Substance use prevention refers to interventions that seek to delay the onset of substance use, or to avoid substance use problems before they occur. Effective prevention strategies begin early in life and continue through adolescence and into adulthood; they reinforce consistent messages across the life span. Prevention is more than education though. It also includes a broad range of health promotion strategies such as building skills, engaging youth in the development of appropriate messages, and ensuring that environmental supports are in place such as employment, positive school culture and strong family supports. It also includes strengthening the health, social and economic factors that can reduce the risk of substance use. This includes access to health care, stable housing, education and employment.
Adolescence is an important developmental stage in life. Young people are learning to be independent and take on roles and patterns that will carry them into adulthood. This includes decisions about what substances they use and how they use them. While some trends in substance use among youth are of concern, the majority of youth try alcohol and other drugs without becoming frequent or problem users. Research has found that experimentation with drugs and alcohol is in many ways part of normal adolescent development and levels of use and experimentation decline, as youth get older and take on adult roles and responsibilities. It is unrealistic to think that all youth won’t try alcohol or other drugs like cannabis. But prevention strategies can encourage youth to delay their use until they’re older and help them learn safer, more sensible ways to use substances, if they are already using them.
Providing young people with good information is important. However, the research is clear that simply educating youth about avoiding substance use is not effective. Scare tactics or hard-line approaches like zero-tolerance have little or no effect. When kids are told that substances, including marijuana, are extremely dangerous and addictive, and then they learn through experimentation that this is false, the rest of the message is discredited. Honest drug education is one key to ensuring that individuals know how to make informed decisions. Effective programs start with the very young and extend through all stages of life. They use a range of health promotion strategies and target policy and legislative change.