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Erowid Families and Psychoactives Interview Series
Dialog with Angela
Interview by Erowid
Angela is a mother, gardener, business owner, teacher and writer. Erowid contacted her to learn more about the drug education classes that she has taught in her sons' schools.

Erowid: So it looks like you have a lot of materials in front of you, with neatly written notes. What grades did you teach?

Angela: I started with middle schoolers, about the fifth grade, and moved up to high school level. I was in private school situations where I taught grades 9 through 12.

Erowid: What year did this start?

Angela: I started about 12 years ago [1990], it would have been when my son who is 22 right now was in the fifth grade. That was a long time ago. It was before "Just Say KNOW" was a popular phrase in education.

Erowid: How did that start, is it something that you felt his school needed?

Angela: It definitely came from me, nobody asked me to do it. I was observing the children in the DARE programs, and their reactions to the DARE programs, my reaction to the DARE program, the facilitators who would go in to the different schools to present the information -- usually policemen -- and the teachers' reactions and responses. I thought it was time to present more honest information.

Erowid: Your son was going through the DARE program?

Angela: Every once in a while one of my kids would be involved in a school program that we [parents] didn't know about. After a couple of sessions like this, the alternative education program that we helped develop in town decided that it would keep the DARE program out of its classrooms. I was really grateful, after hearing what the educators were telling the children, and seeing the bribe material that they would give them -- frisbees and hats and ribbons -- to basically commit to not being involved with drugs, turning parents in, turning peers in. It was really distasteful to me. I felt that if kids were to make healthy choices they had to have healthy honest information. I didn't really ask to present the information at the beginning. I presented it as ethnobotany, and from there the drug education arose. I would take a show-and-tell of ethnobotanicals into the schools, set up, and the kids would ask about the tobacco plants, the Catha edulis, ask about the different specimens that I had. I would weave stories around the plants, and the kids were fascinated. So it grew from there, about 12 years ago.

Erowid: I'm trying to understand the very beginning… your son and his friends would come home and tell you about the DARE classes?

Angela: Yes, and the teachers did too. I was very involved with my kids' schools all through the years. At the beginning, they would get these DARE guys in there without the teachers' permission and without parents' permission. That has all changed now, I'm pretty sure. The kids would tell me what was going on and I would think, "Whoa, this isn't OK at all."

Erowid: So, after your son was in the fifth grade, they decided that the classes that were emerging out of what you were doing at that school were more useful, and they kicked the DARE program out?

Angela: No, not necessarily. The DARE program was still in the regular middle school, and I'm sure in the high schools as well. But we developed an alternative program within the public school system, with an alternative classroom for each grade, and we were able to exercise our rights in no longer allowing DARE into the classrooms. I found the easiest way to integrate was starting with the plants and the show and tell. The kids were real enthusiastic. As I moved on to high school I needed to research and develop more of a curriculum. So I now have what I feel is a really good syllabus for a nice drug education program.

Erowid: Did you move on to high school because your son was moving on to high school?

Angela: Pretty much. I had three sons who were going through the elementary, middle school and high school. So I just followed them along. And I think I gained a lot of respect from students. I have students who still call and ask me questions. That was always part of my commitment to the teachings, was that if they asked questions I couldn't answer, I would research the information and get back to each one of them. So a lot of kids still call me.

Erowid: Were you doing this by yourself? Were there other parents, or were there teachers helping you?

Angela: When I started I was primarily solo. I went over to a private school that asked me to do this. I integrated it into something I call life skills, a program I developed many years ago. [life skills as referred to here is not the same thing as Life Skills Education -- Ed.] In high school in the state of California, it's mandatory to teach emergency preparedness, drug education, and safe sex. So I integrated that into a whole program called life skills. It started with communication, and we spent a lot of time on drug ed. In that particular school I was asked to develop a curriculum that included the mandatory information, and I was left alone. It was really interesting. I was given so much leeway in that school, that they didn't question what I was telling the kids. I could have said anything.

Erowid: There was no oversight?

