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Speaking Out About Drugs

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TOPIC: Illicit Drugs

CONCEPT: Middle school students undergo a drastic change in attitudes about illicit drug use. For example, the percentage of teens who say they would report a student, whom they personally saw using illegal drugs to school officials plummets from 84% to 49%.* Access to accurate information about the risks associated with illicit drug use for youth and opportunities to share opinions with peers are protective factors for teens.

OBJECTIVE: Students review facts about the effect of psychoactive drugs on the developing brain and explore and share opinions about preventing their use.

GRADE LEVEL: Middle School

Method: Individual and small group activity
Time Frame: 25 minutes plus "Post Test" and "Discussion"
Material: "Look Who's Speaking Out About Drugs" - one for each pair of students (see link below)

ACTIVITY: Print out "Look Who's Speaking Out About Drugs". Provide information about the effects of psychoactive drugs on the developing brain (see information below). Follow immediately with the "Post-Test" questions to determine the extent to which students understand the information provided. Confirm answers by re-reading the corresponding text on the next page.

POST-TEST: After the information portion of the activity, ask the class:

  • When does the brain complete its development?

  • How much does the average brain weigh at birth? When fully grown?

  • What does "psycho-active" mean?

  • Are there positive uses for psychoactive drugs? What?

  • What do psychoactive drugs do in the brain - how do they operate?

  • Why is the use of non-prescribed psychoactive drugs more dangerous for children and adolescents than for adults?

  • What, if any, piece of information about psychoactive drugs surprised you?

Using the handout, instruct each student to give their opinions on the five questions (allow 10 minutes.) Form triads and instruct members to share their opinions with each other (allow 15 minutes.) Follow with the "Discussion."

DISCUSSION: After the small group sharing activity, facilitate a class discussion using the following questions and list the students' ideas on the board.

What were some of the opinions you shared in your small groups:

  • What the government can do about stopping the use of illegal drugs?

  • What can communities do to prevent young people from using illicit drugs?

  • What can parents do to protect their children from using drugs?

  • What can young people do to protect themselves and their friends from drugs?

  • What did you say you were willing to do to?

  • Which question was the hardest to answer? Why?

  • Were you surprised by the opinions of your peers on any of the questions?

  • What do you think we can do as a school to stop drug use by students?

  • What is the first step?


The latest studies on the brain reveal that it does not finish developing until a person is around twenty years old. The brain of people under 21 years of age is very different from people over 21 years of age... children and adolescents are not just "little adults." Think of the brain as a computer. It comes into the world with the basic operating systems, central nervous system, circulatory system, respiratory system, reflexes, etc. However, it does not have all its software - the programs for vision, speech, emotions, memory, abstract thinking, problem solving and attention and concentration. The brain needs input from the five senses to build these capacities. The brain not only grows bigger - from one pound at birth to three pounds at adulthood - but it continues to "program" itself for 20 years, completing the development process started before birth. During this 20-year period, the brain is creating a complete human being, who is ready to function independently. The brain is on a schedule, with each stage of development allotted a specific period of time for completion. In other words, if anything prevents the brain from accomplishing a development task on its schedule, it has to skip that task. Therefore, any substance that interferes with how the brain operates during this 20-year period of development, such as a psychoactive (mind/mood-altering) drug, can change the course of a person's physical, mental, emotional and social development.

Some psychoactive drugs are prescribed to treat malfunctions in the brain such as seizures and degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. When prescribed, these drugs can be life saving. However, "self-prescription" of psychoactive drugs, such as use of alcohol, cocaine, amphetamine, methamphetamine, marijuana, hallucinogens, inhalants, nicotine, caffeine, opiates, sedatives, and steroids, can be harmful or deadly. Psychoactive drugs change how the brain cells communicate with each other by interfering with neurotransmitters - the messengers that go between brain cells translating the messages to ensure accurate and timely communication between cells. Psychoactive drugs act like computer viruses; they change, delete or scramble the code that our computer - the brain - uses to operate. They deactivate and activate the brain centers that control speech, hearing, vision, fine movements, gross movements, learning, anger, fear, pain, pleasure, hunger, etc.. For any brain, non-prescribed psychoactive drugs can change the way people think, feel and behave - they are altered. For a brain that is on a development schedule, turning off brain centers - even for a short while - can be devastating. Adult brains, which can still be harmed by use of psychoactive drugs, do not sustain the same level of damage because their brains have completed development. The use of non-prescription psychoactive drugs by children and adolescents can permanently alter their mental and social development - which is not evident until well after their use. Adults can usually recover depending on the amount of damage they sustained. However, missed developmental tasks in children and youth can be devastating and hidden until they need what didn't get developed. That is why so much effort is focused on preventing use of psychoactive drugs by children.

Cynthia Kuhn, Ph.D., Scott Swartzwelder, Ph.D., and Wilkie Wilson, Ph.D., Buzzed: The Straight Facts Abut the Most Used and Abused Drugs (from Alcohol to Ecstasy), Duke University Medical Center, 1998.

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