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Just say no to abstinence-only drug education

By Joseph Durwin

Supporters of the D.A.R.E. program have been up in arms in Massachusetts the past week over Lt. Governor Kerry Healey’s criticisms of the drug resistance curriculum. Last Tuesday she met with D.A.R.E. officials, stating that it could be years before the state restores its funding, which was cut from $4.3 million to $200,000 in 2002. This is the amount of time it will take for a new nationwide study of the effectiveness of the program’s new, re-vamped style to be completed.


D.A.R.E. has come under fire in recent years from critics who see the program as ineffective and wasteful; many states and local communities have severely curtailed its funding, while others have abandoned it completely, as Illinois recently did.

The dim view of the program is partly due to numerous studies conducted in the 1990s, which found that this form of drug education has failed to prevent or reduce drug use in those that have been through it.

In fact, one 1998 study at the University of Illinois found that each additional 36 hours of cumulative drug education “were associated with significantly more negative attitudes toward police…and more positive attitudes toward drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, and more delinquency.” This is in sync with evaluations of the media campaigns by the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy, which found that those who were more exposed to the campaign tended to move in a distinctly more pro-drug direction, as opposed to those less exposed.

While statistical studies appear unanimous in pointing out D.A.R.E.’s failure, the majority of the support for it seems to come from two groups of people: the fifth and sixth graders currently enrolled in it — whose attitudes are emphatically not mirrored by older, past graduates of the program; and the police officers employed in the effort themselves.

“If somebody comes up with a better program,” D.A.R.E. Officer Stephen Shephard remarked, “I’ll be one of the first ones to say ‘Ok, go for it.’ ”

As it so happens, there is a better program. It’s part of an emerging paradigm gaining ground in America today. It is known as Harm Reduction, which, as the name implies, equips young people with practical, reality-based information for reducing the harmful consequences associated with drugs- both legal and illicit.

The reason that programs such as D.A.R.E. fail young people, HR advocates argue, is that they are entirely focused on an abstinence-only message that fails to take into account teenagers’ understanding of the complexity of the issue. They rely on several problematic myths that simply don’t correspond to young people’s own life experience.

First, the idea experimentation with drugs is an abnormal behavior and not a common phenomenon in teen culture is wrong. Second, there is a difference between use and abuse. Third, marijuana use is not a gateway to cocaine and heroin addiction.

Last, and perhaps most detrimental, D.A.R.E exaggerates the risks of drugs, thinking that it will deter people from using them, which in fact drives more teenagers to try the drugs.

The lofty ideological stance of abstinence-only programs grossly underestimates the ability of young people to think for themselves and evaluate the world around them. They are not oblivious to the real world situation around them: that more than half of high school seniors have experimented with illicit substances, and nearly a quarter use them regularly; that eight out of ten adults take at least one medication every week, nearly half use the recreational drug alcohol, and yet most are not alcoholics or drug-abusers.

Based on this experience, they know that the taking of mind-altering drugs is quite common in our society, and does not necessarily lead to disaster. In fact, a significant body of available research which is now increasingly available to young people through the internet and other sources indicates that most people who use drugs-even illicit drugs- do not abuse them, and most are employed. It is also widely known that no existing scientific data supports the idea that the effects of marijuana in any way predispose users to experiment with other drugs.

Advocates of the Harm Reduction approach acknowledge these facts, and point to the potentially disastrous consequences of misleading young people about drugs. When they realize that drug educators are not being honest with them, it undermines the credibility of any and all information they try to convey about the real potential dangers of many drugs. Harm Reduction acknowledges that teenagers are in a naturally risk-taking period in their lives, and some will try drugs no matter how vehement the warnings.

Therefore, an effort must be made to better equip teenagers with practical, reality-based information that can minimize the dangers of such experimentation. With many popular drugs today, such as Ecstasy, research shows that the vast majority of adverse effects are related to the context in which they are taken. It is imperative that educators be able to inform teens of the ways they can minimize the risks in the event they decide to choose to try drugs, and to distinguish between use and abuse. To do this, it is critical that the use of exaggeration and misinformation has not already compromised their credibility in these warnings.

The HR approach is exemplified by booklets such as Safety First, by Dr. Marsha Rosenbaum. Dr. Rosenbaum points out “The [Just Say No] mandate leaves teachers and parents with nothing to say to the 50 percent of students who say ‘maybe’ or ‘sometimes’ or ‘yes’ to drug use — the very teens we most need to reach…we should have a fallback strategy that provides young people with credible information and resources so they do the least possible harm to themselves and those around them.”

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