When the parent movement formed in the late 1970s, many activists vocally complained about the quality of drug education in their communities. Kids weren’t being told not to do drugs, the parents said. Instead, they were being taught how to do them, and in what these educators claimed was the safest and most responsible manner possible. In places like St. Louis, San Francisco, and Eugene, Ore., groups like the Acid Rescue Squad, the Do It Now Foundation, and the Drug Information Center brought educational programs about drugs into elementary school classrooms and across college campuses, and concerned parents reacted with horror.
The idea behind this “fact-based” education was to “arm” people with information in order to lessen the potential for addiction, abuse or overdoses, all of which were growing problems in the late 1960s and ‘70s. And many of these organizations focused exclusively on the problems caused by “hard drugs” – speed, opiates and narcotics – rather than the country’s growing use of marijuana, which was another reason why parent activists found these programs problematic.
Organizations like the Do It Now Foundation, founded in San Francisco in 1968, toured public schools in California “stress[ing] statements by Allen Ginsberg, the Beatles, and other hip culture leaders against hard drugs such as heroin.” The Foundation was formed with a specific mission in mind, as noted in a 1970 issue of their newsletter Vibrations: Drug Survival News: “For years we have been in the middle of the youth revolution, watching Speed, Opiates & Narcotics, Downers and vapors messing up the most beautiful subcultures of the times. If we are going to get it together, both within ourselves and our community, we must be aware of these substances and their effects.” That meant learning about the dangers of “hard” drugs and how, if possible, to use them safety. Yet as far as marijuana was concerned, “the foundation [did] not take a position on the use of marijuana and other milder drugs except to point out that they are illegal,” the Associated Press reported in 1968.
Similarly, the Acid Rescue Squad, founded in late 1969 by a group of St. Louis University Medical School students, was formed “to provide information and advice to young people about drugs.” Squad leaders blamed President Nixon’s Operation Intercept (Nixon’s brief closure of the Mexican border to halt the flow of marijuana into the U.S.) for raising the price of available pot and pushing “local heads to try the harder stuff.” In an article from Washington University’s student newspaper Student Life, Squad member Mike Morrissey said that the Squad accepted “crisis calls” every day from people having bad drug experiences, and emphasized an “awareness approach,” holding informal “rap sessions” in high schools across the area so students could ask questions about drugs. “We give no medical advice and offer no personal opinions,” Morrissey said. Instead, the Squad supplied only drug identification information so that users could approach these substances from an informed perspective.
Like the Acid Rescue Squad, the Drug Information Center, located at the University of Oregon in Eugene, was formed to provide the community and the campus with information about drugs (including dosage levels, potentially problematic interactions, and other forms of advice), as well as an anonymous drug testing service that would analyze street drugs for any harmful adulterants. Founded on April 1, 1972, and run by a twenty-year-old undergraduate pre-med major named Mark Miller, the DIC quickly became one of the most well-known and heavily-utilized organizations on the UO campus. They posted drug information in the Eugene Register-Guard and, only a few years after founding, the DIC staff reported that they were receiving an average of one hundred phone calls a day, not only from university students but from the community at large. Miller told the Register-Guard in 1979 that “about half of our calls are from people over 35 wanting information on prescription drugs,” legal drugs like alcohol, nicotine and caffeine, and commercial drugs like chemicals in food, water and cosmetics. But Miller also asserted that the purpose of the DIC was not to condone the use of substances, but “to provide people with facts about drugs because they’re going to make up their own minds anyway” about drug use.
This mindset – that information about drug use, devoid of any larger moral stance, was both appropriate and useful for the health of the community – came under fire by the early 1980s. But this was not because more young people were using hard drugs; in fact, rates of hard drug use actually dropped. Instead, it was because more adolescents were smoking pot than at any other point in American history, and this was terrifying for their families and schools. By 1977, when 56% of high school seniors had at least tried marijuana and 1 in 11 reported smoking pot daily, parent activists blamed the nationwide movement for marijuana decriminalization and this information-only approach for the rise. By focusing on the dangers of hard drugs and not specifically demonizing marijuana, parents blamed groups like Do It Now and the DIC for the corresponding increase in adolescent pot use. The stage was then set for a phenomenal shift in drug education, with abstinence-only programs like D.A.R.E. and Just Say No taking over where the struggling DIC and Acid Rescue Squad left off.
The benefits of the information-only approach have resurged as reports have made clear that “Just Say No” doesn’t work. But history is once again providing lessons on how Americans reacted to this approach in the past. What seemed like an appropriate response to rising rates of hard drug use was overthrown when unprecedented numbers of kids started smoking pot – the one drug that most of these programs ignored. In the era of rapid marijuana legalization, a truly effective (and embraced) drug education program will not neglect parents’ very powerful fears. Ignoring or denying the drug that most worries families doesn’t make that drug use go away, but it has turned parents into powerful political activists in the past. This is something to remember as Americans move forward, both with increased legalization efforts as well as attempts to form the most effective drug education possible.