Angela: No, not at all. We did do some parents' nights, which was really interesting, in two private schools that I was involved with. I introduced myself then, and gave them an outline, a syllabus of what I was going to be doing with the kids. In fact later, in this realm, I wrote up a parents' letter that would be sent home so that the parents knew I would be there, and they could choose if they didn't want their children to be involved, and to introduce myself, which I felt was most appropriate. In that school, I was by myself except for the parent nights, and then in another private high school, the administrator, who was politically active in this realm, sat with me. She was really helpful. It was wonderful. Then I have an assistant who has been working with me in my business. She has been coming along for several years into the classrooms. She is younger, so we have different ages presenting this information. Some of the students bonded really well with her, I think because she was younger, which I think is really nice. But at the beginning I was given total freedom to present anything I wanted, and I took it very seriously, as a great responsibility, to be sharing what I knew and what I was researching and learning, as neutrally as possible. It was really fun. At one school we held round-table discussions, and kept them going each week. At some point here I'd like to go over the syllabus and explain different things.

Erowid: You had a round-table discussion, and that went on every week? That's really a commitment…

Angela: Yeah, yeah it was.

Erowid: And the private school was also where your children were, or was that separate and just a part of your community?

Angela: It was where one of my kids was at one of the private schools, and another one of my sons was at another private school, and one was still in middle school at that time. One said he wouldn't come to any of the classes, he was embarrassed at first. But when he started seeing the response, he just joined right in, it was so beautiful, I was so proud of him. He sat right next to me, and he was proud of the fact that I was presenting this information. The students were so grateful: they're hungry for information.

Erowid: Tell me about the syllabus.

Angela: I'm going to go down the list with it, to give you an idea of what I was doing. It was a 10-week program, with a few extra weeks where needed. I started with an introduction, my philosophy, and why I would teach this class, why I felt "Just Say No" didn't work. During that first class we would do a historical overview, a timeline of important drug introductions, ethnobotany of psychoactive plants, cultural context and my show-and-tell. Over the years this got larger and larger, I had quite an area that the kids could actually walk through, a whole realm of psychoactive and medicinal plants. Students could ask questions about them, and feel them, and take photographs if they wanted, and hear stories about them. That was how I broke the ice with the students I didn't know, because it was a very casual class.

The second class would be Psychoactive Drugs Defined, how drugs affect us, how they get to the brain. We would talk about central and peripheral nervous systems, neurotransmitters, prescription drugs. At that time, I remember first talking about the pleasure center in the brain, and how blown away students were to learn there was a center in their brain that actually thrived on pleasure. It was new to them to talk about the brain in that way and to understand that it was normal to want to have altered perceptions, altered states, to alter consciousness. We talked a lot about different cultures all over the world and how basically every culture on the planet had a way to alter their consciousness, and to visit dream space. It was a good eye-opener for the students. We would go on to stimulants, tobacco in particular, the classifications and effects. History, oh goodness… [flips through pages of syllabus]

Erowid: So this was a syllabus that emerged over a number of years? What were some of the resources that you were using?

Angela: I have quite a medicinal plant library. I buy almost every one that comes out. I have been collecting them for years. I go to a lot of conferences. I have attended a number of the Haight Ashbury medical conferences in San Francisco. They published a great book, "Uppers, Downers, All-Arounders." That was like the bible for pulling this stuff together. I have bought and given away so many copies, I've given them to the school libraries, to students, to my children, to my friends. That's been a great source of information. I went to the MDMA conference in 2001, I went to the Just Say KNOW conference in 1999, I go to the NORML conferences. So I'm out there, gleaning as much information as I can, and connecting with different educators. And I read. I teach, and I ask the students for feedback, that's a big part of it. I want them to tell me what was valuable to them, what they would have liked to have heard, in other words, what might have been missing. There's so much information; to me it was really important to cover many many different aspects of what's going on in the world, drug-wise. So we studied what's happening to the body quite a bit. It's really fascinating. And we moved on to the different classifications, we started with stimulants, did a lot on tobacco, then we moved on to depressants, and did a lot on alcohol.

I was called in once to one of the schools, there had been a whole string of suicides at one time. It was quite an honor to be talking about alcohol and suicide and depression. I guess they trusted me. The students certainly trusted me. There were two or three suicides in our county. One kid had overdosed on alcohol, and his brother had recently committed suicide… that was a big one at that time….

