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When pot is legal, what happens to "Just Say No"?

Fifth graders at U.S. Army Garrison Kaiserslautern in Germany at an assembly for the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, or DARE.
Fifth graders at U.S. Army Garrison Kaiserslautern in Germany at an assembly for the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, or DARE.
U.S. Army Garrison Rheinland-Pfalz/Flickr/Creative Commons

For decades in films, PSAs and schools, the message was pretty clear: Pot. Is. Bad.

But in the past several years, the political message has slowly shifted from, "Maybe there are some medicinal benefits," to outright legalization and regulation of recreational marijuana in states like Washington and Colorado.

It leaves drug educators in programs like DARE in an awkward position: how do you teach kids about pot when, just a few years ago, you were saying it was dangerous and illegal?

Deputy Chad Williams runs the anti-drug education program for the Mesa County Sheriff's office in Colorado, and he tells A Martinez that demonizing marijuana was never effective.

"Many times what we found is that the kids left those types of presentations with more questions than they had answers," he says. "I think it had a lot to do that it wasn't information-based but was more rhetoric-based. Teens just don't respond well to that."

The science of marijuana and its effects has also rapidly evolved as more research is published. 

"[Teens] really want to know what is it doing to them in those adolescent years," says Williams, "We're moving into the, 'How does it affect development, especially in the teen years?' When you can bring that to the table and show them the differences, I think it makes an impact."

Meanwhile, Williams says the education also extends to parents who grew up in that time of "Just Say No," and who argue that officers like him should still promote that message.

"That is one of the hurdles we have to go over. A lot of times, we'll have to do it with the parents at the same time we're working with the teens."

What Officer Williams now teaches instead abstaining from marijuana, but addressing the root causes of why children would want to use it in the first place -- a message borrowed from programs to warn against underage drinking.

"Whether it be thrill seeking, trying to fit in, if it's a socialization thing: there many causes for it," he says.

To that end, Williams created his own program, Neural Activity, as an alternative program that uses the outdoors to create teen mentors who can find fun in activities other than drugs or alcohol.

But this is a message that may remain muddy for a while: even though marijuana is legal where he is, children across the state border may still be mired in older messages against drug use because it's still illegal where they live.