Did D.A.R.E. Actually Increase Drug Use?

In 1983, First Lady Nancy Reagan visited Longfellow Elementary School in Oakland, California, when a schoolgirl asked her about what to do if she was offered drugs. The First Lady responded, “just say ‘no.'” This trip was not the first foray by Mrs. Reagan to raise awareness regarding the dangers of drug use. However, this interaction was picked up by the press and resulted in an advertising campaign in her husband’s war on drugs.

While I think we can all agree that war on drugs was a spectacular failure, or at least, unless you’re on the side of the drugs, to her credit, Nancy Reagan spent her time in public life raising funds for wounded and returned Vietnam veterans as First Lady of California. She also pushed for funding for missing soldiers and soldiers believed to be still held as prisoners of war and was critical in creating the Foster Grandparents program. And through it all, she traveled over 250,000 miles visiting schools, rehabilitation centers, and other nations attempting to warn children of the dangers of drug use. To some extent, this caring and dedication made programs that sprung up around her challenging to criticize, even if they accomplished nothing of any value.

In this political environment, DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) was born a year later when the LAPD and the Los Angeles School District decided to take on drug use on the demand side rather than the supply side. The leadership of the LAPD drove the project to bring it to fruition and a congressional committee responsible for funding DARE cited early studies showing it was helpful in order to justify the cost. Further, the committee’s report found that fifth and sixth-grade children often had a more sophisticated understanding of drugs than their teachers did. It also found that since police officers had to deal with the effects of drugs every day, they would be more effective in teaching the curriculum and deterring students.

For those outside of the United States who weren’t put through the program, the DARE program took place over seventeen weeks, promising a reduction in vandalism, violence, and drug use. Each week a police officer provides forty-five minutes to one hour of training to students in grades five through nine. The  program also suggested that teachers integrate the material into components of their regular curriculum, as well as included methods to help students improve their self-esteem, learn to resist unwanted offers, and improve their assertiveness in general. It also gave them real information about various substances and their impact on the body. A controversial side issue with the program is it also encourages kids to report any drug use they observe in school or in their home to the DARE officers…

In any event, the program is identical across the United States. The goal is that each student will see the same information in the same way, to hopefully have the same outcome everywhere. However, as you might expect, students, environments, income, and local cultures are quite different across the U.S. The authors of the program had hoped that such differences would not matter. But, let’s just say, it does. A lot.

As for funding for the program, the initial law required the Secretary of Education to set aside $15,000,000 from the Drug Free Schools and Communities Act to support the Drug Abuse Resistance Education Act. Two Republican members of the House, Bill Goodling and Tom Petri, wrote a short dissent to the committee’s findings concerning the program, stating:

“We join our colleagues in offering both encouragement and support to the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program (DARE) which has been widely used in many communities and has been a compelling force in encouraging youth to resist the lure of drug use. Although we fully support the use of DARE, we do have a concern regarding the mechanism contained in H.R. 5064 to provide financial support to DARE. H.R. 5064 would provide a reservation off-the-top of the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act appropriation for grants to local education agencies to establish DARE programs. We do not believe that it is prudent to reserve funds for such a specific type of program when many effective drug abuse education curricula have been developed. Further, such a reservation will limit the funds available to local education officials to use at their discretion in determining which programs will best serve the particular needs of the youth in their communities.”

As for Goodling, he had the background to know what he was talking about- a master’s degree in English and had been a teacher as well. Representative Gooding also had served on a local school board and as its president. He brought that experience with him to Congress. But on this one, nobody really listened.

Pointing out the major issue, as alluded to, DARE set aside money for its operation independent of its effectiveness, whereas other programs have to prove their effectiveness through data and peer review. The crux of the dissent is that it is better to let those who know the children and situation in a community make those decisions, rather than national legislators who may mean well, but are often more motivated by needing to appear to be doing something useful, whether what they do is actually useful or not.

Inevitably with all of this, soon after the passage of the law, researchers began asking the question, “What does DARE do?” And whether it was actually effective at any of its goals.

Of course, one of the challenges in the sciences, especially in the social sciences, is called the “replication crisis.” Even in the best of circumstances, it can be difficult to get research on a single topic to agree when the underlying population is quite different or diverse. In its simplest form, the replication crisis happens when someone performs research and finds that something works, then someone else looks, and it does not. Part of the issue is that it takes a lot of money and work across a large sample to be sure one way or the other.

As for DARE and its effectiveness, the initial work after it was approved into law was not promising. Ironically, some of the first research found that it not only wasn’t reducing drug use, but it actually increased certain types of substance abuse. Funny enough, the effect of finding that educating people on what they should not do producing the opposite result happens more than one might expect…

This result has come up in a variety of fields. For example, some of the research on financial education has found that mandatory financial education in bankruptcy can actually increase the probability of future insolvency, rather than decrease it. In short, while people without knowledge in personal finance can make foolish choices that fail, people with education and more know-how on finance can engage in genuinely sophisticated and more spectacular failures.

