I see red when I see you
Fan belts break at 3 am
I get mad, drinks get spilled
A 5 past 2 I don’t feel sad
But then I see you and I see red
— X, “I See Red”
If you believe the hype, it would have you understand that Red Ribbon Week is a “unified way for communities to take a stand against drugs and show intolerance for illicit drug use and the consequences to all Americans.”
In a week where President Barack Obama declared that the War in Iraq was over, it is important to see that Red Ribbon Week are schools’ ways of keeping alive yet another of America’s long-running wars–the War on Drugs.
For forty years, the United States has engaged in this long-running enforcement and propaganda campaign as part of quixotic belief that, somehow, the trafficking and use of illegal drugs in this country could somehow be eliminated–either by simply saying “no”, or, if you didn’t say “no”, trying to deny someone the drugs you would have to say “no” to. It is a war that iconic newsman Walter Cronkite, who once famously declared the War in Vietnam “unwinnable”, declared unwinnable also:
Amid the clichés of the drug war, our country has lost sight of the scientific facts. Amid the frantic rhetoric of our leaders, we’ve become blind to reality: The war on drugs, as it is currently fought, is too expensive, and too inhumane. But nothing will change until someone has the courage to stand up and say what so many politicians privately know: The war on drugs has failed.
Of course, asking the majority of politicians, from either party (and I’m a loyal Democrat, mind you), to take a courageous stand is as quixotic as hoping that the United States could have a rational discussion about the War on Drugs. While I am not doubting the sincerity when someone, like Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, says:
‘”Look,’ she says, starting slowly. ‘This is something that is worth fighting for because drug addiction is about fighting for somebody’s life, a young child’s life, a teenager’s life, their ability to be a successful and productive adult.'”
I get it. But just a cursory glance around the internet for information about the War on Drugs yields this summary, from a 2009 commentary in Time:
It’s a war without a clear enemy. Anything waged against a shapeless, intangible noun can never truly be won — President Clinton’s drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey said as much in 1996. And yet, within the past 40 years, the U.S. government has spent over $2.5 trillion dollars fighting the War on Drugs. Despite the ad campaigns, increased incarceration rates and a crackdown on smuggling, the number of illicit drug users in America has risen over the years and now sits at 19.9 million Americans.
From the same AP wire story that included Napolitano’s concerns, we find that over the course of the past 40 years, American taxpayers have spent:
— $33 billion in marketing “Just Say No”-style messages to America’s youth and other prevention programs. High school students report the same rates of illegal drug use as they did in 1970, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says drug overdoses have “risen steadily” since the early 1970s to more than 20,000 last year.
Ah yes, “Just Say No”, a 3-letter-phrase that social conservatives have insisted could not only save America’s youth from drugs, but also premarital sex, and violent acts.
During a 1984 appearance at an Oakland, Calif. school, then-First Lady Nancy Reagan was asked by 10-year-old Angel Wiltz what to do if someone offered her drugs. “Just say no,” replied Reagan. Within a year, 5,000 “Just Say No” clubs had formed around the country, with Soleli Moon Frye, (Punky Brewster) as honorary chairperson. The Los Angeles Police Department’s 1983 Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) school lecture program, grew into a national phenomenon that, by 2003, cost $230 million and involved 50,000 police officers. Partnership for a Drug-Free America launched a similarly memorable campaign in 1987 with an abrasive television ad featuring a hot skillet, a raw egg, and the phrase, “This is your brain on drugs.”
Catchy slogans are no match for chemical addictions, however, and study after study showed that programs such as D.A.R.E. — no matter how beloved — produced negligent results.
While it would be easy to simply dismiss the $33 million figure as a necessary number to beef up a morally centered campaign in America’s schools, considering the overall cost of the War on Drugs taken as a whole, and in a country whose budgetary concerns are causing itself to implode, it starts to make you wonder if it is still a justifiable cause to keep sending good money in after bad money. But it’s also ripped apart South American countries, and many of my students over the past several years can attest to how the War on Drugs is eating Mexico alive. (One of my former students shared with me that her summer visit to Mexico had a travel itinerary that included having to account for those areas specifically impacted by drug violence–and avoiding those areas.) Lastly, one of the biggest obstacles to stabilizing Afghanistan (yet another war that’s bleeding our country to death) will be somehow dealing with its growth in heroin production, making the Afghan poppy fields even larger than the areas in Latin America used for coca production.
