Chuck Rosenberg is the acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, a former prosecutor and investigator with more than two decades of experience. His administration is on the front lines of a rising opioid abuse epidemic that is projected to kill about 30,000 people in the United States this year.
But when it comes to teaching teenagers about the dangers of opioid abuse — about how the drugs are killing their peers — he said he realizes that he might not be the best source.
“I’ve seen people roll their eyes at me,” Rosenberg said. “Whenever someone tells you to do something you don’t want to do, there’s going to be cynicism and skepticism.”
DEA and Discovery Education rolled out a drug-education program Tuesday that aims to take a different approach to teaching teens about drugs. Rather than “Just say no” messaging and school assemblies, it will teach teenagers the dangers of addiction by showing them the science behind opioid use, in classrooms across the country.
“We’re focusing on the science behind addiction and what it can do to your brain and your behavior,” said Bill Goodwyn, president and chief executive of Discovery Education, a subsidiary of Discovery Communications. “It’s not a one-off assembly where you’ll have a speaker come in once a quarter or once a semester. It’s actually part of the core curriculum.”
The curriculum debuted with an event at Fairfax County’s McLean High School, where in 2013 a student died after using heroin for the first time. In a program billed as a “virtual field trip,” a panel that included a scientist, a recovering addict, an assistant principal and a DEA agent spoke with an audience of high school biology students. It was broadcast to 200,000 students nationwide, according to Discovery Education, which developed the program with the help of a $2 million grant from the DEA. The program features free videos and classroom materials and a student video contest that will allow students to educate their peers about drug abuse.
Rosenberg said that 4 out of 5 heroin users start their habits by abusing prescription painkillers, many of which were obtained legitimately from doctors and then swiped from medicine cabinets. Many people who start with prescription painkillers might believe they are safe because they originate with a doctor — even when taken at doses higher than prescribed — but some painkillers have proved deadly even in very small doses.
The program aims to disabuse teens of the notion that drugs found in their parents’ medicine cabinets are safe, to show them that just one pill can lead them down the road to addiction, and that addiction can touch any community — even a wealthy suburb such as McLean in Northern Virginia. All of this will be communicated in the context of science.
In the virtual field trip, special agent Melvin Patterson said the face of heroin addiction is shifting. Early in his career, when he would make undercover heroin purchases, he told the students that he would target “people who dressed like hippies” or people “in the inner city.” Now, heroin is everywhere.
“It’s housewives. We see professional athletes. We see professional doctors or lawyers,” Patterson said. “It’s actually scary the number of people using this drug.”
Peggy Compton, a Georgetown University professor whose research focuses on opioids and addiction, told the students that some drugs make changes to the brain that make users crave them more.
“What you’re doing is rewiring that part of the brain that makes decisions for you,” Compton said.
Brittney Sabock, 25, of Westminster, Md., told the students that she is recovering from heroin and alcohol addiction, noting that her drug use started “innocently” with alcohol and marijuana in high school. When she moved to heroin, “it took away every dream and aspiration I ever had.”
The “virtual field trip” got mixed reviews from student audience members, who asked screened questions of the panelists that were generated by students from across the country.
Sophia Shiells, a McLean freshman, said she felt the event was scripted and worried that it was too impersonal to reach some students. But she said that hearing from Sabock, who talked about how she was once a good student, was deeply moving because she was relatable. “It’s much more personal than getting it on a PowerPoint presentation and taking notes and taking a quiz about it,” she said.
Alexa Jordan, a 14-year-old freshman and biology student, said she was moved by the testimony of a recovering addict, a woman she said looked like she could be a young teacher at the school. But she felt that the science portion moved too quickly.
“I feel like the scientist talking about the brain and the frontal cortex — I think that’s what it’s called — that part got confusing,” she said.
McLean Principal Ellen Reilly said it is still too difficult for her to speak about the student she lost to a heroin overdose, a death that sent shock waves through the community and underscored the drug’s broad reach. She said that the opioid epidemic terrifies her.
She said she believes it’s important that students know that just one pill “can lead to so much more.”