How should we be teaching students about drugs?

By Russell Hausfeld|June 5, 2018

Rhana Hashemi is the site coordinator for drug and alcohol programs and services for Oakland Unified School District. But, to her students, she is just “the drug lady.”

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I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most of our readers probably experienced some form of abstinence-only drug education in school. These programs have proven ineffective time and time again, and have even been found to lead to increased drug use among students.

This has left a lot of parents and educators with their hands up the air. But, it has also forged a path for the next generation of drug educators. Rhana Hashemi is the site coordinator for drug and alcohol programs and services for Oakland Unified School District. But, to her students, she is just “the drug lady.” She is one of the educators stepping up with a nuanced approach, breaking the “Just Say No” mold.


Psymposia: You provide kids with a different shade of drug education. Before we get too deep into your approach, what did your personal drug education look like?

Rhana Hashemi: It was for the most part trial and error. At the age of 18 I had a liver inflammation and I had damaged a lot of relationships. It was mainly due to my alcohol use. And, it was partially due to the fact that my identity was a party girl — the drug user who had no limits. So, thinking back, I was trying to find something that I was known for. Something that was me. I wasn’t the academic student, and I was too lazy to be the athletic student. It was a very destructive way of trying to find something that I was good at. There just came a point where my body couldn’t move forward anymore.

In college, I saw people all around me who were using alcohol like I was in high school. And, I was like, “Wait, this wasn’t just me drinking like a total idiot, this was everyone around me.” I had friends who had joined greek life and I would watch them be initiated into drinking and drug-use culture in a way that was very misguided.

When I transferred to UC Berkeley, I saw people using drugs in the same ways there, too. This dispelled the myth for me that drug users were doomed to be unsuccessful. Because now you have these elite students at UC Berkeley drinking, smoking, and all this other stuff too.

How had this myth affected your own outlook on drug users before this point?

The friends that I grew up with partying either overdosed, or I don’t know where they are, or they got sober. And, I blamed myself and us for the choices we made. For a lot of the outcomes. Because we were told, if you use drugs you’re going to fail, you’re not going to get a job, all those stories we heard. And now I’m seeing contradictions show up as I’m moving forward in life. Seeing that drug use is everywhere and people are just uneducated.

A teacher asked me my first year of college what my vision was. And, I just thought of something that had personally affected me, and it was the absence of education.

What do you think of abstinence-only drug education programs like D.A.R.E.? Do you feel like they’re going by the wayside, or that they are still pretty prevalent?

D.A.R.E. is no longer getting state funding. There are studies in the early 2000’s that D.A.R.E. actually increased drug use. D.A.R.E. and all these programs that take an abstinence-only approach result in a cognitive dissonance where students feel like they cannot trust adults. Because, what they see in reality and what they see in school contradict one another.

Who is still invested in abstinence-only drug education?

Parents. School administrators. People higher up in the district.

And are these people, like, secret agents in the War on Drugs? Or is it just easier to teach abstinence-only education?

It’s easy. You’re sending this message that drugs are bad. You’re satisfying a very large audience who wants to hear that drugs are bad.

You may be delaying a lot of people’s use. But you’re also disconnecting all the kids that are using. Or, who have been affected by use. The ones who suffer the most are the ones who don’t get included in that conversation.

And, I do think people have good intentions. People aren’t necessarily preaching “Just Say No” because they’re evil or malicious. People have seen first-hand harms that come with problematic drug use. Now, where I differ is that I don’t think problematic drug use is inherent in all drug use.

There is plenty wrong with the way that we educate children about drugs. Is there any good news?

From what I’ve seen, the adults and the teachers have given up. They don’t really know what to do. So, they are open to more creative approaches.

Creative approaches such as your own. Can you talk about what your drug education program looks like?

I am a life coach for students who use substances. So, most of them are referral through the school system as an alternative to being suspended or expelled. They work with me to help them identify what their need for using the drug was, and I teach them alternative ways. Like, “In addition to drugs, here are some other tools you can use to socialize, to communicate, to relax.”

