They've tried public service announcements. They've tried board games. They've even tried emojis. Now, the nation's substance abuse counselors have a new weapon in their fight to keep teens from smoking weed: "marijuana goggles."
New this year, the Fatal Vision® Marijuana Simulation Experience includes a set of green-tinted goggles designed to simulate "the distorted processing of visual information, loss of motor coordination, and slowed decision-making and reaction time resulting from recreational marijuana use." A promotional video for the product, manufactured by Innocorp, Ltd, promises that users will "experience the impairing effects of THC for themselves," referring to the main drug in marijuana.
"We have had a lot of interest in our Marijuana Simulation Experience,"Innocorp's Chief Operating Officer Deb Kusmec said in an email. "Our customers include community coalitions, traffic safety advocacy groups, law enforcement, schools and universities."
A high school student group in Indiana is using them, as is a police department in California. The goggles are designed to be used with a suite of other products that test a wearer's ability to do things like solve a maze, react to a thrown ball or red light, and navigate a grid on the floor. They work by filtering out red light, which makes it difficult to, say, recognize the flash of a red brake light or draw a line through the red outlines of a maze. The idea is to demonstrate for teens what it's like to be high, and how that can impair your ability to do common tasks.
The goggles are, essentially, similar to ski goggles with the lenses tinted green. "The marijuana goggles use a specially designed lens that causes a slight disorientation in addition to the green tint," Innocorp's Kusmec said. "All of our activity materials along with the mazes and obstacle course mats are an integral part of the overall program."
Some substance abuse educators have praised the the goggles and the interactive experiences that accompany them. “Anytime you can do an activity — something that’s interactive — with them, or something that provides education, that’s great," said Tim Retherford, executive director of Neighborhoods Against Substance Abuse in Indiana, in an interview with WISH TV. "These actually simulate the loss of some of your cognitive functions," he added.
But experts I talked to say it's unclear how tinted goggles can simulate complicated mental phenomena like short-term memory loss and concentration deficiencies. "So the goggles take away the ability to see red, and then the teens are asked to engage in activities that are highly dependent on the color red," said Joseph Palamar, an NYU professor who researches drug use among teens. "And this is supposed to translate into impairment from using marijuana? Misinformation about drug effects has been used as a scare tactic for decades, and this doesn’t seem to be that different."
Innocorp's Kusmec said that "we worked with drug recognition experts and educators two years prior to the release of the marijuana goggles to identify activities that would model aspects of marijuana impairment." She added: "By filtering out the color red, we eliminate a cue in an activity that relies on short term-memory."
The materials are expensive. The basic package of a set of goggles plus accompanying activities starts at $975. Additional goggles cost $200 each. A refill package of five laser pointers costs $280. "There is no evidence at all that they are of any value for preventing marijuana use," said Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford who studies drug dependence and addiction. "This just won't work, and I fear schools and scared parents are getting ripped off. The programs that work in helping kids grow up healthy are almost always broader in their focus than this."
Research has typically shown that the best way to prevent teen drug use is to focus more broadly on making smart decisions in all aspects of their lives. Focusing exclusively on drugs -- which was a cornerstone of anti-drug policies in the 1980s and 1990s -- can have the perverse effect of making kids do more drugs. Carson Wagner, a professor at the Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, has done research showing that some kids who see certain anti-drug ads become more curious about drugs and end up trying them to see what all the fuss is about.
Innocorp says that they have designed a research program to further their approach and are seeking funding for it.
"The problem with scare tactics, even technologically sophisticated ones, is that marijuana use is too widespread a behavior to fool kids for long into believing that it's invariably a terrifying experience," said Stanford's Keith Humphreys.
Indeed, the Internet is already having plenty of fun at Innocorp's expense. In a popular Reddit thread on the goggles, users ask whether marijuana goggles are a gateway to heroin goggles, wonder whether being colorblind causes a permanent state of mental intoxication, and theorize whether putting the goggles on while high on actual marijuana would enhance the drug's effects or cancel them out. On photo-sharing site Imgur, a user uploaded an image of a red square and worried that his dealer was selling him fake weed because he could still see the color.
Innocorp's Kusmec stresses that they're not focused on marijuana use per se, but rather its potentially dangerous consequences. "Our focus is not the use of marijuana, but the use of marijuana and driving. We believe that the potential for serious and tragic consequences resulting from impaired driving is significant."
NYU's Joseph Palamar agrees that "driving under the influence of marijuana or other psychoactive drugs can be very dangerous." But, he added, "it’s important to at least be truthful with our public health messages. This is a classic example of a missed opportunity to provide real education about drug effects."