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 for scrutiny.
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
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
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 its
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
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 rational criticism.
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" to drugs.
Cpl. Schneider's death is not a reason to cancel DARE, but the research data is.
by Dr. Tana Dineen p. 56