The legalization of adult-use marijuana in November 2016 created an opportunity for California to rethink drug education programs, as a portion of the tax revenue from the new commercial cannabis market must go to education programs.
Police officers have long been the face of drug education in the U.S., as part of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program that seeks to teach young people about the dangers of marijuana and other substances. Created in 1983, D.A.R.E. took an authoritarian approach that mirrored the phrase First Lady Nancy Reagan first uttered the year before: “Just say no.” While it’s not used in Sacramento schools any longer, D.A.R.E. has long been the national paradigm.
Since then, some drug-abuse experts have advocated another approach: Just Say Know. In other words, give youth facts about cannabis and let them decide for themselves whether to consume the product at some point in their lives (recreational cannabis is only legal for adults 21 and over). In 2015, 39 percent of high school students in California reported that they had used marijuana at least once. Experts say young people are more likely to reject marijuana when presented with hard data, as opposed to scare tactics or simply being told not to use it.
So what if trained cannabis dispensary workers — aka “budtenders” — could help teach young people about the risks of cannabis?
The idea is that budtenders will become ambassadors for the cannabis industry, providing science-based information to the community both inside and outside of the dispensary. “They don’t cease to be cannabis employees when they leave the dispensary. They are a trusted source of cannabis information in the community,” says Joe Devlin, chief of cannabis policy and enforcement for the City of Sacramento.
While Devlin was in the process of creating a training program for dispensary employees (taught by Colorado-based Cannabis Trainers), he decided to add a presentation that specifically addresses youth education, using a science-based approach, as opposed to a fear-based one. The presentation will largely borrow from the California Department of Public Health’s work on what youth and parents need to know for prevention.
“In a nutshell, I believe it teaches young people that that are real medical and health reasons why they should not be using cannabis,” Devlin says of the CDPH’s work.
Devlin says the City does not plan to require budtenders to speak at schools or events, but instead wants to make sure they have accurate information when they talk about cannabis both in the store and while out in the larger community.
The training for budtenders is voluntary, but Devlin suggests that it could quickly become mandatory if participation isn’t high. He says the City plans to offer it for free, but adds that could change too, if the local industry doesn’t support the program. The training is similar to what the state requires to be a bartender — “Responsible Beverage Server Training” — and education for people in food service.
Devlin says the City will also participate in Sacramento County’s “Future Forward Youth Marijuana Prevention Campaign,” which is aimed at keeping youth away from cannabis through education and limiting youth access, and is run by the Sacramento County Office of Education with funding from the County’s Department of Behavioral Health Services. So far, the campaign has included billboards, a community forum and other activities. On the billboards, young people are pictured doing school activities with text that says, “Marijuana is not for me.”
“Future Forward uses a youth-development approach,” says Joelle Orrock, coordinator of the Sacramento County Coalition for Youth, which works on the campaign. “We teach youth to consider their future and their goals, and what will help them get there and what won’t.”
The Coalition for Youth includes a diverse group of stakeholders — school districts, parents, students, faith-based groups and more — and is covering half the cost of the City of Sacramento’s budtender training program.
Besides just doing the right thing, Sacramento’s cannabis industry has a vested interest in supporting Devlin’s plan. An increase in youth consumption, or any high-profile incidents involving kids getting high, could be a public relations nightmare for the cannabis industry.
Studies have found little relationship between legalization of cannabis and the youth consumption rate in the first two states that approved commercial cannabis — Colorado and Washington. Still, Devlin remains concerned about what legalization will mean for youth drug use. “Legalization might lead some people to believe there aren’t any harmful effects from cannabis,” he says. “That’s definitely not the case with young people.”
Researchers have found that young people are at greater risk than adults for long-term problems from marijuana because their brains are still under development. Cannabis can also cause problems for young people such as difficulty with school, immaturity and getting arrested. So public health officials have advocated that young people wait until their mid-20s if they are going to consume weed.
Experts have also found that the approach considered synonymous with D.A.R.E. — trying to scare kids away from cannabis — is ineffective. A 2009 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health synthesized findings from previous reports and concluded: “The effects of the D.A.R.E. program on drug use were… less than small.”
Mill Valley psychiatrist Timmen Cermak, in his book Marijuana: What’s a Parent to Believe?, also advocates a fact-based approach that moves away from the fear-based approach. Cermak writes, “The Reagan era’s ‘just say no’ campaign, for example, arose more from a political philosophy than from public health research, yet it dominated prevention efforts for more than a decade.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include additional information about Sacramento County’s “Future Forward Youth Marijuana Prevention Campaign.”