to discover why and found that these families fed their children a little differently. They included sweet potato greens, shrimp and crabs in their children’s diet and fed them three times a day rather than twice. These families were positively deviant from the norm. Rather than bring in a solution from outside “experts” and rely on outside funding, the workers and volunteers from the villages worked to spread the practice to other families through peer to peer influence, moms teaching other moms. In a short period, the percentage of well nourished children grew to 85 percent.
We took a similar tack in our work with schools in the early years of organizing. We looked for examples of strong, vibrant parent teacher relationships that were outside the norm and then we found ways for these teachers and parents to train other teachers in the home visit approach. We found the solution right there in the same “dysfunctional” schools; we just had to look and listen.
In appreciative inquiry, changemakers begin where people experience positive energy and feel empowered. This starting point is different than the usual deficit-based approach that focuses on a problem and then seeks to address the problem, often making the problem bigger and even more overwhelming. Our brains suffer from a negativity bias and go quickly to binary “us vs. them” thinking, and to blame. In the politics that swirl around school reform, blame is a constant. In appreciative inquiry, we start with questions that surface what is life-giving and what inspires people. These questions reroute the brain, away from deficit to strength, and from negative energy toward the positive. In this model, people come together, driven by shared hopes and dreams, to create change based in their own experiences.
In teacher home visits, teachers visit families not because there is a problem but because they want to build a relationship with the family and want to get to know the student better. They bring a powerful question to the visit: “What are your hopes and dreams for your student?” This question unleashes an enormous amount of positive energy. Parents often say that no one has ever asked them that question. Teachers and parents work together to make those hopes and dreams a reality. Teachers rediscover why they went into teaching in the first place. They walk away from those visits feeling like the community heroes that they are.
As I look back on the twenty-year history of Parent Teacher Home Visits, I find the experience reaffirms the value of working from the inside out and of placing a fundamental trust in the ability of local communities to develop solutions. Change that comes from a sort of neocolonial, top-down approach or that is driven by blame game politics rarely sticks; it disappears after a few years and leaves little behind. When change grows organically and spreads, as with teacher home visits, it’s a sign that the strategy is grounded in the experience, values and vision of the people the strategy is meant to serve. A strengths-based strategy rekindles hope and belief in ourselves and in one another, and in doing so, it activates leadership at a grassroots level.
From what I’m seeing, at least in California, the answer to this question is yes.
Across California, numerous cities and counties already have marijuana taxes in place. Starting in 2018, when the commercial sale of recreational marijuana becomes legal, these local governments will start to rake in more revenues. The City of Los Angeles, for example, projects that it will collect $50 million in new revenues as a result of the tax passed by the voters in March of this year. And that’s just for year one of legal marijuana sales. Imagine how that will grow in the coming years as the marijuana industry expands.
And from what I’m seeing so far, these new tax revenues flow into the general funds of cities or counties. What makes up a big chunk of a general fund? Law enforcement. So as revenues go up, it is very likely that many of these new dollars will go toward expanding law enforcement.
Law enforcement is making the argument that legal marijuana will require additional enforcement and thus there is a need for more officers. The Los Angeles ballot measure approved by voters in March of this year promised voters that it would help police prevent crime. In Sacramento city officials plan to hire twelve new police officers to focus on cracking down on illegal marijuana grows.
If this pattern continues, it will maintain the premier role that marijuana policy has played as a driver of mass incarceration. For decades, huge numbers of black and brown people went to prison for doing what is now legal, and what is now enriching mostly white entrepreneurs and investors.
The alternative is the reparations approach. The right thing to do with marijuana is to use the tax revenues to repair the damage done to black and brown communities by the War on Drugs. Local government can use the tax dollars to support re-entry, job training and counseling supports for the formerly incarcerated. It can invest the dollars in prevention and youth services in neighborhoods that experienced the highest rates of marijuana arrests. It can support drug prevention and education in vulnerable populations. It can help people of color and women start businesses.
There’s a lot of amazing good that can come from a smart investment of marijuana tax revenues. It’s time we speak out on this issue and engage local government officials.
The Green Rush is upon us, and everyone wants a piece of the Green.
Across the country, racial justice organizers and advocates are turning the tide of the failed, racially biased War on Drugs by changing laws to reduce mass incarceration. This is a growing, vibrant movement, primarily led by people of color and by those who have experienced incarceration first hand.
It’s time for the vast array of children’s advocacy groups to join this movement in a more visible and assertive way. It’s time for those who advocate for preschool expansions, for children’s health insurance and for public education to get with it. It’s time.
Mass incarceration is a kids’ issue.
Mass incarceration has hurt kids in a profound way. It has been a major driver of generational family poverty; it has caused kids to grow up without a parent; it is a source of shame, humiliation and stigma. It is a source of lasting trauma.
According to the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated:
An Education Week article summarized the impact:
"Studies show that parental incarceration can be more traumatic to students than even a parent’s death or divorce, and the damage it can cause to student’s education, health and social relationships puts them at higher risk of one day going to prison themselves."[ii]
As with mass incarceration, the African American community is bearing the brunt of this trauma. Yale University found that one-quarter of black children born in 1990 had a parent in jail or prison by the time the child was fourteen.
