CGU professor aims to make real impact on drug abuse

William Crano, a Claremont Graduate University psychology professor dedicated to drug abuse prevention, is no stranger to a challenge.

After all, it’s a field built on slim odds.

Countless dollars are thrown at anti-drug education programs, yet only a few make a difference, Mr. Crano acknowledged. Follow-up studies have found that many well-intentioned campaigns, such as Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” crusade and the “This is Your Brain on Drugs” ads, have been largely ineffective.

“Say No to Drugs was evaluated and it was a complete failure. It didn’t work,” he said. “What the campaign didn’t tell you was how to say no.”

Mr. Crano believes too many people launch anti-drug campaigns without first consulting what drug education programs have proven effective, and which persuasive techniques have yielded fruit over the years.

“Sometimes we think we know more than we do,” Mr. Crano said. “People think they can create an anti-drug message and it will work based on its brilliance.”

Mr. Crano, the author of a book on persuasion called The Rules of Influence: Winning When You’re in the Minority, is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and the Association for Psychological Science.

He wishes he could be more optimistic about which methods will win kids away from drugs. As a social scientist, however, he won’t celebrate a campaign’s victory unless there are numbers to back it up.

The programs that do work, Mr. Crano said, reach kids by giving them specific communication tools to ward off peer pressure.

 “It’s about what do you do when your best friend says, ‘Let’s smoke this joint,’” he said.


Parental involvement is crucial

Research has also shown that parents are remarkably influential in the choices their children make, regardless of age.

“Parents know what to say and what to do,” Mr. Crano said. 

Unfortunately, some parents are reluctant to bring up drugs because they assume their children know more about the subject than they do. Being afraid of sounding stupid isn’t a valid reason for a parent to avoid such a crucial topic, Mr. Crano said. In some cases, however, it is a good idea for adults to brush up on today’s drug culture.

Many parents who smoked pot during their youth view marijuana as relatively harmless, taking a “They’ll grow out of it” attitude. They might be more concerned if they knew marijuana has increased 13 times in potency since the 1970s.

“Some drugs that had recreational use when you were a teenager ain’t so recreational anymore,” Mr. Crano said.

Other parents don’t talk to their kids about drugs because they want to give them space, but this kind of laissez-fair attitude can be costly.

When researchers ask kids about their behavior and attitudes when it comes to drugs, a number who initially reported, “I don’t use marijuana and I never will” will have become users by the third year, Mr. Crano related. One of the commonalities among those kids, he said, is a significant drop in parental monitoring.


Keeping it real

Mr. Crano may be cautious about declaring which methods of drug abuse education work, but he is emphatic about which do not.

One of the least effective drug deterrents is a scare campaign, which he said could spur a backlash. As an example, Mr. Crano cites a recent commercial that shows a young man “ basically turning into a zombie” after using Molly, a popular club drug that is a powdered form of MDMA or ecstasy.

“You’ll get a kid saying, “My best friend has been using it for the last three months, and he didn’t turn into a zombie,” Mr. Crano said. “Research in the lab suggests that if you get adolescents to form an expectation of ‘This drug will mess me up’ and it’s disconfirmed, they are much more likely to use drugs.”

Despite the difficulties of preventing young people from using drugs, Mr. Crano remains committed because the stakes are so high.

“The brain hasn’t fully developed until 21. Heavy-duty drugs affect development and not in a good way,” he said.


Going global

Mr. Crano has recently been asked by the US Department of State to help craft a universal drug abuse prevention curriculum for 26 countries in Asia and the Pacific.

His efforts, in which he is joining nine other leading drug prevention researchers, will focus on member nations of The Colombo Plan for Cooperative Economic and Social Development in Asia and the Pacific. Some of these face the highest rates of drug abuse in the world and have yet to institute any prevention programs.

Mr. Crano recently traveled to Kazakhstan in this capacity, where he met with drug prevention specialists from throughout Central Asia. Countries like Afghanistan are facing enormous problems with heroin and opium abuse, to which children are especially vulnerable, Mr. Crano shared.

“The women in some areas of the country make rugs and when the kids get restless, they feed them opium or heroin to quiet them down,” he said.

In other cases, parents will give their child opium or heroin if they’re hungry and there is no food available, Mr. Crano marveled.

“It’s astonishing but it’s sort of customary—it’s been done there for a long time,” he said. “We’ve got to change the whole culture. It seems almost beyond hope, but I’m sure that it’s probably soluble with the right ideas.”

Mr. Crano first began consulting with the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime a couple of years ago, helping craft standards for drug prevention, marshalling what works and what doesn’t.

“The charge grew to let’s see if we can propagate those standards throughout these nations,” Mr. Crano said.

The countries Mr. Crano looks to help are myriad, from Australia to Myanmar and from Pakistan to Papua New Guinea. It will involve a long process of acclimating to the specific drug problems and culture of each nation. 

But Mr. Crano has always believed that small victories are still victories nonetheless.

“You’ve got to take them where you can,” he said. “It’s not like everyone on earth is using the stuff. It’s still a minority.”

—Sarah Torribio


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