That said, one thing the research on DARE shows is that it does a very good job of providing information about drugs…

From here, the next round of research found that DARE did not work in its original area, California. But in this round, it also didn’t seem to increase the rate of abuse at least.

So to sum up,  there were now three sets of studies surrounding the DARE program. The initial studies showed it worked, the next round showed evidence that it had the opposite of the intended effect, and the third round found no impact at all.

Although it may be possible to engage in methodological criticism with each of the studies, the overall state of the research at this point, let’s just say, doesn’t make DARE look like a particularly worthwhile program, nor would the follow ups we’ll get into shortly.

Going back to the purpose of DARE- reducing violence in schools, vandalism, and the rate of substance abuse. Since that time, the nation has gone through school shooting after school shooting. The children that took DARE grew up to participate in the opioid crisis. Property crimes did fall. The question is how to sift out DARE’s impact on the more extensive set of social questions driving each of these phenomena. DARE would still be worthwhile if it reduced the level enough despite all the other problems.

Of course, if a different program cut substance abuse by twenty percent, while DARE reduced it five, DARE’s money should probably go to the other program. As you might expect, both of these questions have since been well studied.

The first meta-analysis studied both of these in 1994. It concluded that DARE had a very small effect on tobacco use, but no impact on alcohol or other drug use. When it was compared to another program that was studied, it was found to be comparatively ineffective.

Subsequent local studies found that either there was a small gain from using DARE or that there was a small amount of harm. Later meta-analysis concluded that DARE produced no short-term impact on substance use.

A large scale study of New Jersey schools looked at the original claims related to vandalism, violence, and substance use. It found no effect of DARE on the outcomes. Students that participated in DARE were equally likely to engage in violence, commit vandalism, or abuse substances.

From all this, in 2001, the Surgeon General classified DARE in its list of programs that were ineffective. Helpfully, the Surgeon General also created a list of programs that have been shown to work well.

One thing to remember about substance abuse is that they are often used initially to numb pain. That pain may be physical or psychological. Children in pain, like adults in pain, do not want to be in that situation. Further, children typically have fewer resources and lesser maturity than adults to cope with pain.

Of course, there is another factor to consider when looking at such programs’ effectiveness- the role supply and demand play in the problem. If schools were successful in reducing the demand for illegal drugs, then suppliers would cut their prices to bring up the quantity demanded to at least near its old level.  For example, when the South Beach diet hit America, the demand for spinach skyrocketed. It takes an entire season to change the amount of spinach planted in the ground, so the prices shot through the ceiling. At least in part, the diet was choked off because the cost of the healthy foods in the diet became too expensive for most people, while the prices of unhealthy foods dropped.

Similarly, if schools are successful in changing attitudes about drugs, and thus students and later their adult selves not partaking as much, it is in the interest of suppliers to adjust the cost so that any market losses will be minimal. Needless to say, a school attempting to change transient attitudes is up against powerful forces.

But, in the end, the supplier of substances is at the end of a long chain of events that began with pain. To attack demand is to attack pain-causing issues.

For example, during the Vietnam War, the military estimated that forty percent of all infantrymen were addicted to heroin. The enemy was indistinguishable from civilians. Combat was often by ambush. As in other wars, soldiers watched their friends die and were sometimes wounded themselves. Heroin dulled the pain of life in a warzone.

When the soldiers returned to America, the level of addiction fell to the background level normal throughout society. The pain was gone; the use mostly went away outside of the national norm. This same phenomenon has been seen repeatedly by looking at wage levels and unemployment.

It has been found to be no different for children. Prevent or remove pain, and substances do not enter the picture to the same degree. Further, a child busy with activities and friends is less likely to get involved in such negative activities.

Unsurprisingly from this, programs that center around pain removal and more productive activities often have been shown to do what DARE does not. On this note and important to the overall discussion is that the Surgeon General’s office found many things that worked well at preventing drug abuse among kids.

One of the most straightforward and longest-lasting interventions may seem unrelated to drug abuse, and that is prenatal and infancy visits by nurses, which have been shown to be effective in both White and African American communities as well as both in rural and urban settings.

With this, a fifteen-year follow-up on low-income teenage mothers found a 79 percent reduction in reports of child abuse and neglect. It found a 44% decline in maternal behavioral problems and a 9% reduction in maternal arrests. A side benefit of all of this from the perspective of the goals of DARE, it found a 56% reduction in alcohol consumption versus those that did not have visiting nurses. It was also determined that the effects were diminished for those children with more than 28 incidents of child abuse.

Another model program for first and second graders is the Seattle Social Development Project. The program is designed to help early grade school children with problems of aggression, anti-social behavior, externalizing behavior, and self-destructive behaviors. Participants have lower levels of alcohol and delinquency initiation, greater attachment and commitment to school, and less involvement with anti-social peers. Follow up on students that were 18 years old found significant reductions in violent acts and heavy alcohol use. Teens who had received a full intervention were also less likely to be sexually active, have multiple partners, or have gotten someone pregnant or become pregnant themselves.

