Vice Squad
Monday, December 01, 2003
Harm Reduction and Teens

Rules often try to draw bright lines, even when reality is rather murky.
A driver who is proceeding safely but who is stopped by police will be
arrested (in most US states) if he or she is found to have a blood
alcohol content of .08; if the Breathalyzer test reads .07, our motorist
will be allowed to proceed on his or her merry way.

Rules for kids are particularly sensitive about adopting bright lines,
because children have less ability than adults to make responsible
discriminations among various circumstances. Both "Just say no" and
"Don't take candy from a stranger" are rules that would admit some
exceptions, but to start explaining the exceptions to kids could completely
undermine the rules. Better to stick with the understandable and
enforceable precepts, unrefined though they may be.

In other words, for young kids, "Just Say No" is probably a good rule
in lots of arenas, including when dealing with offers to use alcohol,
nicotine, and other drugs. But as kids age, things get more complicated.
Most American high schoolers try an illicit drug, and a large majority
try alcohol. That is, on average, "Just Say No" is more honour'd in the
breach than the observance by older teenagers.* Wishing that it were
otherwise will not make it so.

What to do? One organization, "Safety First," provides a plan. It
starts by recommending abstinence, but for when that advice proves
uncompelling, it recommends, not surprisingly, safety. In the words
of its website, "Putting safety first requires that we provide teens with
credible information and resources. Whether at home or in schools,
there are ways to honestly and effectively educate youth about the
risks and consequences of drug use." Their webpage on "Things
You Can Do
" provides more details.

Vice Squad generally approves of harm reduction measures in vice
policy, and takes a rather jaundiced view of what might be termed
their opposite, Zero Tolerance policies. But the precise mix of tactics
that is best is very complicated, and surely varies with the vice under
consideration, the environment, and the audience. As noted above,
simple, easy-to-apply rules along the lines of "Just Say No" can be
useful for younger kids; however, as the audience grows more
sophisticated, and as "breach" becomes more common, the utility
of such hard and fast rules diminishes.

The first two paragraphs above are drawn from Chapter One of my
book, The Political Economy of Rule Evasion and Policy Reform.

*Pedantic note: I have succumbed to peer pressure and am misusing
Hamlet's phrase; in the play, the phrase "more honour'd in the breach
than the observance" means that the more honourable course of action
is to fail to observe the custom under discussion.

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