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The Benefits of Harm Reduction

The years between the ages of 12 and 25 are often considered the “risk-taking years.” It is during this time when young people are transitioning through adolescence and into adulthood that many decide to experiment with substances. Evidence shows that drinking before the age of 25, and especially teenage drinking, can have more severe adverse effects due to the brain not yet being fully developed. Teens also are more likely to engage in other risky behaviors while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The recent out-of-control teen drinking party in Mill Valley is an example of this type of behavior. Teen house parties have been an issue for a long time.

Marin County enacted its first social-host ordinance in 2005 after the tragic death of two teens who attended a house party in Novato. Subsequently, every jurisdiction in Marin adopted a social host ordinance hoping to curb underage house parties. Unfortunately, social-host ordinances – laws that fine party hosts – don’t keep youth safe. Parents and peers are much better positioned to do that job.

Given that drinking and substance experimentation is normative during adolescence, we need to help teens navigate what can be a life-threatening activity. Just saying no to drugs and alcohol is not an effective strategy to keep our children safe. Youth Transforming Justice requires a Substance Safety Skills Harm Reduction Training for every teen referred to the program and thousands of families have benefited from this valuable training over the last 18 years.

The first time a child is sanctioned for underage substance use it is critical to involve them and their parents in a thoughtful and thoroughgoing manner. During YTJ’s Substance Safety Skills Training, parents spend six hours on a Saturday with their child in a “no shame, no blame” environment discussing the biology of teen risk-taking and Marin’s drug culture. This experience can be invaluable to helping families have open and effective conversations on how to support their child during this complicated time of development and easy substance accessibility.

According to Executive Director Don Carney, “I often say that surviving the teen years is a team sport. Young people need to protect each other’s wellbeing during these experimental years. Teens are often each other’s first responders, and they need to learn the skills to be effective in that role.”

A core component of the Substance Safety Skills Training is role playing life-altering scenarios. Teens develop strategies to take the car keys from someone who should not be driving. They learn how to respond if someone overdoses from alcohol or narcotics, how to minimize substance-driven sexual assault and how avoid becoming a sex offender. We also inform youth that calling 911 to get emergency medical help for a peer’s substance use gone wrong gives everyone at the location immunity from prosecution.

An additional component of the training is educating teens on how to respectfully exercise their search-and-seizure civil rights when police are investigating a possible violation of law. From the description in the media of the teen mayhem in Mill Valley on Nov. 5, this information could benefit the youth, police, and the community.

Most teens who experiment with substances will outgrow the behavior by their mid-20s. YTJ believes our job to help them avoid addiction and the more serious consequences of substance use. In his best-selling book, ”The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell points out, “What we should be doing instead of fighting experimentation is making sure that experimentation doesn’t have serious consequences.”

Substance Safety Skills Harm Reduction Trainings are held monthly. If you would like to know more about Youth Transforming Justice or our group family trainings, please contact Don Carney at or visit our website at .

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