My cover story in Gambit this week focuses on the counterproductive nature of a “zero tolerance” approach to drug use in high schools and colleges, especially as more and more teens turn to heroin. Here’s Professor John Mason of Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine:
“As you try to advise people on particularly risky behavior, you may inadvertently encourage the perception that mere risky behavior is acceptable, or less risky,” Mason says.
And that’s a big no-no.
The difficulty for parents and schools is how best to talk about drugs without encouraging the perception that they expect teens to experiment with them. Many parents have grown accustomed to thinking their children were protected from the worst perils of drug addiction by social class or other demographic factors. For them, it boils down to this: Whether to discuss drug use at all, or to simply advocate for a “just don’t do it” blanket policy that leaves adolescents to figure things out for themselves.
I already heard back from another of the Tulane University professors quoted in the article, saying he’s going to base a college class on the story. Professor Peter Scharf plans to teach a class called: “Ethics in Public Practice and Policy Case: De-Criminalizing the Reporting of Heroin Overdose by Teenagers and College Students-SPHU 391-“Intentional Change in Public Health,” based on the article. From Scharf:
1. What are the facts related to “heroin” overdoses in terms of interaction of drugs, windows of opportunity (Narcan) to reverse coma?
2. What are the utilitarian benefits of punishing “participants” who report heroin overdose?
3. What are the utilitarian benefits of de-criminalizing the reporting of heroin overdose incidents?
4. How might non-consequential ethicists view the de-criminalization of reporting heroin overdose?
5. What are the ethics of providing free prescriptions of Narcan to heroin users?
6. Should teenagers selling heroin be charged as adults?
7. Would you as a public health professional work to de-criminalize the reporting (or use) of heroin and related substances? Why?
8. What is the role of the state v. the role of parents in the policing of teenage heroin use? Who is ultimately responsible?
9. What about free needle exchanges? Are those right or wrong?
10. Is jail time an ethical punishment?
11) How do concepts in the Tipping Point, especially the broken window theory, relate to heroin in high schools?
12) Would the legalization of marijuana increase or decrease heroin use?
I’m glad that students will be considering my work as they ponder these questions. Now I know just how David Simon felt when Harvard instituted a course on The Wire.
Of course I hope you, too, find the article interesting — it includes a pretty harrowing first-hand account of teenage heroin addiction, one that has stuck with me since I filed the copy.