The War on Drugs has been a War on Black Children.
Latino families have also been disproportionately impacted and have experienced a collusion between the drug war and anti-immigrant deportation policies. Kids can be separated long term from a parent who is arrested on a minor drug charge and then deported.
In my experience, children’s advocacy groups are typically white-led, while the racial justice movement is led by people of color. This may explain why many children’s advocacy groups have yet to take a clear and consistent stand in support of ending mass incarceration. Those of us who are white, including myself, are distant from the problem.
It’s time for us to get behind and support those leading the way; it’s time to endorse the bills and the ballot measures and to put time and resources into educating the huge base of white children’s advocates about this issue.
One big step forward in the campaign to reduce mass incarceration is to decriminalize marijuana. Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow notes that arrests for marijuana possession account for nearly 80% of the increase in drug arrests in the 1990’s. [iii]
Thousands of kids have lost their parents to prison simply for marijuana possession. That has to stop.
A terrific documentary Invisible Bars has just been released that illustrates these issues. See the trailer here.
[ii] Sarah D. Sparks, “Parents’ Incarceration Takes Toll on Children, Studies Say,” Education Week (February 24, 2015).
[iii] The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, (New York: The New Press, 2012), 60.
The top response in the recent Marist poll of over 1,000 adults?
The dresser drawer!
The pollsters didn’t take this question a step further but if they had, I bet the most common drawer for stash placement would have been the underwear drawer.
What compels us to hide our secrets in our underwear drawer?
I always have. It’s a fascinating question….but let’s get back to the Marist poll.
Here are some other noteworthy findings:
Please note that this poll did not take into account marijuana use among young people under 18. The numbers above reflect only a part of the picture—marijuana use among adults. The poll, unfortunately, tells us nothing about youth.
What the poll does reveal is that marijuana is on a steady path to becoming “normalized.” Marijuana is way beyond “reefer madness.” It is quickly becoming a normal and commonplace aspect of American life.
The statistic that lifts this up most clearly concerns young adults. Of the total percentage of Americans who use marijuana, 52% are Millennials. It’s no surprise that younger adults consume marijuana more frequently than older adults. Also no surprise is that for marijuana users, marijuana is more socially acceptable and more likely to be viewed as harmless than among non-users. 83% of users believe that marijuana use is socially acceptable.
Looking to the future, we can see the trend. As Millennials and their kids become a larger and larger segment of the population, we will see wider acceptance of marijuana use.
Part of “normalization” is that a behavior cuts across society. For decades, cigarette use was “normalized;” all kinds of people smoked.
Similarly, by reviewing the poll’s demographic data, we can see that marijuana use is taking place fairly evenly across racial groups. Whites, African Americans and Latinos use marijuana at roughly the same rates. The data I could find lumped everyone else (Asians, Native Americans…) into an Other category, which is very unhelpful.
Of course, even use does not mean even or fair punishment. As I have written elsewhere, African Americans and Latinos have gone to jail in hugely disproportionate numbers for marijuana due to racial bias in our criminal justice system.
The biggest reason people gave for why they don’t use weed? Because it’s illegal. As legalization and decriminalization (which I support) spreads across the country, it seems likely that, under current conditions, the percentage of people who try marijuana will increase, use will go up, and because youth follow adults, consumption among young people will rise.
So this is all very good news for the marijuana industry.
Is it good news for the health of the American people? Outside of those who use marijuana for medical reasons, the answer is no. While a growing number of people believe that marijuana is harmless, it is not.
In conclusion here are the trends.
Marijuana normalization- UP
Marijuana use- UP
Adverse health impacts of marijuana use- UP
On March 22nd of 2016, the National Institute for Drug Abuse and other organizations convened researchers to review the latest science on how marijuana affects the brain. The presentations are available on video.
Dr. Susan Tapert, a professor of psychiatry at UCSD School of Medicine, had some startling news to share about how marijuana affects the teen brain. Here are a few highlights of her study that compared teen marijuana users to non-users:
This information is not new. In the research literature on marijuana, there are multiple studies that have reached similar conclusions. In a summary of research to date, The New England Journal of Medicine reiterated Dr. Tapert’s conclusion and lifted up the link between marijuana use and an increased likelihood of dropping out of school (July 5, 2014).
Here’s what struck me. In all the debate, research and the policymaking regarding how to improve school achievement and reduce the dropout rate, when was the last time you heard educators and policymakers speak of marijuana as a factor in student performance?
Given marijuana’s negative effects on adolescent brain development, and the prevalence of marijuana use among teens, shouldn’t we have the explicit goal of reducing marijuana use among kids as part of California’s school improvement strategy?
How can we expect young people to get through high school and enter college when their ability to learn and remember information is impaired?
We should be particularly focused on delaying marijuana use. The earlier kids use marijuana, and the more frequent the use, the more damage done.
There is a great need for further research in this area. For example, we need to understand the effect of marijuana on the brains of young people who experienced trauma in their childhood and thus already struggle emotionally and cognitively. We need research on children who grew up in poverty, in the foster care system and who experienced violence at a young age.
If you want to watch Dr. Tapert’s presentation, go to 2:18 on the video.