Dare To Tell Your Children the Truth

By Sandee Burbank, Director of Mothers Against Misuse and Abuse - MAMA

I consider a loving, trusting relationship with my children to be one of the most important aspects of my life. As the mother of young children, I knew that the way I treated drugs would have a profound effect on how they used drugs. I was challenged to find an unbiased approach to educate my family and myself.

I found what I was looking for at the University of Oregon, Drug Information Center (UODIC), directed by Mark Miller. Working with the academic staff of the UODIC and nationally ranked UO Health Education Dept., Mr. Miller developed the nationally acclaimed Drug Consumer Safety Education (DCSE) curriculum.

This health-based approach was recommended by local police officers that had taken the course. It recognized that our society's virtually exclusive focus on illegal drugs has obscured a terribly important fact: that negative side affects (drug interactions and allergic reactions) are far more likely to be experienced by people improperly using the many legal, readily available drugs than people using illegal drugs. The general lack of awareness about problems with legal drugs makes it hard for people to make good decisions about the use of:
- more than 100,000 available prescription drugs
- more than 350,000 over-the-counter medications
- alcohol, nicotine or caffeine
- and exposure to thousands of chemicals, compounds or impurities in commercial and industrial products found in insecticides, herbicides, food additives, cosmetics, household chemicals and industrial chemicals
- dozens of controlled substances out there

I learned how to use the Drug Consumer Safety Guidelines to evaluate a drug to reduce any risks. Drugs are wonderful tools, but like most tools, can be dangerous if not used safely. All drugs can be dangerous for some people. A person can have an allergic reaction the first time they use a drug or the hundredth time. The basic guidelines developed by the DCSE curriculum evaluate a drug for its risks before using it; teaching how to determine if one is having problems and when or where to seek help if needed.

As a result of what I had learned, I helped form Mothers Against Misuse and Abuse (MAMA) in 1982, which I have directed since that time. MAMA is a non-profit educational organization with a mission to educate others about drug consumer safety. MAMA recognized that drug education was important, but realized that without the social skills to find happiness in life, many in despair would resort to drug abuse. MAMA felt we must advocate for programs that taught adult literacy, job skills training, decision-making, parenting skills, anger management and the like.

Determined to provide recreational activities for our families and our community, we taught people how to plan their own fun, affordable events. MAMA also felt better communication would allow more cooperative efforts between service and community organizations, social agencies, law enforcement, schools, parents and youth. Now I had a way to teach my children how to make responsible decisions about drug use, but imagine my consternation when I was faced with teaching them about the law.

If you believe what you hear and see in the media, the War on (Some) Drugs is designed to help protect the health and welfare of our citizens. One could conclude that the health threat posed by the few illegal drugs must be much worse than legal drugs, but I had learned that nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, legal drugs cause far more deaths and health problems than illegal drugs. And the negative impact of prohibition itself, not the use of prohibited drugs, has been the origin of crime, violence and untold suffering for families across our nation.

I grew to believe that federal and state laws about drugs had less to do with protecting health, and more to do with power, control and money. How could I explain this to my children? In addition to my efforts through MAMA to educate about drug consumer safety, I knew I must personally do what I could to change the laws.

Speaking out against prohibition at the height of the "Just Say No" hysteria, I knew I could be targeted and more than anything I was apprehensive of having my children taken away. I worried about police breaking down my door. I knew of cases where over-zealous law enforcement had set people up by "finding" drugs planted by police in the first place. I taught my children about this possibility when they were very young.

As the children matured they became more involved in the issues. My daughter Jennifer, now 21, started touring with me in 1996. We've traveled around Oregon and other states, making public presentations and meeting with local groups, individuals and the media. Jennifer helps me staff MAMA's information tables and serves as technical and clerical support. She avoids the use of any drug, even caffeine, and volunteers many ways to help others learn about complexities of drug use. Recently voted to the MAMA Board of Directors, she is the youngest board member in MAMA's 20-year history.

Our son Jacob, 23, will have an occasional beer with his friends, and has educated them about the responsibilities and dangers of alcohol use. He and his sister hold strong feelings about the War on Drugs. One of his bumper stickers says, "I love my country, but I fear my government." He helps with musical events designed to register young people to vote and encourage thought about the effect of prohibition.

We chose to tell our children the truth. We told them our national drug policy is based on bad laws and we have worked very hard to change these laws. We worked to educate our children and others to reduce the harm of drug use. We tried to set a good example when we did decide to use a drug, treating it as a serious decision, avoiding over-intoxication or objectionable behavior. We spoke the truth and stood by our values. It was not without consequence, negatively impacting our income and alienating us from some people in our community. But even though people might not agree with us, they grew to respect our position. And our children respect us for taking that position.

Our family is in agreement that there is still much to do to improve our national drug policy. The government has been disastrously negligent in providing consumers with reliable information about the dangers of all drugs and education about how to reduce personal risk. Obviously money, rather than the best interests of the patient, dictates many arrangements between the drug industrial complex and government. One can't help but perceive a conflict of interest when the very government agencies charged with regulating drug companies are dependent on taxes from the sales of those products and are negotiating for 'deals' on bulk purchases of drugs for seniors.

Meanwhile, ordinary people are likewise afraid to speak out publicly against the War on Drugs. Many parents, especially those who depend on jobs in "drug free" workplaces, live in fear of speaking the truth to their colleagues, let alone their children. Advertisements, paid for by US taxpayers, even encourage parents not to be "too honest" with their children about the parents own past drug use.

We could make a change, though. We could start by:
· Judging all drugs by the same scientific standard;
· Educating people to evaluate a drug to reduce the risks;
· Providing accurate scientific information and teaching people to recognize if they are having problems and where to seek help;
· Teaching people the skills they need to find happiness in life;
· Using tax dollars collected from sales of drugs for prevention and treatment on request for those who have problems with any drug.

I would like to believe that logic will prevail, that we will analyze our national drug policy and make these kinds of voluntary changes to better protect the health and well-being of our citizens, rather than lining pockets of corporations and giving so much power to politicians. But experience tells me these changes will not happen quickly, even though we are starting to see other more enlightened countries leading the way.

Faced with the current situation, parents are best able to protect their families by educating themselves, using critical thinking skills for their own decision-making, and setting a role model their children are proud to emulate. My own children report that the process we DARED use to teach them about drugs has served them well. They are responsible and involved members of the community, both considerate and respectful. I am happy to report that the loving, trusting relationship between us is very strong.

Sandee Burbank works to bring common sense to public policy in a variety of ways. As Director and founder of Mothers Against Misuse and Abuse, she has worked for 20 years educating about drug use and advocating for drug policy reform. Sandee can be reached at mama@mamas.org. All donations to MAMA are tax deductible. Contact MAMA at 2255 State Road, Mosier, OR 97040, 541-298-1031

The Razor Wire is a publication of The November Coalition, a nonprofit organization that advocates drug law reform. Contact information: moreinfo@november.org
282 West Astor - Colville, Washington 99114 - (509) 684-1550