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

“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.

“D.A.R.E. [currently] receives zero federal funding,” says Ron Brogan, northeast representative for D.A.R.E. America. “The past five years we lost all federal funding, as funds for prevention have been cut across the board.”

In 2012, D.A.R.E. replaced its “Just Say No” slogan with “Keepin’ It REAL.” “REAL” is an acronym for “Refuse, Explain, Avoid, and Leave.” The new program’s efficacy is currently under internal evaluation, with its elementary school program midway through a five-year longitudinal study, and a high school program in development. The curriculum now, Brogan says, is “more about making good decisions than [discussing] specific drugs.”

Brogan maintains that the recent shift was not a response to the Surgeon General’s 2001 report: “We tend not to respond directly to critics, but rather keep up with the current science involved.” When researchers Dr. Richard Clayton and Dr. Christopher Ringwalt published studies in the 1990s that “came out in the press as very negative criticism of D.A.R.E.,” says Brogan, D.A.R.E. listened, and ultimately invited both scientists onto D.A.R.E.’s advisory board. “Prevention evolves over time, and D.A.R.E. tries to keep up with current trends and recommendations.”

The current trend toward marijuana legalization, however, is somewhat of a complicated issue for D.A.R.E. “We are unalterably opposed,” says Brogan of the recent law passages in Washington and Colorado. “Suffice it to say, we are an abstinence program.” In response to the question of whether D.A.R.E. adheres to its original messaging that all drug use is drug abuse, Brogan offered no comment.

D.A.R.E.’s website reflects some of the ambivalence of an organization at a crossroads, caught between a broad-based mission statement (“Teaching students good decision-making skills to help them lead safe and healthy lives”), changing times, and conflicting viewpoints. It features an article both recognizing medical marijuana’s legitimacy and voicing concern that “despite the known benefits of marijuana in easing patient pain—and the potential revenue that sales could generate for hospitals … hospitals run the risk of violating federal law.” But there’s also a piece by the CEO of the National Association for Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) on the site that stands decidedly against medical marijuana, using quotation marks around the words “safe” and “medicinal.”

In effect, D.A.R.E. no longer seems to offer a unified voice or philosophy, and the site serves more as a forum for instructors than a source of guided curriculum.

“Because it’s expensive and hasn’t proved effective, a lot of communities are backing away from D.A.R.E.,” says Rick Doblin, executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). “Still, D.A.R.E. is constantly changing [its] model and saying, ‘Now it works.’ Are they trying to learn? Or are they trying to immunize themselves to criticism?”

Despite D.A.R.E.’s waning relevancy, no salient drug educational program has emerged on a national scale to fill the hole left by its downsizing. This is troubling to scientists who both disagree with D.A.R.E.’s abstinence-only messaging, and advocate prevention education. “To me, it’s a public health issue,” says Dr. Julie Holland, editor of The Pot Book and Ecstasy: A Complete Guide. “People do risky things and we need to teach them how not to do them.”

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Stephie Grob Plante is a writer based in New York.

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