When it comes to drug abuse programs, 'just say no' to feel-good
time-wasters like DARE
When an anger management instructor in Hawaii killed one of his
students, it raised eyebrows. When a domestic violence counsellor
was convicted of attempting to kill his wife in Michigan, people
were stunned. And this January, when it was revealed that a B.C.
drug prevention officer had died of a heroin overdose, the shock
rippled far beyond the provincial borders.
As a coordinator of the RCMP's drug awareness program on Vancouver
Island, Corporal Barry Schneider had led a crusade against drugs.
His weapon was the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program (DARE).
His friends and colleagues considered him a hero, a "good
cop" who had made a tragic mistake, becoming "a victim
of the power of seduction of drugs."
When RCMP Staff Sgt. Pete McLaren stated: "I don't think
[the death] should have an impact on our DARE program in the least,"
I wasn't convinced. Certainly one tragic incident is not sufficient
reason to condemn any program; however, it does provide an occasion
The underlying assumption of DARE and similar initiatives is that
telling children about the dangers of drugs and teaching them
the skills to resist is like inoculating them to "just say
no." But Corporal Schneider knew all about drugs and how
to resist them. If that didn't stop him, is there any reason to
believe that it can stop anyone else?
Developed by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1983, DARE involves
uniformed police officers going into elementary schools once a
week for 17 weeks to "educate" students to "resist
drug abuse." The program, described as providing the skills
to resist tobacco, alcohol and drugs, begins with students signing
a pledge that they will "keep their body free from drugs."
At its conclusion, they receive "graduation certificates"
and pins. In between pledge and pin they are taught lessons on
such topics as "Ways to Say No," "Building Self-Esteem"
and "Learning Assertiveness."
Since its inception, DARE has spread through the U.S., across
Canada and into over 50 other countries. Now offered in over 10,000
cities, it is by far the most popular drug abuse prevention program
in the world. With its own trademarked logo, web site and advertising
paraphernalia, including baseball caps and bumper stickers, it
is also big business.
Despite its claim to "a remarkable record of success,"
its widespread popularity, and the massive contributions it receives
from government and private sources, no evidence exists that DARE
keeps kids off drugs. Research studies consistently fail to prove
For instance, a 10-year follow-up study, published in 1999, compared
graduates of DARE with students who had simply learned about drugs
in Health class from their teacher. Those graduates, at age 20,
were just as likely as the others to be smoking, drinking or using
illegal drugs. The senior researcher, Donald Lyman at the University
of Kentucky, and his colleagues concluded, "There appears
to be no reliable short-term, long-term, early adolescent, or
young adult positive outcomes associated with receiving the DARE
intervention." Furthermore, this month, the U.S. Surgeon
General reported that programs like DARE do not work.
Proponents seem inclined to brush these findings under the carpet.
When confronted, the executive director of DARE America Inc.,
Glenn Levant, retorted that "Scientists tell you that bumblebees
can't fly, but we know better." And in Houston, Texas, where
a study showed a shocking 29% increase in drug usage and a 34%
increase in tobacco usage among students participating in DARE,
the police chief defended it by saying he would use the results
to "fine-tune the program to better serve the children."
Both he and the city's mayor remained firmly behind it, supporting
the annual allocation of $3.7 million.
Why do people find it so easy to ignore DARE's failure?
The most likely answer is that, in this era of applying touchy-feely
solutions to our social problems, DARE is another "feel-good"
program. The way people "feel" about it shields it from
The police instructors feel good; they believe that the work they
are doing is important. Parents feel good; they believe that something
is being done to protect their children from the menace of drug
abuse. School officials feel good; they are confident that they
are providing the best available program to address the concerns.
And politicians feel good; they can project the image of being
caring and benevolent.
Such people take satisfaction in the thought that any boy or girl
who does not get entangled in drugs has been saved because of
the program. They remain oblivious to the reality that the vast
majority of these children, even without it, would not have ended
up abusing drugs. And they fail to realize that those at risk
are unlikely to have been affected by any simplistic, cookie-cutter
approach to drug prevention. As one Albertan with whom I spoke
recently put it: "The kids who were never going to get into
drugs anyway thought it was good and those who were going to abuse
drugs just did what they were going to do anyway."
If "feel-good" programs like DARE were stopped, we'd
likely see no change on the youth drug scene but we would have
more time and money to spend on our kids: money to buy necessary
school supplies, time to teach necessary skills, and resources
to provide effective services to the kids who don't say "no"
Cpl. Schneider's death is not a reason to cancel DARE, but the
research data is.
by Dr. Tana Dineen p. 56