The DARE Program Still Exists?! …Talking to our Kids about Addiction

I was at Pete’s party in the summer of my sophomore year in high school. He was real cool because he hailed from Canada which, to us at that time, was a very exotic place. The moment that DARE had warned me about occured not in a shady back-alley shortcut on my way home from school, but amongst friends at an innocuous backyard get together. Somebody passed the joint to me. I don’t remember who, but I think it was that drummer Chris. It’s always the drummer, isn’t it?

Instantly my mind jumped back to the DARE indoctrination that I had experienced four years prior. I pictured myself taking one hit and slipping down a hallucinogenic rabbit hole so deep that it would require the gentle persistence of an LSD doctor to coax me off the edge of the roof… It was time to unleash one of DARE’s brilliant and failproof eight ways to say no. But which would I choose? Maybe the “Broken Record,” where I would just repeat: “No! No! NO!” Or perhaps the super slick “Changing the Subject” script, where I would announce casually to the group: “Hey guys! Let’s go to the arcade instead!” …Then I shrugged and laughed off the ridiculousness of it all.

Those of us who grew up in the eighties and nineties have a certain nostalgia for the wildly popular DARE program. We remember well the days when police officers entered our classrooms to teach us the dangers of common street drugs, parroting Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” agenda as they handed out nifty DARE swag.

But the problem that we learned as we entered college, escaped the War On Drugs mentality, and embarked on the rest of our lives, was that the abstinence-only approach never actually works. DARE had painted all drugs –whether it be marijuana, alcohol, or heroin — with the same broad brush. In the DARE program, it seemed that they were all equally bad and to be avoided at all costs. The program also painted all drug users as the “losers” of society. Some of us went on to have real problems with addiction, quickly realizing that things aren’t so black and white. And as society changed its ethics, some of us would go on to find therapeutic uses for the drugs that had once been so taboo.

The History of DARE

The DARE program was developed in 1983 by LAPD chief Daryl Gates (shot-caller during the LA Riots) in an effort to curtail drug use among youth and improve relations between the police and the community. There had been an increase in school drug busts and the idea came about as a way to use preventative education rather than relying solely on punishment. Gates insisted that police officers, rather than doctors or teachers, be trained to teach the program in schools since cops were thought to be more credible and street wise, and would therefore be more respected by the students.

Within a few years, DARE was a regular part of LA school district curriculum, and by the mid-1990’s, the program would enjoy national popularity and a multi-million dollar annual revenue. Parents, teachers, and politicians on both sides lauded DARE as a fantastic program and looked to it as an easy solution to drug abuse among young people. In 1986, The National Institute of Justice published an independent review of DARE which showed that the program had short-term results, and DARE received funding from this. DARE also won a $140,000 grant from the Department of Justice to take the program to the national level, and enjoyed funding as a result of the “Drug Free Schools and Communities Act of 1986.” This act set aside 10% of State Grants to Governors for police-led drug education in schools, specifically mentioning DARE by name. From here, the funding just kept rolling in, with DARE’s estimated cost reaching between $200 million and $2 billion in 2003. This article from Priceonomics goes into further detail and provides additional research for those who are interested.

Major Criticisms

Despite the original 1986 NIJ study, over two decades of research would eventually accumulate to show that DARE had no positive measurable effects on drug use among youth. In fact, many of the studies showed instead a “boomerang effect.” For example, research done by the National Institute of Justice in 1998 concluded that “the officers were unsuccessful in preventing the increased awareness and curiosity from being translated into illegal use [and] by exposing young impressionable children to drugs, the program was, in fact, encouraging and nurturing drug use.”

By 2001, the Office of the Surgeon General had placed the DARE program in the category of “Ineffective Primary Prevention Programs,” and also found that it was counterproductive, with certain populations of DARE graduates going on to have higher than average rates of experimentation and usage.

In 2003, the Government Accountability Office got involved with concerns that the program was overspending taxpayers’ money and producing poor results. After selecting six long-term evaluations for review, the GAO confirmed what the other studies had been finding and the money for DARE began to dry up. By 2009, the DARE program was in debt and in trouble.

