April 15 2003
‘Just Say Know’
An advocate of drug law reform says D.A.R.E. is a 20-year old failure
By Brian Braiker
NEWSWEEK WEB EXCLUSIVE
Although an entire generation of Americans has now been raised on Nancy Reagan’s simple anti-dope “Just Say No” mantra, they’re still just as likely to say yes. Not that the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program hasn’t attempted to do its bit in the government’s war on drugs. D.A.R.E., which turns 20 this month, boasts of several outward signs of success. The most widespread school anti-drug program in the country is now taught in 80 percent of school districts nationwide and, by some estimates, enjoys upwards of $700 million in federal aid.
BUT THE PROGRAM ESTABLISHED in 1983 by former Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates has come under fire recently. A January report on D.A.R.E. by the government’s General Accounting Office concluded that the program has had “no statistically significant long-term effect on preventing youth illicit drug use” and that students who participate in it demonstrate “no significant differences” in their “attitudes toward illicit drug use” compared to children who had not been exposed to the program. In 2001, the U.S. Surgeon General categorized it as an “Ineffective Program.” There have been other studies too: In 1998, a University of Illinois survey of 1,798 elementary school students found that there were no differences with regards to illicit drug use among D.A.R.E. graduates and non-graduates six years after completing the program.
D.A.R.E., which puts police officers into elementary school classrooms to warn kids about the dangers of drugs, is a proponent of the “gateway” or “stepping stone” theory. The program teaches that milder illicit drugs—like marijuana—lead directly to experimentation with, and addiction to, hard drugs like crack cocaine and heroin.
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of a drug policy reform advocacy group called Drug Policy Alliance, proposes ditching D.A.R.E. for what he claims to be a more enlightened drug education approach, comparable to how sex is now taught in schools. NEWSWEEK’s Brian Braiker spoke with Nadelmann, who holds a JD and Ph.D from Harvard and a master’s degree from the London School of Economics, about how D.A.R.E. operates and why he thinks it is flawed. NEWSWEEK: What’s your concern with D.A.R.E.? Ethan Nadelmann:
Basically what you see is a multibillion-dollar boondoggle that all the evidence shows has had absolutely no effect. It’s a testament to the willingness of Congress to pour billions down the drain on a feel-good program in blatant disregard of one study after another indicating that there is no impact on drug use. Can you cite some of these studies?
The most powerful document is probably a report by the GAO that was given to Senator Richard Durbin [D-Ill.] in January and it goes through the evidence and basically concludes that there’s been no impact. I can give you the quote: The politically popular program “has had no statistically significant long term effect on preventing youth illicit drug use.” There was a 1991 study by University of Connecticut of over 2,000 students that found no difference in past year use of cigarette, alcohol, marijuana among sixth grade DARE graduates and non-graduates two years after. I was in fifth or sixth grade when I went through the program, and it scared me. It certainly made an impression on me.
My daughter’s been in the program as well. I was born in 1957, so I got the anti-drug programs in the ’60s and they made an impression at that point. But the bottom line is that even in the absence of those, there’s no reason I would have done drugs anyway. That’s one of the things that comes through. If you ask why these programs survive, there are a couple of hypotheses. One is that it feels good. It makes people feel like they’re doing something. It gets the police officers into the classroom. It’s like how during World War II they got people to collect used metal and it turned out it actually had zero impact on the war effort, but it gave people a sense of belonging or doing something. The tragedy in this case is that you’re spending a billion dollars a year or more all told. Where is that money coming from?
It’s basically all taxpayer money. According to the GAO report, exact totals are unavailable but outside experts place the figure at anywhere from $650 million to $750 million per year. In addition, police departments spend an additional $215 million on D.A.R.E. to pay for their officers’ participation in the program. This may only be the tip of the iceberg. There’s an assessment at Le Moyne College by Edward Shepard, an economist, who estimates that the total economic cost of officer training and participation is potentially closer to $600 million. People obviously think D.A.R.E. works if they’re willing to spend all that money.
People think D.A.R.E. works because most kids who graduate say they were scared of drugs by D.A.R.E. and they do not use drugs right thereafter. But in fact if you compare the kids who have been through D.A.R.E. with the kids who have not been through D.A.R.E., there’s no difference. Obviously you don’t want kids doing drugs, though. So what’s the alternative?
