How ‘harm-reduction’ drug education guides teen decision-making

'Safety First: Real Drug Education for Teens' curriculum works more like comprehensive sex education
By: | March 29, 2021
Students choose between two pitchers of identical-looking beverages to learn about 'drug checking' as a harm reduction practice.Students choose between two pitchers of identical-looking beverages to learn about 'drug checking' as a harm reduction practice.

More schools are adopting a harm-reduction drug education curriculum that advocates argue gives students stronger decision-making skills than do some of the more well-known “abstinence-only” programs.

The 15 lessons in the Drug Policy Alliance’s “Safety First: Real Drug Education for Teens” program work more like comprehensive sex education.

The curriculum acknowledges students may experiment with drugs and offers counsel such as “starting low and going slow, especially with something you’ve never had before,” says Sasha Simon, Safety First senior program manager at the Drug Policy Alliance.

“From the beginning, we frame substance use with the idea that students should be mindful of anything they put into their bodies,” Simon says. “We introduce what the specific harms are to young people so they understand they have skin in the game.”


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The Safety First curriculum, which is available in a distance-learning format, defines drugs more broadly to include substances, such as caffeine and sugar, that create changes in the brain and body. Still, the lessons begin with abstinence—or, not using drugs—as the easiest and most obvious way to avoid harm, Simon says.

However, students also learn about the effects that various drugs have, the dangers of mixing substances and to recognize the riskiness of social settings, Simon says.

Safety First also covers mental health and examines the reasons young people use drugs—such as a coping mechanism.

With more states legalizing marijuana and its availability in a wide range of products, young people need to know facts such as edible marijuana takes longer to have an effect, she adds.

Another motivation for creating the program is that, despite decades of abstinence-only drug education, the country has experienced record overdoses, cycles of criminalization and stigma of drug users.

Accidental overdose is now the leading cause of death for people under 50 and someone is arrested for drug possession every 23 seconds in the U.S., the Alliance says.

“Students aren’t being offered the skills that are useful for keeping up with evolving trends and knowing what’s true and what’s not,” Simon says. “We have to make the shift from abstinence and ‘Just Say No,’ and isolating people who use drugs. We have to take a more critical, comprehensive and long-term approach.”