Recovery Rising Excerpt: The Case of the Missing Joint

A long and checkered history of school-based alcohol and drug “abuse” prevention exists in the United States, beginning with the 19th century temperance education movement. The rise of youthful drug experimentation in the 1960s triggered a frantic and poorly thought out flurry of prevention activities in the schools. School administrators tried to scare kids out of experimenting with drugs using portrayals of drugs and their effects that were a throwback to the “Reefer Madness” days of the 1930s. When the information provided in those programs was not confirmed by their experience, young people came to disregard all warnings from such programs. A later phase of “just the facts” assumed young people would make the right decisions if they were given the objective information on drugs. This was followed by approaches that sought to clarify values or teach assertiveness skills. These ill-conceived approaches created a generation of well-informed, assertive drug experimenters who had clarified that their values were not those of their parents.

A formal field of “substance abuse prevention” had yet to emerge in the late ’60s and early ’70s so those of us in the treatment world were frequently invited into the schools. Schools were under enormous pressure to do something about drug use, and this pressure produced an assortment of one-shot programs that often did more harm than good. My first indication of this was a program at a junior high school in which I was supposed to follow a local narcotics officer as a speaker to a class of eighth graders. The officer had a large, glass-encased display loaded with the kind of pills that he wanted those listening not to take, and he passed around a sampling of drug paraphernalia and three marijuana joints so that those present could recognize them if they were ever offered any. The officer was young, engaging, and seemingly doing a good job when all the trouble began. I was personally nervous sitting close to all those pills I had once worshipped, but it was when only two of the three joints passed around made it back to the front of the room that I knew that drug abuse prevention was going to have a long and checkered history. (The next hour was spent questioning and threatening all the students. I left amid the chaos, but was later told that the missing joint was never found.)

Young ex-addicts were often asked to speak to students as a means of finding engaging and relevant programs. Many of us on that circuit looked like rock stars of that era (one of the women who co-presented with me always showed up wearing skin-tight leather that left young men in the audience totally transfixed). We spoke provocatively and with great passion. The students were riveted by the detailed recounting of the dramatic progression of addiction and our far briefer recovery tales. For our part, it was hard not to be seduced by the adoration of so many young students, and the principals and teachers loved our presentations for the animated responses they drew from the students. But I left such programs troubled that some dynamic was afoot that I could not identify.

The source of that discomfort became clear when a shy student approached me after a presentation and asked for my autograph. Stunned, I looked at his face and knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he wanted to be me. What I realized at that moment was that I was speaking to a generation of young people hungry to break out of the sterility of their lives and that I was a beacon of something that they desperately wanted. The professional ex-addicts in the schools were viewed by students more as ambassadors of the drug culture than emissaries of recovery. We were unintentionally drawing them to that culture and conveying the idea that if they got in trouble, recovery was simple and always open to them. The medium was the message and that message was one of charisma, honesty, energy, drama, and meaning through community service activism. Too many students wanted what we had, and we inadvertently drew them to the world from which we had escaped in their search for what seemed missing in their lives.

During this same period, another incident occurred that taught me an important lesson. I was speaking to a class of seventh graders. And, after I had begun speaking, the classroom door opened and in wandered a young man that had “deviant” written all over him—all black clothes and boots; long, unkempt hair, fake jailhouse tattoos on his knuckles, and lots of attitude. He sat in the back of the room and made interesting facial gestures and whispered commentary that I could not hear. When I asked for questions at the end of my presentation, his hand shot up and he said the following: “Of all the drugs, which one is the most dangerous?” I responded with some factual information about different dimensions of dangerousness, but suggested that volatile solvents were among the most physically destructive substances consumed to get high. As I finished my brief remarks, I made eye contact with him as his face broke into a gallows smile and he said, “Thanks.” In that second, I knew that he was not asking that question to protect his health and that he would choose particular drugs not in spite of their risks but because of them.

My forays into prevention in the late 1960s and early 1970s heightened my awareness of interventions done with the noblest of intentions that produced unintended and often unrecognized harm. The search for and exposure of such interventions would become a theme of my later work in the field. Their existence then and now add weight to the ultimate ethical admonition, “First, do no harm.”

Photo: Bill White speaking at Bloomington (IL) high school in early 1970s.