"The Best Me Is Drug Free"—the Red Ribbon Campaign's main slogan—is a hard sell in states where some drugs are legal, Peggy Sapp, founder of the 27-year-old organization told me this week.
On Tuesday, voters in Colorado and Washington state passed measures that make recreational use of marijuana legal—although how those measures will coexist with conflicting federal laws remains to be seen.
I spoke with Sapp this week to catch up on the antidrug organization's history. Before I asked, she quickly addressed one of my questions—one she is asked frequently: "Do you really think that Red Ribbon is going to solve the drug problem?"
Her answer is no. But Red Ribbon Week, created in 1985 in honor of murdered U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency Agent Enrique Camarena, is one vehicle for schools and families to use to combat drug use, she said. The fact that Generation X- and Y-ers recall the movement—which its parent group National Family Partnership says is the nation's oldest and largest drug-prevention campaign—is a part of the solution. Some 91,000 school participate in the campaign. (Camarena's killer died in prison earlier this year.)
"Getting people to change their behavior or to make better choices is not some simple thing. It takes repetition," she said.
But drugs that are legal are among those her organization has the greatest challenge in preventing students from using.
"The things that we see we're not having any impact on is alcohol—because it's a legal drug. There's a big message there," Sapp said. "The most-abused drugs are prescription drugs," which of course are legal to take, at least for the person for whom they are prescribed.
Typically, when schools observe the week of antidrug messages, activities mimic what the Carmel Clay district in Indiana did. On Monday, the district encouraged students to wear red to celebrate the week. Tuesday, students "socked it to drugs" by wearing crazy socks. On Wednesday, they wore mismatched clothing—because students don't match with drugs. On Thursday, they wore sweats and workout gear because "being drug-free is no sweat." And Friday, the students put a cap on drugs by wearing their favorite hat.
Although the fundamental objective of the Red Ribbon Campaign is the same as when the movement began—this year's Red Ribbon Week was in late October—Sapp said the group is trying out new options to expand its reach and connect with today's students.
For a second year, for example, students can decorate the front of their homes with the "The Best Me is Drug Free" slogan, share photos of the decorations with their family, and upload them to the Red Ribbon website. They can win an iPad for themselves and $1,000 for their school. Photos can be uploaded through Friday and voting begins Saturday and lasts through Nov. 24, extensions made because of Hurricane Sandy.
The decorations trigger conversations beyond school, Sapp said. One mother wrote to her, saying that her young children participated in the decorating contest. Then neighborhood children came over to inquire about the decorations.
"Then she talked to them. They talked to their parents," Sapp said. "That's the 'stickiness' [of the message]. It really does work if you just keep passing it on."
PHOTO: About 755 students and staff from South Middle School in Rapid City, S.D. form the Red Ribbon Campaign slogan in a field. By Kristi Palmer, South Dakota National Guard. Provided by Red Ribbon Campaign