Just Say No: DARE and Programs Like it Don’t Work – So Why Are They Still Around?

By Chip Rowe, Associate Editor, Playboy Magazine, October, 1998 pp.44-45

The job of keeping kids ignorant is big business. Consider the popularity of “just say no” programs that claim to prevent students from taking drugs. Numerous studies have shown they don’t work. That hasn’t stopped the government from wasting billions of dollars to fund them.

The federal government allocates about $2 billion annually to youth drug- and violence-prevention programs (the total cost, including state, local and private funding, has been estimated at $8 billion). This past July, the government launched a taxpayer funded, $1 billion ‘just say no” advertising campaign. President Clinton announced the campaign at a United Nations special session that pushed the theme “A Drug-Free World: We Can Do It.” Actually, we can’t. The war against drugs has failed miserably, in large part because it is punitive, racist and overly broad. The imbalance is as obvious as it is tragic. Only a third of the $17 billion Clinton pledged for the war on drugs in his UN speech will be used to help addicts. The rest will be parceled out to law enforcement.

Prohibition has become a mantra among those in power, to the exclusion of all other strategies. Yet studies have shown that abstinence programs aimed at youth, such as Drug Abuse Resistance Education, have no long-term effect. That hardly matters. Buoyed by the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act of 1986, which requires schools to launch zero-tolerance programs if they want federal funds, DARE has achieved incredible status. By its own accounting, the program reaches 26 million children in 75 percent of the nation’s schools. It also has been exported to 44 countries.

DARE began as a police action. In 1983, Daryl Gates, then chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, sought a way to prevent drug crimes in schools. DARE sent its first ten officers to 50 schools. Today, the group boasts that its instructors receive “special training in areas such as child development, classroom management, teaching techniques and communication skills.” How much training? About two weeks’ worth, after which the police officer provides his services as a teacher, psychologist, counselor and drug expert.

Armed with a teaching manual from DARE America (the nonprofit organization that administers the curriculum), the uniformed officer visits a school each week for four months to instruct fifth- or sixth-graders on personal safety, assertiveness, self-esteem, “managing stress” (a principal reason kids take drugs, according to DARE) and the dangers of mind-altering substances, including alcohol and tobacco. The students take time from their reading, writing and math lessons to organize skits, watch videos and complete assignments in their DARE workbooks. The officer also encourages students to submit written questions. Inquiries such as “Why do my parents smoke marijuana after I go to bed?” are forwarded to authorities at the cop’s discretion.

The problem with ‘just say no” education is the same one that has plagued drug propaganda since Congress approved the Harrison Narcotics Act in 1914: It doesn’t survive a reality check. Abstinence education preaches that all drug use constitutes abuse, all drugs are equally dangerous, lifetime abstinence is a realistic goal and recreational drugs such as marijuana serve as gateways to narcotics. It claims to teach kids to make decisions, but dictates the correct decision and punishes those who make any other choice. If a student is caught experimenting, he or she is kicked out of school as part of a zero-tolerance sensibility. The kids who most need help making decisions about drugs, even the straight-A students, are ostracized.

The most harmful effect of “just say no” may be the damage it does to the credibility of teachers and parents. When students first try “mind-altering” marijuana, they quickly discover it doesn’t make them ill or lead them into a spiral of addiction (if they watch the news, they must wonder why some sick people smoke marijuana to feel better). Teenagers learn through experience that adults spout hyperbole and distort by omission on the topic of drugs.

As a result, useful distinctions may not be made. In the introduction to Buzzed: The Straight Facts About the Most Used and Abused Drugs From Alcohol to Ecstasy, the psychologist and two pharmacologists who compiled the book offer this example: “Not too long ago, it was widely reported that a well-known basketball player, Len Bias, died after he used cocaine. This story has been used repeatedly to illustrate the dangers of cocaine. However, most people who use cocaine do not die as a result, and cocaine users and their friends certainly know it. If horror stones are the principal tools of drug education, it does not take long for people to recognize that such accounts do not represent the whole truth.”

Students who have been taught that drugs kill see a different reality outside of school-a variety of people using a variety of drugs with a variety of effects. The two views don’t mesh, which results in a lot of confused kids. Joel Brown, director of the Center for Educational Research and Development in Berkeley, was struck by the anxiety many students felt after going through a “just say no” program, in this case California’s Drug, Alcohol and Tobacco Education. Brown randomly surveyed 5045 students and interviewed another 240 in focus groups. He found that DATE, like DARE, had no long-term effect on consumption. But he also discovered something more alarming: DATE left many kids unsure whom to believe on the topic of drugs.

