Last December, The Boston Globe profiled a youth outreach program that was taking a radical new approach to curbing illicit cannabis use among teenagers. Instead of telling teens to “just say no,” counselors were encouraging them to “smoke less.”
Funded by Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Community Health Improvement, the program recognizes a very basic fact of child psychology that “experts” in the field of drug abuse often seem to look over. “Scare tactics don’t work—we’ve figured out a way to do something that works,” Charlestown Coalition Director Sarah Coughlin told reporters. The coalition runs a program for high school students who have been caught possessing cannabis or attending school under its influence. They introduce troubled teens to personal stress reduction methods like meditation and exercise before suggesting that they cut back on their cannabis use.
There is a narrative currently being spun about a national increase in teens using cannabis. While some of the fears are supported by data, much of it revolves around the use of THC vape cartridges (mistakenly viewed by many teens as “safer” than flower) or is gathered from places where cannabis is illegal.
What many have missed is the counterintuitive correlation between legalizing cannabis and declines in teen use.
A study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, “Association of Marijuana Laws With Teen Marijuana Use,” looked at health surveys of US high school students taken between 1993 and 2017. According to the paper, while overall marijuana use among American teens has been rising, it’s a different story in places where recreational cannabis has been legalized. Researchers found that the likelihood of teen use declined by nearly 10 percent in those states.
The data was taken from the results of yearly Youth Risk Behavior Surveys taken by about 1.4 million US teenagers overall. The surveys were conducted by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It’s very possible that this can all be explained away by the simple phenomenon of so-called “reverse psychology.” The scientific term for this is “reactance.” According to “Understanding Psychological Reactance,” published in the journal Hogrefe, “reactance is an unpleasant motivational arousal that emerges when people experience a threat to or loss of their free behaviors.”
In other words: People don’t like being told what to do; kids dislike being told what do even more. When an authority makes a command, the perceived threat to freedom makes responding in opposition more alluring. We can see the phenomenon in action when a child refuses to eat a new food or follow instructions. We can even see it in ourselves when the boss tells us not to bring our phones to work.
Which is why the Charlestown program might be a better method for deterring problematic cannabis use among teenagers. Rather than telling them “no,” the counselors are providing the knowledge and tools that will allow these children to make the right decisions on their own.
Lawmakers would probably do well to consider this when it comes to adults, too.