It’s Your Words That Matter (Stupid!)

As I puttered around the house doing laundry and tidying the kitchen and fluffing pillows yesterday morning, my local NPR station was on in the background. The host was interviewing Barry McCaffrey of Clinton-era war-on-drugs fame and I found myself intrigued. I recall him taking a very different tack from the Nancy Reagan “just say no” campaign, but couldn’t really remember many of the specifics, so my ears perked up and I slowed my tasks down in order to pay closer attention.

It is easy to pay attention to General McCaffrey, given that he is a career military man and speaks with 100% authority. He has very strong opinions on seemingly every subject in the Universe and speaks about them with no equivocation whatsoever. When callers or the host disagreed with him, he was not condescending, but so sure of himself that I wonder if he often causes others to question their own rationale. I found myself agreeing with him on a few issues and disagreeing about others, but glad I wasn’t in the room with him admitting my dissent.

Until he began talking about the drug policy his task force crafted for the Office of National Drug Control Policy during his time in the Clinton White House. It started innocently enough, with him advocating for developmentally appropriate approaches to drug resistance education. Okay, fair enough. I can see the logic in that.

Saying, “You don’t tell a 17-year old who is smoking a joint that they will get lung cancer or throat cancer. They don’t care about that. You say, ‘Hey, Stupid! You’re going to get pregnant or drop out of school and never get a job!”

How is calling someone “Stupid” a way to change behavior?
How is belittling someone and trying to frighten them a way to motivate or encourage?
How is making someone think you see them as an idiot going to help you understand them?
As a former teenager who smoked a lot of pot (thank goodness my kids don’t read this blog), I can tell you that by the time I had made the decision to engage in this behavior, I had already written myself off. I didn’t need anyone else to. The reasons I used drugs were several:
1. There was a community of other potheads who accepted me into their group.
2. On some level I felt invincible (common among teenagers, and doesn’t bode well for Gen. McCaffrey’s fear tactics. I was sure I wasn’t the one who would get pregnant or get caught smoking pot).
3. I was trying to escape some of the difficult realities in my life.
4. I felt somewhat hopeless about my life.
Luckily, stronger drugs weren’t really available to me at that time. Couple that with the fact that I was a control freak and I had some pretty strong notions of which lines I wouldn’t cross, which is why I never drank alcohol.
Also luckily, I had a few supportive adults in my life who may or may not have known I was smoking pot, but who believed in my ability to live my dreams. They encouraged me to get to college which afforded me a different way to escape the difficulties in my current situation. I saw that as a clean break and a way to reinvent myself somewhat and I was able to separate myself from the drug culture I had immersed myself in.
I certainly hope that General McCaffrey’s drug policy is not standard operating procedure in most of the schools around the nation. I believe that the only way to really change the way we treat illegal drugs and alcohol is by understanding the reasons people turn to them in the first place and supporting them as they learn to deal honestly with the challenges in their lives. I understand that game plan isn’t nearly as clearcut as a military man might like, but I am certain that berating and belittling and attempting to scare people is not the way to go.
6 replies
  1. Wanda
    Wanda says:

    I agree with you, too. I wish we could put more energy into positive attempts at change. Lately, my discouragement has risen above my hope at times. Yet, hope is not completely smothered…not yet dead. Long live HOPE!

  2. Dee Ready
    Dee Ready says:

    Dear Kari, once again, what I think of as your "fierce honesty" is displayed here and I applaud your reasoning and your passion.

    So often people think that we've got to be "tough" with others. That only "toughness" brings change. The thought is also that we need to make an enemy out of drugs or sex or whatever is the bugaboo of the time.

    We often define ourselves by what we're not. So we seem to need enemies. In that way, supposedly, we discover who we aren't and then we know who we are. Strange. Truly.

    And so drugs become the enemy. And the "superior human being" warns us against them. And says the "tough" things about what will happen if we become druggies. Let's not be THEM! Let's be . . . what?

    That's the thing we need to do– help one another discover who we want to be. Who we are free to be.
    And we need to create the space and opportunity in which growth into that "who-ness" we choose is possible.

    Thanks for making me think!


  3. Bella
    Bella says:

    Kario, I'm behind you all the way. I believe the best way to turn our youths off drugs is by educating them to the dangers they pose. While some youngsters may seek drugs as a form of escape from reality, depression, and family troubles, for example, they need to know that this is not the way to solve their problems. Their fix is temporary and in the case of stronger drugs, the risks are that much higher. And while young people can have "stupid" moments, it doesn't mean they're stupid. I don't feel this is the way to prevent drug use in minors. No way.

  4. Deb Shucka
    Deb Shucka says:

    I think the general's approach explains a lot about the general pickle we're in as a nation. Shame, bullying, exclusion of anyone disagreed with – and see how well it's working.

    I'd vote for you if you ran for office, my friend!

  5. graceonline
    graceonline says:

    "The only way to really change the way we treat illegal drugs and alcohol is by understanding the reasons people turn to them in the first place and supporting them as they learn to deal honestly with the challenges in their lives."

    I'm with you, 100 percent, and with Deb Shucka. Shame, bullying, exclusion have no place in healing the broken heart, and sometimes mind, of a child.


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