Moving on from there, the Life Skills Training program run by Cornell reduces alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco use by an average of 50-75%. Long term follow-up after six years shows that the program reduces multiple drug use by 66% and pack-a-day smoking by 25%. It also reduces inhalants, narcotics, and hallucinogen usage as well.

The Surgeon General also studied programs for children in trouble. Functional Family Therapy was found to significantly reduce the percentage of children in the juvenile justice system that reoffended. One study found that only 60% reoffended compared with 93% who did not receive it. Another study found that only 11% reoffended versus 67% that did not receive the therapy.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, another study found that the programs most likely to be implemented were not the best programs, in terms of outcomes, but the best programs in terms of marketing. In a democracy, there is a strong preference for the familiar, as well as things that seem like they would more directly help, rather than programs like the nursing visits that indirectly get the results sought. There is also very sadly sometimes a strong resistance to science.

On top of this, a law once passed is very difficult to remove, as congressmen William Goodling and Tom Petri observed. Despite its ineffectiveness, especially compared to other programs with similar goals, DARE has an infrastructure in the U.S. Department of Justice. It has regional training centers. Its funds are also used to buy police equipment.  In addition, a couple generations of students have gone through the program and remember it now that they are parents, perhaps without being aware that the program itself doesn’t accomplish its goals.

As for alternate, proven programs, like the nurse visits, visiting nurses are also less politically palatable to a wide swath of the American public. They want the substances and abuse to go away, but they don’t necessarily want to pay for infants or mothers’ healthcare. They are opposed to money going to others that they seemingly, at least on the surface, see nothing from directly, despite the proven benefit to society as a whole, not unlike free public education. In the latter case, ostensibly if you have no kids, free public education for all children is the government spending your tax dollars on something you don’t use or seemingly benefit from directly. But when factoring in the massive benefit to society as a whole to have the entire populace educated, not to mention ancillary benefits like a productive place to stash the kids while parents work, few have a problem with this. In a nutshell, we all live here. So it’s nice to make it nice.

But in the end, the difference between perception and reality makes it difficult for legislators to move away from funded programs that do not work to get funds for proven programs. Further, the U.S. Department of Education does not use a system of testing to determine what programs to fund. And so it is that empirically proven programs can lose out to programs shown not to work, but that are perhaps better from a marketing standpoint.

In the end, DARE is not the only program in widespread use that has been shown to fail in accomplishing its goals. It is just the best known anti-drug program.

The irony is that if Nancy Reagan could see the results side-by-side, she would likely be out advocating for the programs that work and perhaps making headway towards this given it’s political pressure that is needed to make the needed changes. A person that flies 250,000 miles visiting children, rehabilitation centers, and hospitals doesn’t want all that work to be for nothing. Nancy Reagan, in addition to being an actress, was also a nursing assistant. She is the same type of person that might have advocated for nurses to go home to home, checking on mothers and babies.

In the end, good working programs do exist to execute the goals of DARE. It’s simply that the most widely known program meant to accomplish this, DARE, isn’t one of them.

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Expand for References

Susan T. Ennet, PhD, Nancy S. Tobler, MS, PhD, Christopher L. Ringwalt, DrPH, and Robert L. Flewelling, PhD. How Effective Is Drug Abuse

Resistance Education? A Meta-Analysis of Project DARE

Outcome Evaluations. American Journal of Public Health. September 1994. Vol 84. No 9

Renzo Accursio Trapani. The Influences of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) and Law Enforcement Against Drugs (L.E.A.D) Programs on Middle, Intermediate, and Upper School Students in the State of New Jersey in the 2016-2017 Academic Year. 2019. Doctoral Dissertation. Seton Hall University.

Theodore L. Caputi & A. Thomas McLellan. Truth and D.A.R.E.: Is D.A.R.E.’s new Keepin’ it REAL curriculum suitable for American nationwide

implementation? Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy.24:1, 49-57

Bureau of Justice Assistance. Implementing Project DARE: Drug Abuse Resistence Education: Implementation Manual. June 1988. US Department of Justice.

The National First Ladies Library. First Lady Biography: Nancy Reagan. http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=41

McGrath, Michael, Nancy Reagan and the negative impact of the ‘Just Say No’ anti-drug campaign. The Guardian. March 8, 2018

Evans, Alice and Kris Bosworth –Building effective drug education programs.}}Phi Delta Kappa International Research Bulletin No 19, December, 1887.

Office of the Surgeon General (US); National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (US); National Institute of Mental Health (US); Center for Mental Health Services (US). Rockville (MD): Office of the Surgeon General (US); 2001.

Judith Lohman, Assistant Director. DRUG ABUSE RESISTANCE EDUCATION (DARE) PROGRAM. November 22, 2010. https://www.cga.ct.gov/2010/rpt/2010-R-0468.htm

West SL, O’Neal KK. Project D.A.R.E. outcome effectiveness revisited. Am J Public Health. 2004;94(6):1027-1029. doi:10.2105/ajph.94.6.1027

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