Then we moved on to other drugs, designer drugs, mushrooms, LSD, etc., the classifications of those drugs and the effects. A really big part was family and environment. Family dynamics, family health, family secrets. Emotional health and drugs. African American addiction, race issues, all this stuff that's going on in families, within communities. Some people don't feel like there ought to be family secrets, but some family secrets are survival secrets. I certainly didn't want students to tell me things they didn't feel comfortable sharing, but I wanted to have a safety zone that they could talk things if they needed to. There were a lot of heart-wrenching stories that came through at that time. Also I might add that we made a pact, a decision that what was shared within the circle within our group would never leave the group, so that we could have a zone of safety, because a lot of things came up.

Another class was on politics here and abroad, we covered the comparison with other nations, economics of the war on drugs, political prisoners, degradation of the bill of rights, legal consequences, race issues, mandatory minimum sentencing, drug testing, on and on and on.

We talked about safety and harm reduction. Harm reduction in some circles means permissiveness. If we talk about harm reduction, it's assumed by some people that I would be presenting the idea that it's OK to use drugs, because we can prevent harm in certain ways. I presented more in a neutral realm, where basically, if you are going to use drugs, you do want to know how to prevent harm to yourself and to your friends. We talked a lot about dangerous combinations; MAOIs, safe comeback from situations. Another class was use vs. abuse. We had a great discussion around that one. Medical applications, therapeutic use, set and setting, where and when, visionary plants as teachers and healers, drugs and spirituality, we talked about the Native American Church, research -- we spoke of MAPS -- different resources for information, different publications, different publishing companies that put this kind of information out, the government information. There's so much information that can be sent for, and some of them are actually good.

Erowid: Do you remember some of the titles of government information?

Angela: I would have to look that up. It isn't all negative stuff. There's some pretty neutral stuff.

Erowid: That's one of the things we're trying to do, we're trying to understand what some of the commonalities are between and the prohibitionist literature, and the literature of people who are not prohibitionist. It's important to focus on the common points, and build those bridges.

Angela: Absolutely.

Erowid: So this was a 12-week program?

Angela: It was 10 weeks, but it always went a little over. For instance, if we didn't finish the Stimulants section during that week, we would either carry it on the next week, or cover it at the end. Each time, at this particular school, I was given 2.5 or 3 hours, so we covered a lot of ground. I was so honored to have that time.

Erowid: So you ended the program with…

Angela: Some good news. I wanted to do something uplifting. Some of the political information was so scary and uncomfortable even to talk about, that I wanted to end on a more positive note. We ended with resources for help, who needs help, alternatives to drugs, treatment, Smart Drugs, mindfulness, and then something I've been working on called Pearls of Wisdom, which is a series of interviews with elders who have been involved for years. I know a lot of those people personally, and some I don't know but they've had these pearls of wisdom to share. And as I was saying before, the students are hungry, they want the stories, they want the wisdom, they want advice, and they want honest information. Then we did a closure, which always evolved in a different way. Some way to glue us all together at the end, and keep the circle going.

Erowid: That's a lot to cover.

Angela: Like I said, even though I presented this material really well, if I had taken it on as a full-time job, I would have done more justice to it. The information is infinite, and I pull it together pretty well, but it could go on and on. I also felt it was important to honor and speak about famous addicts, and their contributions -- art, poetry, music, their writings, the positive side of that, and the downside of their sometimes painful lives. We covered a lot...

Erowid: So you would share this syllabus at a parents' night before you started the class?

Angela: Not always. At the beginning, nobody asked to see anything, they just allowed me to do whatever I wanted, without any questions asked. Actually, I suggested doing this for the parents, so that they would know who I was, and what I was doing.

Erowid: What kind of feedback did you get from parents?

Angela: I think it was all positive. They were so grateful that I was willing to put myself on the line with these kids, and be honest with them. And that I was taking the time to research information that wasn't and still isn't so readily available for students. I got a lot of praise and respect for being willing to do this. I started getting paid at the end, but at the beginning, it was all voluntary stuff. I would just do it. I'm trying to think if there was any negative feedback, I don't think so, I don't believe so.

Erowid: What about with the students. It sounds like there may have been a couple of places where it might have been more challenging, or difficult for them. Were there any places where students felt uncomfortable and didn't want to participate?

Angela: There were no students who didn't want to participate. There were places that were rough, when we got to family stuff, and there were students who broke down and would cry, and of course I would cry with them. There were places where we didn't know that certain things would come up, but it flowed, because it was safe. I was honest and I wasn't judging them. I think that there was a lot of love that flowed in the groups.

