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The Truth about D.A.R.E.

Mises Daily: Thursday, March 20, 2003 by

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If popularity was the sole measure of success then D.A.R.E., the "Drug Abuse Resistance Education" curriculum that is now taught in 80 percent of school districts nationwide, would be triumphant.  However, if one is to gauge success by actual results, then America's most pervasive and expensive youth drug education program is (and always has been) a gigantic and incontrovertible flop. 

So says the General Accounting Office (GAO) in a scathing new report that finds the politically popular program has had "no statistically significant long-term effect on preventing youth illicit drug use."  In addition, students who participate in D.A.R.E. demonstrate "no significant differences... [in] attitudes toward illicit drug use [or] resistance to peer pressure" compared to children who had not been exposed to the program, the GAO determined. 

Their critique was the latest in a long line of stinging evaluations that have plagued D.A.R.E. throughout its 20-year history.  Established in 1983 by former Los Angeles police chief Daryl—All casual drug users should be taken out and shot!—Gates, the D.A.R.E. elementary school curriculum consists of 17 lessons—taught by D.A.R.E.-trained uniform police officers—urging kids to resist the use of illicit drugs, including the underage use of alcohol and tobacco.  Upon completion of the curriculum, which often relies on scare tactics and transparent "just say no" ideology, graduates "pledge to lead a drug-free life."  Numerous studies indicate few do. 

These include:

  • A 1991 University of Kentucky study of 2,071 sixth graders that found no difference in the past-year use of cigarettes, alcohol or marijuana among DARE graduates and non-graduates two years after completing the program.     
  • A 1996 University of Colorado study of over 940 elementary school students that found no difference with regard to illicit drug use, delay of experimentation with illicit drugs, self-esteem, or resistance to peer pressure among D.A.R.E. graduates and non-graduates three years after completing the program.     
  • A 1998 University of Illinois study of 1,798 elementary school students that found no differences with regards to the recent use of illicit drugs among D.A.R.E. graduates and non-graduates six years after completing the program.     
  • A 1999 follow-up study by the University of Kentucky that found no difference in lifetime, past-year, or past-month use of marijuana among D.A.R.E. graduates and non-graduates 10 years after completing the program. 

In fact, over the years so many studies have assailed D.A.R.E.'s effectiveness that by 2001 even its proponents admitted it needed serious revamping.  However, rather than shelving the failed program altogether, D.A.R.E.'s advocates called for expanding its admittedly abysmal curriculum to target middle-school and high-school students—a move that was lauded by many federal officials and peer educators despite a track record that would spell the demise for most any other program. 

So why does D.A.R.E. remain so immensely popular with politicians (Both Bush I and Clinton endorsed "National D.A.R.E. Day.") and school administrators despite its stunning lack of demonstrated efficacy?  Researchers writing in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology offer two explanations. 

The first is that for many civic leaders, teaching children to refrain from drugs simply "feels good."  Therefore, advocates of the program perceive any scrutiny of their effectiveness to be overly critical and unnecessary. 

The second explanation is that D.A.R.E. and similar youth anti-drug education programs appear to work.  After all, most kids who graduate D.A.R.E. do not enage in drug use beyond the occasional beer or marijuana cigarette.  However, this reality is hardly an endorsement of D.A.R.E., but an acknowledgement of the statistical fact that most teens—even without D.A.R.E.—never engage in any significant drug use.

Of course, those looking for a third explanation could simply follow the money trail.  Even though D.A.R.E. has been a failure at persuading kids to steer away from drugs, it has been a marketing cash cow—filling its coffers with hundreds of millions of dollars in annual federal aid.  (According to the GAO, exact totals are unavailable but outside experts have placed this figure at anywhere from $600 to $750 million per year.) 

In addition, police departments spend an additional $215 million yearly on D.A.R.E. to pay for their officers' participation in the program, according to the New York Times.  But this total may be only the tip of the iceberg.  According to a preliminary economic assessment by Le Moyne College in New York, the total economic costs of officers' training and participation in D.A.R.E. is potentially closer to $600 million. 

Regardless of its ultimate financial cost to taxpayers, there is no doubt that D.A.R.E. has become its own special interest group—aggressively lobbying state and federal governments to maintain its swelling budget.  Like a junkie, D.A.R.E. is addicted to the money, and will do whatever it takes to get it.  Meanwhile, its proponents remain in a state of denial, caring more about political posturing than embracing a youth drug education program that really works.  After 20 years of failure, isn't it about time someone dares to tell the truth?

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Paul Armentano is a senior policy analyst for The NORML Foundation in Washington, DC.  He may be contacted via e-mail at: paularmentano@aol.com.