Just say no to D.A.R.E — starting a better conversation about youth drug prevention
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the The Hill on August 9, 2017.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently called for the return of Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.), the 1980s anti-drug campaign aimed at helping prevent and combat youth drug use.
However, to truly prevent kids from using drugs, our country needs programs that are proven to work. In particular, marijuana, since it is becoming increasingly legalized.
What we do not need is a reboot of the uninformed, unsuccessful D.A.R.E. model.
The D.A.R.E. program became a national phenomenon during the 1980s and 1990s. Its started as a prevention program in the Los Angeles Police Department focused on educating children about the dangers of substance abuse and empowering them to say “no.”
D.A.R.E. swelled from a local, community program to a massive, national campaign, and at the program’s peak, 75 percent of schools were employing it.
But as any kid who grew up with the program can attest, it didn’t work.
A number of academic studies have shown how D.A.R.E. was at best ineffectual and, at worst, more likely to convince kids to try drugs. The program failed to tap into youth culture and truly change kids’ views on drugs. I should know. As a middle-school student in 1996, I was part of the era.
At the culmination of my school’s program, students were asked to write an essay about why you were not going to use drugs. The best essay received a D.A.R.E. T-shirt.
The “winner?” My best friend.
When a police officer called my friend to the stage to receive his prize. He turned bright red and looked visibly upset as he started towards the front. The police officer noticed, and all pretense of the officer's unquestionable authority vanished in an instant.
“If you don’t want the T-shirt, you don’t have to take it,” said the officer. My friend reluctantly grabbed the T-shirt, shook the officer’s hand, and rushed back to his seat next to me.
See, that was the problem with D.A.R.E.: Kids did not trust the message, nor the messenger.
During transformative middle-school years, being cool meant one had power and respect. The D.A.R.E. program, mandated by school and delivered by law enforcement, had zero appeal. Walker took a social hit when his name was called. While D.A.R.E. remained immensely popular among parents, teachers, and law enforcement, it was far from effective at convincing kids not to use drugs.
We are now in an era when state legalization of marijuana is increasingly becoming the norm. During my tenure as self-proclaimed Colorado’s marijuana czar, one of the more discouraging dynamics I dealt with was the public health community’s inability to come to terms with this and focus on what really needed to be focused on: bringing viable solutions to the table to prevent youth usage. Rather than utilizing the best practices for youth prevention that they had learned from other highly regulated substances, like tobacco and alcohol, the public health organizations focused their efforts on repeal.
Public health experts have every right to stand against legalization, and lobby against legalization proponents in states considering a given measure. In states that have legalized marijuana, it is time for acceptance and putting in place programs that combat youth drug use.
To date, states that have opted for legalization have not experienced a statistically significant change in youth usage, but since our time period of analysis is so short, that could change. The case with tobacco taught us that we have only a limited amount of time to get this right, and we need to enact youth prevention programs immediately that actually work.
Marijuana, like tobacco, has a market problem: 20 percent of the consumers use 80 percent of the product. To significantly grow market share, industry has two options: get more people addicted, and, if possible, get them addicted at a younger age. Tobacco did both, and they had the resources and power to succeed for decades.
Some in the marijuana industry will inevitably mimic tobacco’s tactics. It is beholden on community leaders, public health specialists, philanthropists, policymakers, and well-intentioned industry to take the lessons from the dark ages of tobacco and use them to prevent future transgressions.
Instead of fighting marijuana legalization, here’s an idea: Let’s develop and execute a meaningful campaign that actually prevents youth marijuana use. In the past, many campaigns have focused on what adults think they should tell kids: just say no or your brain will fry.
But we need to look at recent history and programs like the very successful Tobacco-Free Kids to learn how best to prevent youth substance addiction. Let’s build a campaign from the ground up. Let’s start by listening to kids. Letting them tell us what they believe and what they care about.
It’s time for new policies, comprehensive public education campaigns, and thoughtful, evidence-based programs geared towards preventing youth use and abuse. Let’s start a Youth Marijuana Prevention Council, not D.A.R.E. 2.0.