He planning a “massive advertising campaign” which will “get people, especially children, not to take drugs in the first place.“
Chip Somodevilla /Getty Images/Robert Mora
Most rational people have long since moved on from the “just say no“ era of drug education and prevention. That’s because a glut of scientific evidence helped most of us realize that addiction is a health issue, rather than a moral one. But if his recent comments on the opioid crisis are anything to go by, President Trump didn’t get the memo. He says he's planning a “massive advertising campaign” which will “get people, especially children, not to want to take drugs in the first place.“
That sounds a lot like D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), the program that started in the 80s and was designed to petrify kids into saying “no.“ It's also the program that various studies (here, here, here, here…and oh, here, here and here) have concluded has little or no demonstrable effect on adolescent drug use. And that’s when the studies aren’t finding that the program could be increasing drug use among kids.
Despite decades of evidence suggesting that it doesn’t work, D.A.R.E. is still around, still siphoning off millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money. Worse still, it’s experiencing somewhat of a renaissance. Attorney General Jeff Sessions actually believes that it was a resounding success. Speaking at a D.A.R.E. conference last summer, he said, “I believe that D.A.R.E. was instrumental to our success,” and urged the officers to continue the ”just say no” rhetoric. “Experience has shown, sadly, that it is not enough that dangerous drugs are illegal,” he said. “We also have to make them unacceptable. We have to create a cultural climate that is hostile to drug abuse.”
D.A.R.E. now claims to be reinventing itself with a more science-backed approach—its keepin' it REAL program. But that came under fire as some researchers argued that they were still prioritizing branding over science and that they have failed to implement a long-term evaluation system. After posting satire about weed on their website in 2015, they were again accused of being inherently unscientific. (Reached for comment, D.A.R.E.'s director of communications Richard Mahan said that the article was a “mistaken post which was removed after only being up for a short time.”)
The question is: Can D.A.R.E. change? To glean a wider perspective on this, we asked a bunch of people involved in successful drug harm reduction programs—as well as a leading drug researcher—what they think. “The D.A.R.E. program was an absolute failure on every measure,” says Lindsay LaSalle, senior staff attorney at drug harm reduction initiative Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). “It’s very scary to see that the Trump administration seems to be embracing that type of education.”
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“It’s certainly good that they are trying to improve on it and they recognize its past failings. But I think that the overall framework under which they are operating—which is that drug use needs to be met with a hammer—means that even if they reframe D.A.R.E. it’s still going to be a very flawed educational system.”
The DPA aims to minimize the harms of drugs in its community by providing “realistic education” to young people, taking a strictly scientific approach. “We think that many of the harms associated with drug misuse are attributed to misinformation,” LaSalle says, “rather than the harms of the drugs themselves.”
Joseph Palamar, an associate professor of public health at New York University, told us that, as far as he’s concerned, any drug education in schools is “probably” better than no education. “It could have been better, but at least as a kid I received some drug education,” he says. “It’s just a shame that so much of it was about morals rather than actual health risks. One of the issues with D.A.R.E. then [in the 80s] was that drug use was considered a moral and criminal issue rather than a health one. I mean, you had a police officer teaching the class.”
Mahan disagrees, saying he believes that it is appropriate that they have a law enforcement officer teaching drug education. “The officers go through 80 hours of intensive training to make sure that the delivery of the curriculum is of the highest quality,” he says.
Kat Humphries is the program director of the Harm Reduction Action Center in Denver. “We have data on what works and what is effective and D.A.R.E. is not,” she says, explaining how her program reduces harms in its neighborhood by offering educational workshops, a needle-exchange program, and a more reliable gateway to health services. “We base our programing strictly on science-based evidence and what helps people, not anecdotal evidence. I think that [D.A.R.E.] is based on fear and fear doesn’t help anyone who is using drugs.”
What does she think about D.A.R.E.’s reinvention? “We’re still in the ‘just say no’ era—we never stopped being in that,” she says. “It does sound like they are trying to rebrand but I would strongly encourage people to look at the actual scientific research out there and base decisions on the hard data provided. Not scaremongering or emotions.”
Mitchell Gomez, executive director of DanceSafe, thinks that D.A.R.E. has permanently lost its credibility due to the organization's misguided positions on marijuana. “They said all this ridiculous stuff,” he says, ”like, if you try it, it will lead you into heroin use, or it will decrease intelligence. But as soon as you start to have peers [who smoke] pot and none of those things are happening, they effectively lost credibility forever.” He adds: “It taught you, in a really instinctive way, that you just couldn’t trust what they were saying.”
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