In 1982, while visiting an elementary school in Oakland, First Lady Nancy Reagan uttered three words that would launch one of America’s greatest moral panics: “Just say no.”
Reagan had started to mull the horrors of drug abuse at the turn of the decade, and with those three words, she found her definite answer to the question of what kids should do when offered drugs. Seemingly overnight, “Just Say No” clubs started to bloom in schools across America. Teachers and parents went head-over-heels for the movement, seeing it as a shield against the specter of drugs, gangs and criminality growing in the nation.
A year later, in 1983, the Los Angeles Police Department unveiled its shiny new program to nip youth drug use in the bud: Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or D.A.R.E.. Its tenets were inspired by the same “just say no” attitude that Reagan espoused, with a focus on educating naive kids about the horrors of street drugs and their consequences. The program’s cheerleaders promised to put a cop in every middle school in America, ready to weave tales about heinous drugs and the evil people who push them.
The only problem: It didn’t work. Despite the mass public support, widespread adoption and a veritable mountain’s worth of cheerful D.A.R.E.-emblazoned merchandise, stationary and stickers given away to kids, there was never any proof that D.A.R.E. did anything to prevent drug use.
Indeed, some critics suggested teaching kids about magical, risky chemicals actually led them to experiment. Multiple studies, including a landmark 1994 paper and a 1999 review of D.A.R.E. programming, found very little to justify the expense and time, instead suggesting that D.A.R.E. leaders seek other, more evidence-based methods rather than just trusting cops to scare kids straight.
What did D.A.R.E. leaders do? They worked to quash the 1994 study and maintain the course. In a sense, it worked, as D.A.R.E. spread to some 75 percent of schools in America by 2003, running off a taxpayer-funded budget of more than $600 million annually. But the cracks were starting to show, too. In 2001, the Department of Education announced it would cut off federal funding to D.A.R.E., citing a lack of evidence of efficacy. A negative 2003 report from the Government Accountability Office became the symbolic nail in the coffin.
In a parallel universe, D.A.R.E. died there, a victim of its own hubris. And, to a degree, it really feels like D.A.R.E. is gone: There’s no national campaigning, no celebrity endorsements, no goofy merch.
In reality, what came after 2003 was a slow and steady rebirth. D.A.R.E. leaders vowed to shift toward evidence-based practices, working with drug use prevention experts in the field and academia. Today, there are still more than 1,700 D.A.R.E. programs around the country, which the organization claims reaches some 1 million students in the U.S.
Credit where credit is due: The curriculum has been shifted in a dramatic way. But the continuing trust in using police officers to educate kids about drug use and peer pressure remains a bizarre choice during a time when police have been criticized for being stretched too thin, expected to serve as moral judge and jury in all kinds of conflicts while also having an agenda as executioner. It shows us how little progress we’ve made in understanding the root causes of teen drug abuse, and who can make a lasting difference in the health and trajectory of a young person in distress.
The new D.A.R.E. curriculum, introduced in 2009, is called “keepin’ it REAL” (or KiR). The major alleged difference is that it empowers students to interact with each other on topics like drugs and peer pressure, rather than just listening to a lecture from a cop. The core idea is in the acronym “REAL,” laying out the steps to say no to drugs: Refuse, Explain, Avoid and Leave. This concept is baked into programs for elementary, middle and high school kids, each consisting of 10 45-minute lessons, plus “take-home family talk” activities. As in the past, D.A.R.E. relies on a local police officer, equipped with 80 hours of D.A.R.E.’s proprietary training, to lead the room.
The proponents of KiR, including co-authors Michael Hecht and Michelle Miller-Day, claim that the shift toward “evidence-based” techniques like group interaction make this new D.A.R.E. an objective success. They authored a study suggesting a 75 percent reduction in drug use between students who had taken the program versus those who had not, and claimed this attitude held over time.
Unfortunately, a decade after the implementation of D.A.R.E.’s shiny new curricula, it’s still unclear whether this kind of drug prevention has done anything worthwhile. Independent research from 2016 and 2017 suggests that D.A.R.E. still suffers from the same problems of yore.
Perhaps one of the biggest issues is inconsistency: The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration gives a low grade (just 1.5 out of 4) to the “keepin’ it REAL” program on its “readiness for dissemination.” Much of the experience depends on the students and the police officer leading the session, which D.A.R.E. claims are “highly trained” after the equivalent of a two-week crash course (80 hours). There’s also not much emphasis on mental and social health, with just a single 45-minute “extension session” on mental health offered within the curriculum for older students.
While the D.A.R.E. program has come a long way, it’s not hard to imagine why doing drug-refusal skits in front of a cop wouldn’t teach students enough about the contours about why some people experiment with drug use — and why some of those people go on to struggle with debilitating addiction. D.A.R.E.’s old philosophy came from a worldview in which innocent children were falling prey to the forces of bad peers and falling into the arms of derelict drug dealers. But that whitewashed portrayal of drug use as a moral fight, rather than a mental and physical one, never captured the complex draw of self-medication.
Maybe it’s impossible for an at-school drug prevention program to capture that. Yet the continued use of police in schools to “educate” is an inherent problem with D.A.R.E., which was born of law enforcement and continues to preach on the benefits of fostering “community policing” in school halls. The escalation of police in schools was justified over the last four decades by the moral panic over crime and the War on Drugs, and it has done explicit harm to children, with very little evidence that their presence improves safety and learning long-term. (What we do know: Cops in schools create racist, prosecution-oriented outcomes for young Black and brown students).
Reagan, in a 1981 interview with Good Morning America, noted that there was a lot left to learn about youth drug use: “Understanding what drugs can do to your children, understanding peer pressure and understanding why they turn to drugs is … the first step in solving the problem.”
Since then, there’s been a major evolution in how schools try to do the “drug talk,” including with the platforming of people who lived through drug abuse or study it for a living. But despite it all, a relic of the 1980s lives on, swearing that cops and 45-minute activity sessions are key to stopping a drug use epidemic. We’ve learned a lot about drugs and addiction since 1981, but apparently not enough to abandon a 20th-century blunder.