Erowid: How many students were in the groups?

Angela: At one school, 15-20, then when I got over to the private school, we're talking about 30-40 kids. They were sitting all over the place.

Erowid: You started working on this sort of class in 1990. Access to information has changed a lot in the last 10 years, with the internet. Would you describe a little how things changed for you, as you started having different resources available to you? It sounds like this spans the before and after of the advent of the web. Before, there were just print publications.

Angela: For a long time, I didn't trust what was available on the internet. I was repulsed by what I was reading. It was very upsetting to me; I put it aside as a place I didn't want to go. For a couple of reasons: I saw a tremendous amount of inaccurate information, and I saw a lot of sensationalism about things that I felt needed to be treated in a more sacred manner. In the last few years I've seen it evolve to more maturity and respectfulness, and more accurate information. But I think it's very difficult to pick and choose, there's so much out there. So I didn't get most of my information from the internet. It was mostly from current research, interacting with other educators, information that had already been printed, my own personal experiences, and that of other parents. But yeah, I had a hard time with the stuff on the internet, at the beginning, and until really just a couple of years ago.

Erowid: Have other parents or educators in other communities come to you and wanted you to share with them the materials or the approach that you've developed? Or have you been basically working in your local community with local support?

Angela: Both. Other educators in a couple of other schools have asked me, and I have shared the syllabus, but I haven't had much time to connect with people outside my county, in terms of actually sitting down and going over my material and my experiences with teaching it. At one time I thought I would really try to work this up and go to a lot of different private schools and offer it either on a paid level or as a volunteer, but I just really haven't had the time to do it. People have asked me from outside the community to teach in other communities, but like I said, I just really haven't had the time. I've got my kids, I've got my business, my mom, I'm writing. This is just part of my life.

Erowid: Would you talk a little bit about how your own family has approached some of the plant allies? In the context of the classes that you were teaching you were hearing about other families and how they were dealing or not dealing with things -- in your own family, how was that? The communication…

Angela: Both myself and my children's father were really open with our kids. I certainly carried the philosophy that there ought to be a good healthy dose of dialog about substance use and abuse, and what's available, and what the dangers are, and what's going on in the world. So I have always offered a library of reliable reading material. At any time -- in the middle of the night -- when anybody would need to talk… I found that my kids didn't necessarily come to me as I thought they would in their earlier years. They're asking me more questions now. I have chosen to stay out of the really political realm [of drug policy reform] out of respect for my kids, so that I wouldn't be a target and involve them. I tried to set it up in their lives so that they would have what they needed available. I always offered myself as a resource to them but they didn't take me up on it until recently. If they were interested in doing a medicinal ceremony, I would provide them with the information and I would support them in whatever way they would want me to. A few times my boys have been involved in peyote meetings on the land where we live. And I have not been there in the circle. It's been all-male, and that's been fine with me. I could do my praying and my support from afar. . I haven't tripped with my sons. They haven't asked me to.

Erowid: That was with friends of yours, or friends of theirs?

Angela: It was with Native American healers. Where we live on this land, there's quite a history of people coming through over the years. It's been a place that is open to ceremony and healing. We've had a lot of conferences here, and had different lodges set up and taken down for different ceremonies. One of my boys, many years ago, had cancer. That brought Native American healers to making sweat lodges right here where we live…

I made this place a green sanctuary, the land itself is healing, like an initiation itself. People feel it as soon as they walk into the garden. My sons brought home a lot of troubled boys -- they would visit or stay here for a while. I was always there for them if they had questions, wanted a plant or to learn about the plants.

Erowid: Would you have done anything differently?

With my sons, I would have been a little less permissive. I grew up in a restrictive home myself. And at first, teaching the drug education class, I was a little frothier; now I'm coming from a more balanced, grounded place with the information that I'm sharing with students.

Erowid: Was there anything surprising about your experience teaching drug education over the years?

I saw how uncomfortable kids are with sneaking around, and with talking to their parents.

Erowid: If you had anything that you wanted to share with a parent who had a young teen?

Don't grill them, and trust them. Give them as much information as possible, meaning have books available, make yourself available in a neutral way. Be non-judgmental. It should be as easy to look up a drug in the home -- and its effects -- as it is to look up a word in the dictionary.