‘Just Say No’ to Clinton’s New Anti-Drug Campaign

By Brenda Payton, Opinion Editor, Oakland Tribune, July 16, 1998

The ads are dramatic. A young woman wields a frying pan, smashing an egg and a kitchen clock to represent the destructive nature of heroin. Another ad depicts miniature desks and warns that students as young as fifth graders are using marijuana.

The ad campaign is expensive. The federal government has allocated $195 million for the one-year campaign, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich plans to seek an additional $805 million to extend it four additional years.

The anti-drug campaign was introduced with fanfare; President Bill Clinton said it was designed to “knock America upside the head.’

The campaign, however, will probably be ineffective. At least that’s the opinion of Joel Brown, a Bay Area researcher who has studied the efficacy of drug education programs. Brown is executive director of The Center for Educational Research and Development.

“Unfortunately the president’s program will not serve to educate youth in the ways the research is telling us needs to be done,” Brown said. In fact, he warns that recent studies indicate the approach used in the ads may actually cause psychological disturbances for some young people.

Its a question of credibility. Or rather a credibility gap. Brown says young people routinely observe sanctioned drug consumption, and yet they are told all drugs in any amount are bad. “It’s the difference between “Just Say No’ and their everyday experience where they see a variety of people taking different drugs,” Brown said.

That result is a disconnect for the young people who reject the “Just Say No” (no-use) approach as hypocritical. Sometimes it even inspires them to experiment with drugs to find out for themselves.

Brown discovered the reverse effect of the no-use approach in an extensive study of the DARE program commissioned by the California State Department of Education. That study was never released; Brown believes it was repressed because the conclusion contradicted political rhetoric and government policy.

His findings have since been replicated by two other studies. And back in 1991, the federal General Accounting Office came to a similar conclusion, saying the no-use approach embraced by federal policy had not proven more successful and the failure to examine other approaches could impede the discovery of successful drug education. The GAO recommendations were also

“I have never experienced an area of research so politically contentious,” said Brown, who is moving his research away from drug education because of the obstacles. “Researchers are rarely included in these discussions.”

Brown makes it clear he is not an advocate of legalizing drugs or of any kind of drug use. He is a researcher investigating the most effective means of protecting young people from the dangers of drugs. Instead of the “Just Say No,” no-use, egg-frying-in-a-pan approach, Brown’s research found that honest discussion about drugs and their effects had the most impact.

“It’s better to educate youth about the different effects of drugs. Alcohol is not the same as heroin which is not the same as marijuana. To teach kids that they are all equally bad does a disservice to them and to us. It causes cognitive dissonance and can be the basis for serious disturbance,” he said.

He points out the no-use method excludes the young people who need drug education most. “What happens? The kids with the drug problems are the first to get kicked out of school. We need to help those with a problem.” Further, he points out the absurdity of designing drug education for all young people based on the problems of the minority who get into trouble with

‘How many kids are we going to allow to fall into dysfunction or harm because of a drug problem they can’t get help for or because they misused drugs because of a lack of information? It’s sad. We’ve already learned the tactics used in the president’s ad campaigns are ineffective and can be harmful.”

Copyright Oakland Tribune 1998