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Published in Print: August 26, 2015, as With Marijuana Legal, Colo. Rebrands Drug-Free Message

After Legalization of Marijuana, Colo. Regroups on Drug-Free Message

Sales associate Matt Hart displays a bud of marijuana at a dispensary in Denver.
Sales associate Matt Hart displays a bud of marijuana at a dispensary in Denver.
—David Zalubowski/AP-File

Campaign seeks tactful approach

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A state that has legalized recreational marijuana is now renewing efforts to get teens to stay away from it.

Marijuana isn't evil, but teens aren't ready for it: That's the theme of a new effort by Colorado to educate youths about the newly legal drug.

Colorado launched a rebranding effort last week that seeks to keep people under 21 away from pot. The "What's Next" campaign aims to send the message that marijuana can keep youths from achieving their full potential.

The Centennial State is one of many that are grappling with adapting their drug education programs to shifting laws and public attitudes about marijuana.

Since 1996, 23 states, the District of Columbia, and Guam have voted to legalize marijuana for medical use. Voters in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington state, and the District of Columbia have also opted to legalize limited amounts of marijuana for recreational use.

Legalization advocates expect a growing number of states to consider similar proposals in the next few years.

Shifting Attitudes

Federal drug officials have said the push to legalize marijuana has had an effect on youths' attitudes about the drug, even in states where it remains illegal.

Between 1990 and 2014, the proportion of 12th graders who said they see "great risk" in regular marijuana use fell from 77.8 percent to 36.1 percent, according to Monitoring the Future, a nationally representative survey sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health.

Supporters of marijuana-legalization efforts contend that the drug should be regulated and prohibited for use by teenagers.

They compare drug education efforts in states where the drug is legal to existing efforts in all states to teach teens about the dangers of alcohol.

Around the country, drug-prevention programs take a variety of approaches to warn students of the dangers of using drugs, both legal and illegal. Many programs have shifted toward a broader emphasis on responsible decisionmaking and away from a list of taboo substances.

Colorado's new campaign shows kids being active and reminds them that their brains aren't fully developed until they're 25. The ads say that pot use can make it harder for them to pass a test, land a job, or pass the exam for a driver's license.

It's a second try for the state when it comes to keeping minors away from marijuana. The state health department was criticized last year for a youth pot campaign called "Don't Be a Lab Rat," which included erecting human-size rat cages outside schools and libraries.

The campaign angered marijuana activists, who said it recycled Drug War-era scare tactics. At least one school district declined to display the campaign's rat cages.

Some teens skewered the campaign by photographing themselves smoking pot inside the cages, then posting the images on social media.

The new effort seeks a more thoughtful tone. Colorado health officials talked with more than 800 minors through focus groups, school visits, and phone interviews to craft the campaign.

One ad shows a teen girl working out on a basketball court and the tag line, "Don't let marijuana get in the way of ambition." Another ad shows a boy rocking out on a drum set with the tag line, "Don't let marijuana get in the way of passion."

Less 'Preachy' Approach

In a news release touting the campaign, the health department said that its research showed that teens "want credible information to make their own health decisions and don't respond to 'preachy' messages or scare tactics."

Related Blog

Colorado already has a pot education campaign for the general public that includes pointers for parents who are unsure how to talk about the now-legal drug.

The "Good to Know" campaign encourages parents to stay positive but to initiate a conversation about the drug.

"Teach them that marijuana use is not something to build an identity around," that campaign suggests.

Colorado has also launched a Spanish-language education campaign. That one uses messages similar to the "Good to Know" campaign—health warnings and reminders not to use pot in public or before driving.

The education campaigns are funded by Colorado taxes on recreational marijuana.

Vol. 35, Issue 02, Page 9

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