I take the perspective that drug use really helps us understand what we’re missing or needing in life. And, that it’s not always necessary to eliminate the drugs, but to have a greater awareness of what you’re looking for in this experience. Then, have a space to reflect if that is not what you’re achieving anymore — whether it’s a tolerance issue or circumstances change.

It’s interesting that you mention that it’s not necessarily about cutting out substances completely, but to have check-ins with yourself.

The thing that’s most powerful about working with these students is they need to talk about it. And just talking about their drug use is so healing for them. It allows them to think critically about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. It is so taboo and most young people don’t feel like they can talk to an adult who is not going to judge them or, more than anything, try to change them.

So, I tell them that I am not here to tell them not to use drugs, that I’m here to learn why they like using drugs and see what they know about the drug already. It’s really creating discussion circles for drug users within schools.

Your education is focused heavily on the idea of “harm reduction,” as opposed to “abstinence.” What does “harm reduction” mean to you?

Harm reduction is about love. It’s about acceptance of a person. As long as they’re not hurting other people. Harm reduction is really about where a person is at in their life. And, “I love them, I don’t need to change them.” It’s trying to offer support and resources and tools so people can feel that they are cared about no matter what they’re doing. They still belong and they’re still part of our community. Even if they’re making choices to use drugs, or have sex, or do anything that is high risk.

Abstinence is fear-based. Like, “Oh, we cannot have healthy relationships with substances so let’s not acknowledge any of benefits that people do have. Let’s set a hard line.” That just doesn’t prepare people for the realities of making a drug-related decision.

It’s confusing for high school students, I think. Because, you can have some really profound experiences with drugs. And to have to hide those experiences from adults is very strange.

Yes, and it’s also a peer to peer problem. Because there is so much stigma attached to drug use that they feel shamed and judged by their peers. So, they isolate themselves to only people who are using drugs and none of them are really talking or reflecting or using with awareness. Because they were never taught how to use drugs. They educate each other, but they are not given formal ways to do so. It’s more just, “Ok, if we’re talking about drugs, we’re talking about how we’re going to get high. Not about why we’re getting high.”

Do you feel like, as more scientific research comes out about drugs, that it will be easier to teach students?

I don’t know if it’s research that is going to do it. I think that it’s really just people coming together and having conversations, and documenting those conversations. For me, drug education needs to be created by drug users. And, in the most ideal case, delivered by students.

When it comes to kids, they relate to stories. They relate to personal experiences. I could go in there and teach kids about anandamide and neuroreceptors, and some kids might pick up on that. But, not most of them. It’s really just about how you are making them feel. They’re so afraid that I’m just another adult, trying to take away something that makes them feel good.

What is the most important thing for adults and educators to think about when talking about drugs with children and teenagers?

I think the most important aspect of any healing and keeping youth safe from problematic drug use is to make people feel like they belong to something. Making sure that they feel like they have value. The thing we can do as adults is tell them they are part of something really important. Like, “Hey, we don’t know how to solve this problem, but we feel like you can contribute a lot. Can you be a resource for us?”

What do you find most personally rewarding about your approach to drug education?

You’re making an underground or taboo subject formal in an educational setting. And all of a sudden, all of the students who are not traditional have the most to say. And that is where the work is most important to me. Being able to engage non-traditional students in educational topics. I tell them all the time, “We would not be able to address teen-aged substance abuse if it weren’t for you guys.”

It’s a way of bringing value and purpose to students who are not neurotypical — which is what my own experience was in high school.

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Russell Hausfeld


Russell Hausfeld is an investigative journalist and illustrator living in Cincinnati, Ohio. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Religious Studies from the University of Cincinnati. His work with Psymposia has been cited in Vice, The Nation, Frontiers in Psychology, New York Magazine’s “Cover Story: Power Trip” podcast, the Daily Beast, the Outlaw Report, Harm Reduction Journal, and more.