Colorado Cannabis Education Campaigns: What works, what doesn’t, and what we’d like to see.
Written by Sarah Diem ‘15 and James Gould ‘15, SSDP Just Say Know interns.
Since cannabis legalization in Colorado, different entities have developed educational programs targeted at different groups. One such program is the Good To Know program, developed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which is targeted to adults 21 and over and seeks to educate them on policy and even some harm reduction. The city of Denver has also presented a program called The High Costs for those under 21. Unlike Good to Know, High Costs doesn’t include harm reduction information and focuses on “costs” of using while under age. Since our team here at SSDP’s Just Say Know is working on an education program in Colorado, we decided to give our take on these programs and share some guidance as to what an ideal drug education program should include.
The High Costs campaign brought up a lot of concerns for us. Their messaging harkens back to ‘Just Say No’, with their campaign centered around “high costs” associated with the cannabis use. For example, they note negative impacts of cannabis arrests on education, implying those risks are part of the “high costs” of cannabis. They claim “cannabis is linked to addiction,” and don’t recognize that correlation doesn’t equal causation, much less the complicated nuances related to substance use disorders. They make many additional claims appearing on their homepage that are at best, misleading, and at worst, based in poorly interpreted science.
This program’s fear-mongering stance is similar to the way we traditionally approach youth drug education. Their language is condescending and infantilizing in its attempts to reach a young demographic. The High Costs program appears entirely one-sided, misleading, and not based in reality.
Good to Know
The Good to Know program disseminates information about safe cannabis use for individuals 21 and over through their website, billboards, and other advertisements. The campaign provides objective and non-judgmental information about current cannabis laws, information to know before you use, health effects, and youth prevention.
In a recent study commissioned by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (who also developed the campaign), researchers at the Colorado School of Public health concluded the program has been successful, noting that those who had seen the campaign were more likely to be better informed about the cannabis law, and were more likely to say that heavy marijuana use can lead to adverse health consequences. The researchers also found that for those who already use cannabis, the campaign messaging is not as effective.
After reviewing both programs, we applaud them for providing information on policy and potential harms related to cannabis use. However, it remains clear both programs are under some degree of pressure to make statements focusing on the harms of consuming cannabis, which influences their ability to be truly objective. Even further, High Costs in particular is not really an education program if they aren’t providing information to those who may still choose to consume cannabis.
A word about Financial Aid
Given Students for Sensible Drug Policy was founded on the fight against the Higher Education Act, we found it particularly interesting that in both the Good To Know and High Costs campaigns, financial aid penalties are cited as a scare tactic and a “reason to say no to cannabis.” The statistics are not presented in an objective manner, but rather with the idea that young people being disenfranchised from education is proof that “drugs are bad.” As SSDPers, we know that many young people are prevented from accessing higher education, expelled from secondary education, or face financial penalties for drug arrests. These consequences disproportionately affect people of color and those of lower socioeconomic status.
Neither program we’ve discussed do a good job of detailing the consequences in regard to losing financial aid. This information is important considering these consequences are not related to the use of cannabis, but rather the laws and regulations around cannabis. That is, youth don’t lose financial aid because they’re consuming cannabis; they lose financial aid because cannabis is illegal. Policies preventing people who consume drugs from accessing higher education have serious consequences, and these consequences frequently outweigh the harms of the drug use itself. We know that Good To Know and the High Costs campaigns may not be in the position to criticize these harmful policies, but we ask that they avoid using the damages of the War on Drugs as propaganda for continuing the use of prohibitionist tactics.
Our ideal program would approach drug use from a harm reduction perspective. Although the ultimate way to reduce the harm of using drugs is to not use drugs, we recognize that by only discouraging people from drug use, you run the risk of missing the opportunity to teach safer use for those who will decide to consume despite the potential risks. Any public awareness campaign about drugs needs to educate both people who intend to abstain from drug use and those who intend to engage in drug use. Failing to address the needs of both populations reduces what would be an educational program to prevention propaganda. Programs like D.A.R.E., Just Say No, and Scared Straight all told students to just not do drugs. D.A.R.E., Just Say No, and Scared Straight were ineffective at reducing drug use, and completely failed at preparing young people for a reality where people use drugs.
Our ideal drug education informs about ways of reducing harm associated with drug use and the potential consequences associated with using drugs. It contains factual information about the drugs themselves, harm reduction tips, information about routes of administration and dosing, information on poly-substance use and what combinations are least or most harmful, information on the legal status of a drug and the laws around it, and more. Proper drug education also needs to be non-stigmatizing and non-judgemental in its approach. Lastly, if we truly want to approach the drug problem in this country in an effective manner, we need to implement drug education that isn’t one size fits all.