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.”