Just Say So: DARE Doesn’t Work

By Kendra Wright, San Francisco Examiner, February, 17, 1999

Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey announced last week a plan to cut drug use in half by 2007. His goal – getting mentors and role models more active in the lives of kids – is laudable. But drug education and prevention will never succeed as long as DARE – the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program – is ensconced in 70 percent of our children’s schools.

Over the last five years studies have been conducted for the federal General Accounting Office and Justice Department and the California Department of Education . They describe how DARE and other anti-drug programs failed to reach the teenagers most at risk of drug abuse.

Joel Brown of Berkeley-based Educational Research Consultants was hired by the State Department of Education to conduct one of the most extensive qualitative studies of drug education programs to date. He found that DARE and other programs may actually be hurting our kids.

Brown’s conclusions – eloquently articulated for him by the teens he interviewed – were so disturbing that in 1995 the state department agency buried the report. (The findings became public in 1997 when published in the prestigious Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis Review Journal).

If kids are taught that marijuana is as bad as heroin, and then try pot and experience few consequences, they are often more likely to experiment with the dangerously addictive hard drug.

There are other problems. Most teens oppose authoritarian measures use to punish peers caught with alcohol or drugs. The teenagers Brown interviewed questioned whether suspension from school is really the best way to deal with kids caught experimenting with drugs.

You might wonder why the Republicans haven’t attacked DARE – which the federal government subsidizes to the tune of more than $650 million a year. Or why the Democrats, who consider education policy their domain, haven’t created a national commission to find something better.

The reason for the silence is that DARE, which relies on uniformed police officers and scare tactics to drum the “just say no” message into our kids, is an effective marketing machine. By combining grassroots PR – including T-shirts, bumper stickers and rallies – with aggressive political lobbying of local, state, and federal governments, DARE have become its own special interest group.

The core of the problem is that DARE boosters refuse to recognize that teenagers experiment with drugs. Government surveys show, however, that half of high school students try an illegal drug before graduation. How do we reach these youngsters?

We can turn around drug education by abandoning the “just say no” cookie cutter approach. We can find funds for pilot programs that seek to reduce the harms associated with drugs, including addiction.

We should focus on the capabilities, not inabilities, of our children. Most importantly we should understand that drug experimentation is different from drug abuse, and seek ways to help the most at-risk kids.

As in 12 step-programs, the first step toward recovery is the recognition that we have a problem.

Copyright 1999, San Francisco Examiner