L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 188, August 26, 2002
Dare to Face the Failure of DARE
by Vin Suprynowicz
Special to TLE
Policemen, by and large, are fine fellows who only want the best for our children.
And today's children, few would dispute, need to be warned about the dangers of addictive drugs -- and the criminal culture which often accompanies their use (thanks to their current legal status) -- at a fairly tender age.
So what could be more natural, Los Angeles police wondered back in 1983, than to send officers into the city's classrooms, creating a program that became known by the mildly tortured acronym DARE -- Drug Abuse (or sometimes, "Awareness") Resistance Education?
The initiative spread like wildfire -- in part because it was good public relations for police departments, presenting the boys in blue or beige as "Officer Friendlies" -- and eventually found a place in 80 percent of the nation's school districts. More than 50,000 police officers nationwide have now been trained in the DARE "curriculum."
The only problem was, the program consumed ever larger chunks of taxpayer funding, and it never actually worked. Louisville, Kentucky dumped DARE after finding it to be ineffective in 1996. Boulder, Colorado followed suit in 1998, as did Minneapolis in 1999, as study after study showed little or no decrease in long-term likelihood to indulge in drug use among DARE graduates, when compared to control groups.
Last week, Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio followed suit, citing in part a study published Aug. 3 in the magazine Health Education Research, a journal for educators and researchers based in Chapel Hill, N.C., which found the top three programs used by schools to keep kids away from drugs either aren't effective, or haven't been sufficiently tested to show they're effective.
Programs such as DARE, "Here's Looking at You 2000," and McGruff's Drug Prevention and Child Protection "haven't shown the kind of results that schools expected, despite years of use," reported the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
The reason for this should have been obvious long ago -- and is such a basic flaw that giving these programs new hems and flounces is unlikely to accomplish much.
What children need in order to make wise decisions about drug use is factual information. Among the consciousness-altering drugs alcohol, amphetamine, cocaine, caffeine, ecstasy, nicotine, heroin (and the other opiates), marijuana (and the other hallucinogens) -- not to mention the whole host of painkillers, mood elevators, muscle relaxants, barbiturates, and other latter-day nostrums now readily available either "by prescription" or through the miracle of modern veterinary practice -- which are addictive and which are not? Which do the most physical harm, and which are most likely to cause overdose deaths? Which present the worst problems with dosage control, habituation, and antisocial behavior?
If marijuana prohibition succeeds in making that drug hard to get, and young people turn instead to sniffing paint thinner, are they better off -- or worse?
Is the average police officer trained in comparative pharmacology? Given the standard belief that he can't "break ranks and encourage law-breaking," will he usually feel free to admit that a young person is far better off smoking pot than sniffing glue?
Can he or she explain how these complex molecules work in the brain, and why they are often experienced as pleasurable? Does the average officer -- even one "trained in the DARE curriculum" -- understand how medical science actually defines addiction, in terms of tolerance and withdrawal?
Would he or she feel comfortable pointing out that when mom or dad suffers a daily headache at 4 p.m. and reaches for the Anacin (not aspirin), he or she is actually treating the effects of caffeine withdrawal -- or that the drug responsible for the most anti-social activity around the world is alcohol, or that Dr. Andrew Weil, an expert in addiction studies at the University of Arizona, has classified heroin and tobacco as our two most addictive drugs?
Hardly ever. The officer -- with the best of intentions -- can probably relate a few harrowing anecdotes about users of currently illegal drugs (all of which were perfectly legal from 1607 through 1916) whose lives did not turn out well. Otherwise he is left in the end offering a somewhat slicker version of the warning of South Park's Officer Barbrady, pounding his nightstick and mumbling to the children that "Drugs are bad, so don't do drugs, OK?"
It was an interesting experiment. It failed. And we haven't even touched on its greatest negative consequence. Because it gave them the impression the problem was "being dealt with," it may have discouraged direct participation by the adults who are actually best positioned to talk with children about advisable and inadvisable drug use, in the first place -- their parents.