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

“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.”

According to Dr. Stephen Ross, director of addiction psychiatry at New York University, much of the problem remains in the misallocation of federal funds. “Seventy percent of federal funding continues to go to enforcement,” says Ross. “Only 20 percent [goes] to treatment and 10 percent to prevention. … Why not 60 percent to prevention and 40 percent to treatment?”

One prevention approach currently finding traction in psychotherapy is motivational interviewing (MI), “a collaborative, goal-oriented method of communication with particular attention to the language of change.” The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has supported studies investigating MI’s efficacy in substance abuse prevention, and has circulated literature to clinical supervisors and therapists. But the technique has yet to make a strong foothold in the public school system. A recent one-year follow-up study “failed to demonstrate that an adequately implemented MI booster was of incremental value.”

In the absence of widespread, effective, federally-funded drug education, the onus has fallen largely on parents to spearhead drug education reform, says Doblin. “The parent movement of the 1980s led to Nancy Reagan, and Just Say No, and D.A.R.E., and D.A.R.E. led to misinformation. What we don’t really have yet is a new parent movement.”

There may not be an imminent large-scale movement as Doblin prescribes, but there is a small one, one that foregoes the zero tolerance model—bolstered by D.A.R.E.’s police officer instructor base—that focuses on enforcement and discipline, and remains prevalent in mainstream secondary school policy.

This school-based program rejecting the “first-strike-you’re-out” rhetoric is UpFront, which works with at-risk kids in California.

“These kids all know the truth, so why lie?” says Chuck Ries, founder of UpFront, a student assistance program. First established at Oakland High School in 1997, UpFront advocates candid conversations—talking about harm reduction in a safe environment. “Once [the students] realized we were legit, not cops, the kids who were normally marginalized suddenly became the experts in the room. They got to share hard fought knowledge in a way that was accepted by the group.” Many of those same experts went on to become paid instructors in UpFront themselves, alongside licensed therapists hired by Ries.

But the stock market crash of 2008 and the building of a new local health clinic that required the resources normally allocated to UpFront ultimately moved the program out of Oakland High School and into a consulting firm operating on a contractual basis.

“If money were available it’d be easy to find schools willing to participate,” Ries says. “The schools want these programs. The students want these programs. But it’s a different story when the schools are responsible for funding the programs themselves.”

Rosenbaum and the DPA agree. “Student assistance programs like Chuck’s are an invaluable resource. If you could have that in every school, we’d be taken care of.”

The common thread among effective programs, it seems, is honesty.

“Isn’t it interesting,” says my dad, a.k.a. Dr. Grob, “how all these kids of my colleagues—leading figures in the research wing of the drug culture movement—how these kids are completely straight? That none of you guys are into drugs? That says something.”

Past modes of drug education have opted to emphasize the risk and minimize the possibility of medicinal benefits. But saying “this is what we know” is not an invitation for recklessness—it establishes trust and communication.

Drugs were never objects of titillation for me. They were never branded as taboo, so I never sought out that forbidden fruit. Still, I grew up in the real world. I faced many hard choices head-on. But because my dad provided me with accurate information, and framed that information in a medical context, I learned the boundaries without needing to personally test them. And although I am what my dad and his colleagues refer to as “drug naïve,” I felt equipped with the right tools to both counsel friends recovering from bad trips, and offer advice to friends who, in my mind, were planning risky experimentation. My dad recently reminded me of an episode in high school where I successfully dissuaded a friend from picking some desert-growing jimson weed, boiling it as a tea, and drinking it. I warned him that the likelihood of disorientation and hypertension were high, and that he could seriously injure himself or others as a result. And he listened to me. 

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Stephie Grob Plante is a writer based in New York.

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