After Brown’s findings were reported by the media, he received threatening phone calls from men who identified themselves as cops. In the weeks after he appeared on MSNBC with William Modzeleski, director of the Department of Education’s Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program (who later called Brown’s conclusions “asinine”), his funding abruptly dried up.

Faced with compelling evidence that they are wasting taxpayers’ money, “just say no educators respond with worn justifications such as “the programs build character” and “if we’re reaching one kid, it’s worth it.” (“We would hardly declare a math curriculum successful if only one kid learned to add,” scoffs the Drug Reform Coordination Network in response.) If you’re against “just say no,” argue the supporters of abstinence education, you must be for kids becoming addicted to drugs.

Dennis Rosenbaum, head of the criminal justice department at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is the latest researcher to find flaws in the prevailing drug education model. His study, funded by the Illinois State Police, tracked 1090 students at 36 schools over six years. Comparing schools with DARE programs to those without, he found that students used drugs in high school regardless of their exposure to the program. DARE struck back immediately, questioning Rosenbaum’s credibility and research methods. Among the charges: The professor studied only the program’s elementary curriculum, not its “revised and enhanced elementary curriculum”-a shell game at best.

DARE even attempted to turn Rosenbaum’s research on its head: Since the professor had surveyed students who received DARE instruction only in elementary school, his findings pointed to the need for more intense brainwashing. DARE president Glenn Levant, a former Los Angeles cop, outlines the plan in his official parents’ guide: “Instruction goes from kindergarten through fourth grade, with a full semester in the fifth or sixth grade, reinforced with ten more antidrug lessons in middle school or junior high and another nine weeks of curriculum in high school.”

To accomplish that, DARE needs help from teachers. On its Web site, DARE America encourages educators to integrate “just say no” seamlessly into their lessons and to weigh participation as part of a student’s final grade: “Student participation in the DARE program may be incorporated as an integral part of the school’s curriculum in health, science, social studies, language arts or other subjects. It is important that you, as the classroom teacher, maintain a supportive role in classroom management while the officer is teaching.”

Critics who question the effectiveness of abstinence education have not gone unnoticed. In Barre, Massachusetts, the school board considered dumping DARE after teachers complained it took away too much class time (a DARE cop responded that she needed more class time). In Houston, city councilman Ray Driscoll called for a 50 percent cut in DARE funding from the city. “We’re spending a lot of money on public relations and T-shirts, pencils and signs, but we’re not getting any results,” he said. “We’ve had the program for 12 years. Drug use among youth continues to rise. Something is wrong. I have spoken to high school kids about DARE and few of them can tell me what it is. They say something like, ‘I remember that. I went through that.’ ‘What did you learn?’ They say, ‘Drugs are bad.’ I don’t think you have to go through DARE to learn that.” The Houston program costs $3.7 million annually, 90 percent of which pays salaries and benefits for 63 full-time DARE instructors. Is DARE another welfare program for cops?

In Washington, the Department of Education has subsidized ‘just say no programs for years without demanding accountability. This year, for the first time, the agency implemented guidelines that require districts to use only antidrug strategies that have proved effective. Yet at the same time, the Drug-Free Schools Act requires schools to preach abstinence, a strategy that has proved ineffective. The government has little choice but to rely on ‘just say no” programs, because after years of funding them exclusively, no alternatives have been prepared.

Faced with a crisis, the Department of Education needed loopholes, and fast. First, it revised the guidelines to allow for “local evidence.” Rather than rely on larger national studies, schools can produce their own surveys to measure student drug use supported by “perceptions of teachers, students or administrators about the youth drug problem.” Second, the agency approved curricula “that show promise of being effective.” DARE officials met with Modzeleski in Washington earlier this year and assured him their program can be revised and enhanced yet again. Sounds promising.

Is there an alternative to entrenched programs such as DARE? Some people believe the truth would work. Imagine a curriculum that honestly addressed questions such as “Why do people take drugs?” “Why do people stop taking drugs?” and “Why can’t some people stop taking drugs?” It would certainly have to explain, for instance, that the greatest risk of smoking marijuana is being arrested. In the no-nonsense drug guide Buzzed, two college students describe their attitude toward drugs as ‘just say know.” While growing up, the more they learned about “attractively mysterious” drugs such as ecstasy and heroin, the less they wanted to experiment. “If someone offered one of us heroin, we wouldn’t be just saying no but defending an informed decision to stay away from the drug,” they write. Phrases like “just say no” are not sufficient. Instead of asking us to respond blindly, convince us.

Copyright Playboy Magazine, 1998