DARE and Programs like it Don't Work -
So Why Are They Still Around? Just Say No

By Chip Rowe, Playboy Magazine, October, 1998

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 stories 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."

Copyright c1998 Playboy Enterprises, Inc.

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