If Not D.A.R.E., Then What?

Moving away from "Just Say No" and towards a more nuanced understanding of drug education

I grew up in the 1990s, the era of mandatory D.A.R.E. and Just Say No. Local law enforcement stepped inside the classroom to instruct us kids, their message clear: "All drugs are bad."

My dad, Dr. Charles Grob, one of the country’s leading clinical researchers studying the potential benefits of psychedelic-assisted therapy, didn’t agree. As the director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, and with the approval of the Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration, he’s led several investigative studies of drugs branded by D.A.R.E. in my youth as “bad,” including MDMA (“Ecstasy” or “Molly”), psilocybin (“shrooms”), and ayahuasca.

His colleagues—many of whom I’ve known since I was very young—have added marijuana, ketamine, ibogaine, and even LSD to their impressive roster of studies as well. Investigation of these substances had previously been shuttered, thanks in large part to Timothy Leary’s Pied Piperism during the 1960s, but the 90s initiated a renaissance of government-sanctioned psychedelic research that continues to this day.

The results of recent studies have been positive. Take psilocybin, for instance. In studies positing that psilocybin can reduce anxiety for end-stage cancer patients, ease the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and treat alcohol abuse, the data is encouraging. Psilocybin, if used appropriately, could be a viable medicine. Or, consider MDMA. Dr. Michael Mithoefer’s study using MDMA-assisted therapy to treat individuals suffering from PTSD found reduced symptoms in 83 percent of subjects in the active treatment group, versus 25 percent of subjects in the control group. The pilot study’s success has led to approvals for a new follow-up study treating military veterans suffering from PTSD.

There are a variety of takeaways from these studies, but one is clear and consistent: Many of those “bad” drugs aren’t always bad.

I grew up on the fringes of psychedelia. My dad and I never drove a Winnebago to Burning Man (though we were invited to do so). And he’s not a hippie. He wears a tie, not tie-dye, to work, and is impressively risk-averse, advocating safety and harm reduction above all. But despite his conservatism and determination to disprove the cultural stereotype that “drug research” must be shorthand for personal recreational use, it’s only recently that his work, though completely legal, has been met with interest rather than skepticism by the mainstream. As a child I watched him flourish in a community of his peers, but worried what other kids in my school—and my D.A.R.E. officer—might think if they learned what my father did for a living.

I had my own supplemental drug education experience, my other D.A.R.E.

My family made the regular pilgrimage to a bohemian oasis called Asilomar for the Association for Transpersonal Psychology’s annual conference. There, adults watched slideshow presentations that explored the inner dimensions of the human brain while us kids explored nature—hiking, stargazing, and building stone dams in a nearby creek. As a teenager, I accompanied my dad to book signings, conventions organized by the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and Students for Sensible Drug Policy, and The Psychedelic Salon, a Friday night speaker series in a homey Venice Beach bungalow, where people promoted a more expansive conversation around drugs. Everyone everywhere told me that my dad was “so cool.”

I agreed with them. My dad was cool because he respected me. He and my mom started talking to me about drugs when I was very young, and supplied me with all the facts they knew.

I memorized the chemical name for MDMA at age eight—3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine—and I’ll never forget it. I knew about the problem of rampant drug substitution, and that kids who thought they were buying one thing could very well end up with something else. I understood that when my dad and other researchers emphasized the value of “set and setting,” what they were really saying was “doing drugs at a party, with other drug novices, where risk of dangerous drug combinations is high, is pretty damn stupid.” No scare tactics were needed; the plain facts my dad gave me scared me enough.

My parents taught me that certain otherwise illicit substances had value as medicines in beta-testing, and I decided for myself that recreational use could damage the long-term goals of the therapy-assisted movement. I trusted that my parents told me the truth, and in turn, my parents trusted me to make smart decisions.

Yes, I was a kid with zero medical background. And yes, I was repeating back what my parents preached. But this was the school of thought they raised me on, just as my classmates learned lessons from their parents. We were just taught to believe different things.

The open dialogue at home clashed considerably with D.A.R.E.’s straight and narrow instruction at school. My dad, along with fellow parents who worked in his field, eschewed “Just Say No” for a comparatively holistic motto: “Just Say Know.” For them, the drug question requires a more nuanced answer than the word “no” can allow. To be sure, the slogan’s blanket villainization of drugs undermined their lifelong work, but its fear-driven simplicity also caused problems for the kids it meant to guide.

“The messaging since 1983 has been fairly consistent,” says Dr. Marsha Rosenbaum, director emerita of the DPA’s San Francisco office. “‘Drugs are bad and use equals abuse.’” The problem, she says, is that this model contains “no harm reduction component. There’s no ‘if you choose to do this, not that you should, but if you do, here’s what you should know.’ There’s no Plan B. There’s no fallback strategy.” Rosenbaum penned an educational booklet geared towards parents called Safety First that offers a “reality-based approach” to drug education. A new edition is due out in September. “We’ve got to tell the truth,” Rosenbaum writes. “Because if we don’t, teenagers will not consider us credible sources of information.”

It’s hard to recall exactly what we learned in D.A.R.E. I remember that my class’s police officer wore shorts as part of his uniform everyday, taught us that marijuana causes holes in the brain, and one day restrained a kid named Tommy, who jokingly lunged for his gun holster. Nothing invokes fear of the law like an armed police officer handcuffing your sixth-grade classmate. Otherwise, my drug education experience was utterly forgettable.

In 2001, the United States Surgeon General issued a statement on D.A.R.E. declaring that, “children who participate are as likely to use drugs as those who do not participate,” and categorized what was once the mainstay of federally funded drug education as an “ineffective primary prevention program.” Funding, however, remained in effect throughout the 2000s, with President Bush promoting the position of “Drug Czar” to Cabinet-level status. President Obama demoted the position to non-Cabinet level status in 2009, a move that both reflected the changing landscape of public opinion on drug policy, and coincided with substantial cuts to D.A.R.E.’s federal budget.

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Stephie Grob Plante is a writer based in New York.

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