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For decades, being a public school student in the United States almost universally meant you were required to sit through the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program. But for all the stern warnings about the dangers of drugs and attempts at making an antidrug message “cool,” research into the program's impact suggests that it simply didn’t work.
Despite its multimillion-dollar budget and a presence in 75% of American schools at its peak in the 1980s and 1990s, study after study found that its methods — which leaned heavily on scare tactics and lectures by police — had no measurable effect on rates of underage drug use. One group of researchers even found that it may have increased drug abuse in certain groups.
That doesn’t mean schools have stopped trying to educate kids about the risks of drug use. D.A.R.E. is still taught in thousands of communities across the country, using a revamped curriculum that focuses more on good decision-making skills than scary lectures. Another popular program is Red Ribbon Week, which is held at the end of October every year. There are hundreds of other alternatives, each with its own approach to persuading young people to stay away from narcotics.
The nature of teen drug use has also changed dramatically since D.A.R.E.’s heyday. The share of high school students who have used illicit drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and even marijuana has fallen substantially since 2001 — right around the time D.A.R.E. fell out of popularity. But the rate of drug-related deaths among teens has increased over the past few years, largely because of a huge spike in fentanyl overdoses.
Why there’s debate
While it’s now widely accepted that the fear-based tactics that were at the center of the old D.A.R.E model aren’t effective, there is no consensus on what a program that actually keeps kids off drugs should look like.
D.A.R.E. and many other programs still rely on police to help deliver their antidrug message. But critics of this approach say kids in many of the communities that face the biggest dangers from drugs are deeply distrustful of law enforcement, which means the lesson is far less effective than it would be if delivered by other trusted adults like teachers or community members.
There are also large differences in how much programs emphasize the specific health and criminal risks of drug use, versus how much they focus on promoting skills like self-advocacy and critical thinking that apply in other circumstances as well.
Some of the newest antidrug programs are built around the concept of harm reduction, a controversial approach that mostly abandons the idea that anything can stop teens from using drugs entirely and instead hopes to give them practical advice to protect themselves and others when they inevitably do.
We can’t scare teenagers away from drug use
“It’s not as if these kids are unsuspecting and have never seen the consequences of drug use before. … They’ve already got enough fear as it is.” — Kelli Caseman, executive director of Think Kids, to Colorado Public Radio
It’s dangerous to pretend that we can convince teens to never touch drugs
“There’s the reality that people do do drugs that is not accounted for in Just Say No programming. … If all you give to young people are a million different ways that they can say no, how are they gonna have the skills and information to be able to deal when they inevitably say yes to drugs?” — Sasha Simon, drug prevention program designer, to KQED
Police can’t deliver the message to the kids who need to hear it the most
“Students' acceptance of the prevention message depends on their trust in and their perceived credibility of the source. With the disintegration of the public's trust in police, it is hard to argue that they still make ideal prevention messengers.” — Khary Rigg, Newsweek
Antidrug programs are a stopgap. Only society-level change can truly end teen drug abuse
“In the long term, effective addiction prevention requires social change to prevent or at least intervene early in childhood trauma, creating communities conducive to mental health with safe, nurturing schools, stimulating extracurricular activities and access to comprehensive health care. But first, we need to keep young people alive, and that means having uncomfortable, honest conversations.” — Maia Szalavitz, New York Times
Kids in the most vulnerable communities aren’t getting the support they deserve
“Data on school-based drug prevention education programs is somewhat sparse. But available statistics indicate that they’re not reaching students uniformly. … Schools with a higher proportion of white and affluent students received significantly more prevention programs than in schools where Black, Hispanic, or economically disadvantaged students made up a majority of the student body.” — Elizabeth Heubeck, Education Week
Students need practical advice to protect themselves, not buzzy catchphrases
“What we really need to be doing is equipping them with skills and understanding to stay safe. That means understanding that pills and powders are the highest risk. It also means knowing to encourage their friends never to use alone, making sure there’s someone there to call 911 if things go bad. And making sure there’s[anti-overdose drug] naloxone on hand, because opioid overdoses are 100% preventable and reversible if naloxone is on hand quickly.” — Joseph Friedman, a public health researcher at the University of California, to WBUR
Drug education will fail unless it’s entwined with mental health support
“Substance use disorder is one type of mental health problem, and when you have one problem of this type, you are more likely to have other problems in the same area. So educating students about mental health and substance abuse makes a lot of sense. … Good mental health is not possible if a substance use disorder exists, and vice versa.” — Sarah Martin, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, to Texas Tribune
Fentanyl in so dangerous, it makes the old strategies obsolete
“We used to understand drugs as a potential ‘pathway’ to addiction. But now, there is no pathway — it’s a minefield. The risk has changed from eventual death to immediate death. … It’s extremely urgent that young people understand this.” — Ed Ternan, drug awareness advocate, to EdSource