Drug Reform Coordination Network Interview

Dr. Joel Brown on the Status of Drug Education in the United States

In a new study published this month in the Journal of Consulting and Psychology, researchers from the University of Kentucky have concluded that the world’s most popular anti-drug education program is largely ineffective. After following more than 1,000 graduates of DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) and similar programs over a ten-year period, the study found that “in no case did the DARE group have a more successful outcome than the comparison group.”

The Kentucky research is only the latest of several studies over the past ten years to reach the same conclusion. The Week Online spoke with Dr. Joel Brown, PhD, the executive director of the Center for Educational Research and Development, a nonprofit that researches and evaluates drug education programs.

WOL (Week On Line): Your study of the California DATE (Drug, Alcohol, and Tobacco Education) program in 1995 came to much the same conclusion as the new study from Kentucky. What does that tell you about the state of drug education in this country?

JB: Let me put it this way: if you had a senior citizens program that was found, repeatedly, to be ineffective or even hurting the senior citizens, there would be an uproar like you wouldn’t believe. But here we have many studies that show that the kids are being hurt by these programs, and there’s not a peep from anyone.

There is still not a single scientifically sound, long-term study that shows that DARE prevents kids from using drugs. But more importantly, this isn’t really about DARE. We now have at least nine recent examinations of drug education that show that the programs like DARE, Life Skills Training, Project Alert, etc., do not prevent kids from using drugs. And we have at least three recent examinations which show that they cause a multitude of negative effects — including, but not limited to, increased drug use, exiling those kids in need of help from the school system, and cognitive dissonance.

WOL: How do drug education programs cause cognitive dissonance?

JB: There is a severe emotional disturbance in kids that’s raised by the conflict between the just-say-no messages they receive in school versus a variety of people using a variety of substances with different effects outside of school. We are quite sure now that that emotional conflict results in a reduction in educator credibility. And not just in drug education — we think that it generalizes into the larger educational community. That is to say, if students don’t receive honest, accurate and complete information, they develop a basis for the belief that educators are lying to them.

WOL: Spokespeople for DARE complain that studies showing DARE’s ineffectiveness don’t take into account the changes made to the curriculum over the years.

JB: The curricula are always changing, but they’re building on an original curriculum. Ten versions of what doesn’t work in the first place will not suddenly make it effective. But there are deeper issues here. For instance, what is emerging right now is a basic federal policy conflict. The federal government mandates implementation of only effective drug education programs. But the only programs they will allow to be implemented have been found to be universally ineffective.

But ultimately, it’s a critical error of judgment to believe that this is about DARE. The political aspects may be about DARE, but this is really about the overall effectiveness of drug education, and whether, under a no-use model, it is possible to prevent kids from using drugs. And the preponderance of evidence at this time is telling us that it is not possible. It’s telling us that we need to change from focusing on young people’s disabilities to their capabilities.

WOL: That focus on disabilities is known as looking at kids’ “risk factors,” or the attitudes and beliefs they hold that puts them at risk for using drugs. What does it mean to focus on young people’s capabilities?

JB: It’s called a resilience approach. What we now know is that if you take kids in the worst possible situations and emphasize their capabilities, they have a much better of chance of developing positive life outcomes than if you emphasize those risk factors. That’s been shown in a number of studies.

For example, one key risk factor is a lack of connectedness between young people and adults. But we now know that adult-youth connectedness is one of the most powerful predictors of positive youth outcomes.

So what we need is what’s called is a resilience model, that emphasizes relationships over rules, and emphasizes emotional attachments rather than the emotional disconnection between young people and adults. When those emotional attachments are present, then the educator can bring in good and honest and accurate and complete information. Because we also know, although it’s never brought into drug education, that if young people are given sufficient information, they are virtually as good as adults at decision making.

WOL: So a zero-tolerance environment is not only ineffective, but makes it more difficult to develop resilience.

JB: Absolutely. I look at it like this: these zero tolerance programs and policies are the equivalent of mandatory minimum sentences for kids. When a first time drug offender is sentenced under mandatory minimums, the judge has no discretion. Similarly, when young people violate a zero-tolerance policy in school, the educational community has made it so that there’s no discretion about them getting kicked out of school. The only difference is that we’re talking here about children.

Rather than teaching kids a valuable lesson, almost all the evidence points to the conclusion that these zero tolerance policies teach young people unintended lessons about a punishing society, and the limited learning opportunities in a punitive educational system. That’s the key lesson. If you listen to the voices of kids in all of our research, that’s the key lesson they pick up from these policies.

WOL: Is there a place for the “get tough” approach?

JB: For some kids it does work. However, those are in fact the kids who are least likely to experiment with drugs or develop drug problems in the first place. But we know that by the end of high school, at least eighty percent of kids will have experimented with alcohol, tobacco or other drugs. So why would you make policies for all kids based on the problems of a few?

But the key is that just because we say that just-say-no programs don’t work, doesn’t mean that we’re just-say-yes researchers. There’s a long distance between just-say-no and a paradigm shift that focuses on children’s well being.

The key findings of the Kentucky study are online at http://www.apa.org/journals/ccp/ccp674590.php.

To learn more about DARE, read our report with the Voluntary Committee of Parents, at http://www.drcnet.org/DARE/