In my day-to-day visits with schools all over the region, I have the pleasure of meeting extraordinary people, doing extraordinary work. Once in a while, I learn the seeds of that work may arise from a difficult place, time or experience. Such is the case with the beginnings of Red Ribbon Week.
Now the longest-standing and largest drug prevention program in the nation, “Red Ribbon Week pays special tribute to Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) Special Agent Enrique ‘Kiki’ Camarena, an 11-year veteran of the DEA assigned to the Guadalajara, Mexico office where he closely trailed the country’s most dangerous marijuana and cocaine traffickers. In 1985, he was kidnapped, brutally tortured and murdered by Mexican drug traffickers. His tragic death caused many Americans to deeply consider the dangers of drugs.”
It was through this tragic loss, I learned, that Red Ribbon Week was launched, becoming the enduring and robust program it is today. What began as a community in mourning, pledging to live a drug-free life in honor of Enrique Camarena’s life and commitment to fighting drug trafficking, became the foundation of a national movement. Sustained efforts to educate, prevent, reduce, and eliminate the demand for illegal drugs remain the focal point of Red Ribbon Week.
Every year during the last week in October, schools, communities, and neighborhoods across the country, including in our own region, take time to celebrate and participate in Red Ribbon events, promoting the education and importance of leading a drug-free, and healthy lifestyle. More than 80 million people will organize and stand together against substance abuse, wearing red ribbons to symbolize their drug-free commitment.
As parents, educators, community leaders, coaches and mentors, we must remain committed in our endeavor to truthfully inform our youth about the dangers of drug use. And in the face of changing laws concerning the legalization of marijuana, this effort counts more than ever; “More than half of new illicit drug users begin with marijuana”. We know that opening the door to marijuana use can potentially “prime the brain for a heightened response to other drugs”. We must be steadfast in encouraging and supporting our youth to abstain, choosing a drug-free lifestyle.
“In 2015, over 27 million people in the United States reported current use of illicit drugs or misuse of prescription drugs….” With the frightening upsurge in both opioid-linked deaths and heroin use, these Red Ribbon Week messages become increasingly important. Our youth must be made aware of the critical health issues, both physical and mental, as well as long-term, that can result from drug use. While there is no magic wand to ensure our youth won’t try drugs, parents have far greater impact than they might realize when talking to their children about drugs and drug use. It is important to begin these conversations early on, set expectations and ensure your children clearly understand what those are.
With increased knowledge through research we know that, while recovery can be a very long, difficult road, drug-addiction is treatable. Changes in our criminal justice system, health reform efforts, evidence-based treatments, informed and progressive systemic changes in schools, and support services, give us hope that, even though we are faced with this challenging brain disease, we have the tools necessary for treatment and recovery.
As a nation, we are witness to an epidemic of previously-unseen proportion; the numbers coming in from health agencies all over the country confirm, death from drug overdoses are reaching record-breaking numbers. It is imperative that we join in working together to fight against this modern-day plague. The more voices we add to the message of abstinence, the more youth we can reach, the more chance we have to make real headway in reducing this national crisis. Special Agent Enrique Camarena gave the ultimate sacrifice in his fight against drug-trafficking. Let’s do our part by continuing to advocate and encourage a healthy, drug-free lifestyle to all our youth.