You have to distinguish between kids who are in elementary school and kids who are in high school—teenagers essentially. With elementary school kids, Nancy Reagan’s “just say no” message makes a certain amount of sense. At the same time, you want to better prepare young people for living in a world in which drugs of all sorts are going to be widely abundant, legal and illegal, pharmaceutical as well as herbal. You basically want to start preparing them with honest, accurate understanding. You want to explain to them that drugs can be medicines, that adults can use drugs like alcohol for other reasons, that there are dangerous and non-dangerous ways to use these things. You want to explain it in a very simple age appropriate way. I think that’s what’s most pivotal. You also want to have the DARE booklets and worksheets evaluated by reputable independent scientific organizations. That’s not being done now?
I don’t know of any evidence that it is because if it was you wouldn’t have some of the claims that they put forward about marijuana and other drugs. Like what?
The stepping-stone hypothesis. The National Academy of Sciences says there’s no scientific basis for the stepping-stone, or gateway, theory. But the gateway theory is such an old, universally accepted idea.
But isn’t it more important to defer to what the country’s leading scientific organization says?And another thing is that it can be appropriate to use police officers in classrooms to teach about public safety. But why are we using police officers to teach about drugs? Why is there reason to believe that police officers know anything about drugs. If you think about it, either they’ve never used drugs themselves, or if they have they can’t talk about it. Beyond that, you would think it makes sense to have somebody that has some background in health, but why are we having a police officer who deals with public safety issues teaching this? I think that’s the fundamental flaw of D.A.R.E.: it’s the inappropriate use of police officers. You mentioned “just say no” as having some value with elementary school kids. What about high-schoolers?
When you start talking about teenagers, then you have to just deal with reality that the large majority of teenagers have tried at least one drug by the time they graduate. Alcohol is illegal until you’re 21. Marijuana, ecstasy, these are all illegal. Cigarettes are illegal for young people as well. But the evidence from a few years ago was that 80 percent of all high school teenagers say they have tried alcohol by the time they graduate. And over 50 percent have tried cigarettes and close to 50 percent have tried marijuana. Depending upon where you live, 5, 10, 20 percent have tried things like ecstasy. What’s appropriate for 7 and 8 year olds in not appropriate for 15, 16, 17 year olds. But the D.A.R.E. message doesn’t change—by federal law all you can teach an abstinence-only message, a zero-tolerance message. So what would you propose instead of just saying ‘no’?
When you start talking to teenagers you have to substitute “just say n-o” with “just say k-n-o-w.” Take good models of sex education and apply it to drug education. The basic sex education model says “we don’t want teenagers having sex when they’re too young. We want to delay their loss of virginity as long as possible, up to a point. But then we want to also have a fallback strategy so that when young people start to have sex—even if it’s before we the parent want them to do so—then at least they’re doing it responsibly. At least they’re doing it in a way that doesn’t result in unwanted pregnancy, the spread of sexual disease, emotional exploitation.” Well, the average American teenager is more likely to have had a drink of alcohol or tried marijuana before they have had sex. So you would think that the same model should apply. The message should be: don’t use drugs. Second message: don’t use drugs. But then the third message needs to be something like: if you do, even though we’ve told you not to and even though we strongly recommend you do not, there are certain things you need to know. That sounds like a tacit endorsement.
No. With sex education people assume that “oh my god if we tell teenagers about condoms, they’ll be having more sex.” In fact, there’s no evidence that I’m aware of to show that giving that type of harm reduction information ends up resulting in more engagement of the activity. Ultimately, the bottom line is did they show up back at the house that night, safe and will they grow up and produce healthy grandkids. Unfortunately, the dominant message in the schools—the only message that the federal government will fund—is one of abstinence only. Well, to do otherwise would be enormously politically unpopular.
Obviously there was, and continues to be, a struggle providing sex education in schools. At some point teachers and parents and students said “look, we’re better off getting this information from legitimate authorities and having open discussions about these things than just being subject to silly irrelevant abstinence-only messages and having to rely on our own resources and rumors and first-hand experience to learn it.” I think that’s the case with drugs and drug education. The bottom line is to minimize as much as possible the harmful consequences both of drugs and the harmful consequences of our drug policy. As a parent I don’t want my kid getting in trouble with drugs and I don’t want them getting trouble with the law—both of those things can mess up a person’s life. But having sex a little too young won’t get kids into legal trouble like drugs can.
That’s right. Although, you can run into other sorts of trouble. Drug Policy Alliancemsnbc