It would also be easy to just dismiss the entire idea of a War on Drugs as a budgetary sinkhole. My own thinking on the subject drastically changed when I first saw the Steven Soderbergh film Traffic:
As I noted earlier, when you factor the sheer cost of the war, the amounts are staggering–and given that I work in an industry wherein even a few hundred dollars can mean something, it’s also depressing. If you go here, you can see how the costs escalate exponentially. At $500 per second last year, I could pay my car off long before I ever finished this blog post! Sad, no? (Yeah, about budgetary waste, and my wish to pay off my car…)
Anyway, time has brought me to a place where began to openly think of my own place within this larger Drug War. It is Red Ribbon Week for most schools over the next several weeks. My history with the event is checkered, to be honest, in that, as someone who is a former adviser to my school’s Student Council, I had a front row seat for the preparations involving Red Ribbon Week. At first, I had little problems with the grunt work behind the event, getting to school early, decorating it, putting up the banners, shoving red cups into the school’s chain link fence to spell anti-drug messages, and even marching students down to the local park to show solidarity with the city’s anti-drug push for the specific week.
Over time, however, the week began to take a mental toll, as our school’s PTA became less involved, and more and more of the event’s burden fell upon the Student Council’s shoulders. My co-adviser, and good friend, was there to help, of course, and most years served as the event’s spearhead. But life got in the way for both of us (our respective marriages, and the beginnings of families), and for a couple of years, the burden fell solely upon me. I didn’t do so well. My teaching suffered during that week, I became even crankier than I normally am, and, quite truthfully, I really wanted to drink heavily by week’s end.
I eventually learned how other schools had spun off Red Ribbon Week into its own adjunct duty, and I pushed hard for that event to become one such type of duty. It’s not that I wanted Student Council to not participate, I just began to see that it was all too much, even after my co-adviser was back from her maternity leaves. I wanted someone else to step up and run things, but I would gladly coordinate the student help and get this new person the bodies they needed. That never happened, although our school’s cheerleading group did take up the cause briefly.
Even for me however, Red Ribbon Week began a journey of self-reflection. I am not an alcoholic, but the stress of the week easily made me start to glimpse how pressure could turn a person into one. But the realities were even greater. Over the final years my co-adviser and I worked on Red Ribbon Week, we changed the focus of the event, the “Just Say No” part, and instead tried to choose slogans more along the lines of “I’ve got better things to do than drugs!”.
Truth was, I hadn’t said “no”, at least to the “alcohol” part of the “anti-drug/alcohol” message of the week. And neither had any number of my colleagues at the various schools they taught–especially when the month of October often saw the staff plan a Happy Hour at the local TGI Fridays. (I don’t know about you, but I don’t go to a Happy Hour to drink a Diet Coke.) On a meta-level, as I type this, I am surrounded by our wine collection. My wedding was themed around our mutual love for California wineries. Heck, last night I enjoyed a nice glass of Tempranillo with my dinner. I believe that one bottle of Newcastle on Pizza Night while sitting with my little girl can positively punctuate even the toughest of weeks.
I use, but I don’t substance abuse. Many others do the same. Yet, here I was, during Red Ribbon Week, telling my young charges to absolutely say “No!” I felt like a hypocrite. I felt dirty. The question I wanted to pose was “What do you do when you say Yes?”
One of my little girl’s Ninas, a former student of mine, told me a story years ago about one of her classmates, a former student at my school whom she still saw around her neighborhood. This boy was a favorite of our principal at the time, a GATE student, and a child of the school’s PTA president at that time. The way the story goes, was that he got drunk at the prom, and wound up crashing the family car. Luckily, he got through that, but it occurred to me (and still does) that his status as some sort of “golden child” didn’t make him immune to the behavior that might be commonly associated with “bad kids”. He had said “yes”, but then had no place to go once there. A teaching campaign that only concerns itself with saying “no”, leaves no way for adults to impart upon kids that the learning process involves falling as a way of learning how to pick one’s self up. This is not to condone the mistake, but what do you do once the mistake has been made?
For all the kids who will somehow feel like they’re “fighting” drugs this week by participating in the day’s themed behavior, statistically any number of them will also say “yes” at some point. Where’s the component of supposed teaching that dressing up in red will provide to them once they say “yes”?
I feel like a hypocrite telling my kids to “say no” when I myself have said “yes”. I feel like a hypocrite because I call myself a teacher over this coming week when I am not really teaching anything. I feel like a hypocrite because life is not an “all or nothing” choice. When you mix black and white, you clearly get gray.
And gray matter is what every teacher wants their students to use.