Red Ribbon Week

The popular anti-drug campaign fails to succeed in deterring drug use. Instead, the campaign should redirect and focus on harm reduction in communities.

Every year from Oct. 23 through Oct. 31, National Red Ribbon Week takes place. I remember Red Ribbon Week as a highly anticipated week in K-12  filled with anti-drug lectures and activities with tones of police propaganda in the background. 

The Red Ribbon campaign has stated its goal is to educate youth and encourage participation in drug prevention activities, yet studies have shown campaigns like this have little effect on drug use, drug attitudes or self-esteem.

The Red Ribbon campaign states it began as a response to the murder of DEA Agent Enrique (Kiki) Camarena by the Guadalajara cartel. When angered Americans began wearing red ribbons as a symbol of their commitment to raising awareness, it gave birth to the campaign’s well-known name. 

Unfortunately, even though Red Ribbon Week started as a noble cause, it has fallen flat in effectiveness. Red ribbon week was designed to teach a drug prevention curriculum similar to the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program. Both programs provide education to try to reduce drug dependency in communities by promoting abstinence.

According to the American Addiction Centers, this did not work. The American Addiction Centers state the program explained the risk of drugs and offered no tips on how to refuse them. 

The American Psychological Association (APA) conducted a study 10 years after subjects were exposed to the D.A.R.E. program and few differences were found in actual drug use, drug attitudes or self-esteem and in no case did the D.A.R.E. group have a successful outcome. 

Teaching the youth of America drug prevention is important, but by purely teaching drug abstinence, the curriculum is ineffective.

What almost all of these curriculums are missing is harm reduction. Harm reduction is a strategy utilized to reduce the negative consequences associated with drug use. 

Harm reduction is not taught in drug prevention programs in American schools; these programs would have to accept and teach that illicit drug use is a part of the world and is a complex phenomenon. Someone’s drug use can be total abstinence or severe dependence, it is a spectrum. 

Harm reduction programs reduce harm by doing things like; giving communities Narcan to teach the management of an opioid overdose, providing clean needles to help reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis C, giving drug test kits and having clinics for overdose prevention sites. 

According to the CDC, between 1996 through June 2014, around 600 harm reduction groups provided Narcan kits to more than 150,000 people. 

Naloxone (also known as Narcan®) is a medication called an “opioid antagonist” used to counter the effects of an opioid overdose. For example, it is used in cases of morphine and heroin overdoses.

Narcan, unlike “Just say no” programs, have saved nearly 30,000 lives, according to the CDC. 

I dare Red Ribbon Week and drug prevention programs alike to have a curriculum revision and implement harm reduction. I believe agent Enrique Camarena would want an effective drug prevention campaign dedicated in his honor rather than one that preaches unrealistic and out-of-touch information.

While ideally teaching to just say no to drugs would be enough to end the drug epidemic, realistically, it is not. By teaching how to use simple life-saving nasal spray and how to use a narcotics test kit on a national scale, I believe a real change in statistics could occur. I know a progressive remodel of the joke of a system that is drug prevention is far past due. 

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