As President Bush declares April 12 "National D.A.R.E. Day," ideology and emotion once again trump science and truth.
I first heard of Drug Abuse Resistance Education when my daughter, Annie, was in fifth grade. She came home from school one day announcing, "Mom, you'll be glad to know that I now know everything there is to know about drugs." I tried not to panic, took a deep breath, and calmly asked how she knew so much about drugs. "I am a graduate of the D.A.R.E. program!"
I asked what she had learned. Annie proceeded to draw a large circle on the chalkboard in our kitchen. "This, Mom, is a brain." She then filled the "brain" with little circles that represented "brain cells." Finally Annie took the eraser, erased half of the big circle, and told me, "When a person smokes marijuana, half of their brain cells are erased forever." I gulped and then tried to figure out what to do about the gross misinformation I had just heard from my daughter.
That discussion occurred nearly twenty years ago, but little has changed about drug education in general and D.A.R.E. in particular. For the past two decades, federally funded school-based drug prevention education programs have carried a singular message in terms of content ("drugs are bad") and message ("just say no"). D.A.R.E. has been by far the most popular program among parents and educators, reaching 80% of American school districts.
But with national surveys showing that half of all American teenagers try illegal drugs and 75% use alcohol by the time they graduate from high school, obviously teenagers are not heeding our admonitions to abstain.
Indeed, study after study in the mid-to-late 1990s demonstrated DARE's failure to prevent teens from using alcohol and other drugs (one mega-analysis even showed that DARE graduates had higher rates of drug use than the non-DARE control group). Even the Department of Education dropped DARE from it list of "evidence-based" prevention programs, prompting an overhaul that is yet to be completed.
Teen alcohol and other drug use is a serious issue that continues to concern parents, educators, and young people themselves. But rather than follow Bush's misguided lead by celebrating a program that has consistently failed (remind you of anything?), we ought to seize this anniversary to institute real drug education.
My daughter's pronouncement back in 1987 prompted me to use my research skills to look critically at and write extensively about D.A.R.E. and other school-based prevention. I've learned that a combination of our drug-obsessed culture (think alcohol, caffeine and the proliferating pharmaceuticals); the abject failure of scare tactics, risk warnings and zero tolerance policies to deter; and teenagers' ability to and insistence upon making their own decisions means we must shift gears.
Just as with comprehensive sexuality education, we've got to acknowledge that although abstinence would be ideal, it may not be realistic, necessitating a fallback plan that goes beyond zero tolerance and stresses safety first. I'm grateful that my own kids made it out of the teen years as healthy, whole young adults and hope that parents and educators will be open to innovative strategies, such as those featured in the Safety First Project of the Drug Policy Alliance that challenge the failed status quo.