The problem, as Priceonomics puts it, was that:

“to a lot of people, it seemed like common sense that DARE would just work…This deep seated, folksy belief in DARE’s ability to combat a publicly reviled problem gave it a decades-long stranglehold on the American education system.”

And simply put, young people just weren’t buying the clear exaggerations about relatively harmless drugs like marijuana, which killed the overall credibility of the program.

Furthermore, there exists troubling evidence that DARE used strongarm intimidation tactics to prevent researchers from publishing their damning results. In a 1998 Rolling Stone expose, Steven Glass blows the whistle on DARE’s silencing of critics. According to Glass:

“[Academics and parents groups have accused] DARE supporters of wielding political pressure, slashing scientists’ tires, making threatening phone calls in the middle of the night, harassing critics’ children and even of jamming the television transmission of a news report to hush criticism.” Journalists and drug researchers even had a term for it. Anyone who had been silenced by the program was said to have been “DARE’d.”

Most notably, the Research Triangle Institute conducted a study in 1994 concluding that other drug prevention programs were shown to be more effective than DARE and that funding for DARE was essentially crowding them out. As a response, Glenn Levant, the Director of DARE at that time, launched a war against the study. Soon enough, congressmen and mayors were calling the Justice Department to insist that the study not be published, and that it would be acting against the public’s best interest and setting back the drug war. The Justice Department did not end up publishing the study (a study that they themselves funded). Levant later denied claims of intimidation.

A Program Revamped

Despite all this, and as the title to this article states, the DARE program is still around and kicking. As some of us parents already know, the curriculum has been reconstructed, this time using the expertise of social scientists rather than police officers. According to Scientific American, the new program works because it focuses on developing good decision-making skills in general, rather than anti-drug scare tactics.

In 2009, the “Keepin’ it REAL” program (cringe worthy name!), was developed in partnership with Penn State and adopted in middle schools across the country. By 2013, a version of the program was rolled out to fifth and sixth graders as well. This time around, rather than having police officers give long, clinical speeches identifying the various types of drugs and their effects, the children are engaged in interactive activities with each other where they have a chance to practice various decision-making scenarios. According to Frank Pegueros, president and CEO of DARE America, “If we teach good decision-making skills, it should transfer from one high-risk behavior to the next.”

The REAL acronym stands for: “Resist, Explain, Avoid, and Leave.” These tactics are taught to elementary school children, and then applied more specifically to drugs with the seventh-grade curriculum.

So far, studies have been optimistic about the effects of this approach. Reports from students who have completed the Keepin’ it REAL program have indicated that they are less likely to use harmful drugs than those students in a control group. They also demonstrated more sobriety strategies, and students who were already using drugs were more likely to reduce their substance rate than students in the control group. Let’s hope that DARE has finally turned a corner, is listening to the experts, and will continue to improve their program.

Suggestions from Addicts

With all the input from police officers, social scientists, and researchers over the years, VICE decided to speak with actual drug addicts who had been through DARE as youngsters to find out where the old program failed them and how they would make improvements. Their findings shed further light on DARE’s flaws.

When asked whether DARE answered her questions about drugs and alcohol, one interview respondent stated:

“No. Not at all. It’s led by authority, which kind of gives you a scare tactic. I think it’d be more effective to incorporate real, live recovering addicts, such as myself, to tell their stories, if you really want to teach the truth about that lifestyle.”

Perhaps a more effective program could indeed be taught in high schools by recovering addicts, rather than in elementary schools by cops.

Another respondent in the VICE interview stated that “[the program didn’t] make it real to me. I didn’t learn that it could be anyone at anytime…No one wakes up one morning and decides to be an addict. It is a long, dark road full of pain and heartache, compounded by a string of bad decisions which leads to more suffering.”

…This article got heavier than I intended, so I will leave you with this hilarious clip of Clint Eastwood reminding us all to “Just Say NO!”…to crack. Enjoy!

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