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I Dare ‘Ya - Time for change in the Drug Abuse Resistance Education

Drew Harris 

I had been playing football my whole life in my small hometown in southern Maryland. The connections made on that made field were life-long lasting friendships because together we won championships, worked together, built trust and had fun. However, last year one of my teammates died of a heroin overdose. He was an extremely bright kid and an incredible athlete. This led me to question some of the qualities that I always thought our "team" had. Why was he using such a harmful drug? Where were we while he was getting high? What went wrong? In a sense I had felt guilty because our team had let one of its members down.

However, we could not monitor all of the team's social life because most of the team had been away at school, and also, no one else had ever dabbled with heroin before.

We all participated in the popular program DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) and, well, come to think of it, that was the only education we received on drug abuse. DARE told us to "Just say no to drugs" and focused mainly on ways to avoid peer pressure, but is it always peer pressure that causes kids to do drugs? In my friend's case the answer was "no." His drug abuse, we later learned, stemmed from a horrific family life and a past family history that was doused in drug addiction. I imagine it was slightly harder for my fallen friend to just say no when the person asking him to do the drugs wasn't some peer, rather it was, in a way, himself.

Although the DARE program argues that peer pressure is a major cause of teen drug use, my friend was not pressured by his peers to try heroin. Therefore, the DARE program pushes the message that students should resist peer pressure to try drugs, but according to Sarah Glazer, a staff writer for the CQ Researcher, this tactic "may have little impact in a society where drug experimentation is a normal but not necessarily fatal part of adolescence" (Glazer). 

It is true that peer pressure is a major force that leads to teen drug use. The DARE program tries to teach kids to resist peer pressure through such catchy phrases as "Just Say No." Kids are taught how to walk away from certain awkward social situations by "Just saying no." Does this work? In theory yes, but one must consider a few things when analyzing this combative technique to peer pressure.

Young people have an extremely hard time with self control. Self control is a key element when considering the current tactics taught by DARE educators; most teens simply do not have the will to just walk away from a conflicting situation such as a peer offering drugs. Also, the reality is that drugs are everywhere and readily available. Marsha Rosenbaum, director of the Drug Policy Alliance in San Francisco, CA, an alliance devoted to offering alternative solutions to current drug policies, stated that the current DARE program offers an "unsophisticated delivery system… [of the] same message" (Rosenbaum qtd. In Masci). In a society where drugs are everywhere it is not enough to just tell kids to not do drugs.

One problem with the DARE program is that abstinence and peer pressure go hand in hand. DARE preaches that abstinence is the best policy when dealing with drugs. The experts who run the DARE program feel the best way to combat drug addiction is to teach kids to never do drugs. This ideal is false. It would take the greatest teacher to have ever walked the face of the earth to "teach" a child to never do a drug. A child cannot be taught abstinence, and peer pressure is a much more forceful opponent than most think. Abstinence is the best form of protection, but when abstinence fails there are always other answers. Rehabilitation and other means of help are always available. DARE education, however, does not go beyond the "Just say no" tactic. If one does do drugs what then? Are they left out in the cold? Is help on the way?

Another problem with the DARE program is that a police officer is the enforcer. This is detrimental to the system. However, DARE advocates argue that the presence of a police officer is positive because, "police officers walk into the classroom with more knowledge of the issue, due to their experience, than anyone else" (Masci). However, as children grow and become teenagers they tend to resent authority figures because, as one professor from the University of Maryland put it, "teenagers see themselves in opposition to authority figures" (Reuter qtd in Masci). The nave fifth grader will look at an officer in a positive way, but when drugs are introduced to a child as he/she becomes a teenager the officer is no longer a respected social figure to that child, in most cases."

A police officer who enters a classroom and speaks of drugs as a legal issue will not touch children as close to home as a teacher would. Teachers are trained professionals who work everyday at trying to reach their students. So why would we send a police officer into the classroom where he obviously has no credibility? Furthermore, police officers will often use scare tactics to convey the message "Just say no." Drugs are bad because possession will land you some time in jail seems to be the message coming from most DARE officers. Shouldn't the message be more concerned with the fact that drugs ruin lives because of their addictive nature, and kids should say no to drugs for some other reasons besides the fact that they could go to jail?

The greatest evidence showing the DARE program to be of minimal effect comes from a study done by the University of Kentucky. The study included two groups: those that had DARE education in sixth-grade and those who never received DARE education. The study came to the conclusion that:

Elementary students that take the DARE program have about the same chance of doing drugs in the future as those who didn't take the program, according to a study of 1,000 Kentucky students 10 years after they participated in the program as sixth-graders.

Another study that focused on the effectiveness of the DARE program was undertaken in 1995 in a southern New Jersey town, and it yielded the same conclusion as the study previously mentioned. The study found that there were "virtually no differences between students who experienced the DARE program and non-DARE students" (Thompson and Zagumny). Recent research clearly shows that the DARE program is just not effective. The program is being slashed down all across the country. In Los Angeles (the city where DARE was born) the number of DARE officers has been reduced from 119 to 44. Police Commissioner Rick Caruso stated his reasoning behind the reduction, "I don't think anybody can point to any studies and say that DARE is preventing young kids from either violence or drugs" (Cohn).

The purpose of such an argument as this is not aimed at eliminating the DARE program. However, reforms in the program must be made. The curriculum has been flexible, that is, it is changed every five years to adapt to the changes of society. Herbert Kleber is a professor of psychology at Columbia University who helped structure the DARE program. Kleber stated that, "they've basically revised the curricula every five years since it was started… they want to do what works, what's best." Teaching kids about drugs is also a very important positive aspect of the program. Ames Sweet, spokesman for the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence, stated that, "For kids, getting information through experts – people who know what they are talking about – is always better than getting it through their peers" (Sweet qtd in Masci).

However, the tactics being used in the DARE program are obviously not working. Telling a child to not do drugs is very different from teaching them why drugs place them in danger. The current DARE program does not teach children. Rather, it scares children when they are at a very naive and feeble age. Lessons learned via police officers often go to waste as the child grows older. The research clearly backs this notion. Many other programs are being tested and have seen some success. Other programs include peer to peer interaction and real life situations that offer advice on how to react to these situations. These programs are also being implemented at a later grade than DARE is (usually 9th or 10th grade whereas DARE is offered to 5th or 6th graders).

Any education on the harmful effects of drugs for children is good. Having the DARE program is better then having no program at all, but it is time to revamp the program. The data does not lie. My friend died from a heroin overdose because he saw no other way out of his problems. DARE taught abstinence, a barrier he obviously crossed. DARE failed in his case simply because the program didn't recognize that other methods besides abstinence and "Just saying no" existed. The DARE program is used in 80 percent of all public the schools in the United States. It is so popular because its main focus is to keep kids off of drugs; a problem most Americans will agree on that should be addressed. The program should be continued and money should be available to support the program so long as a conscious effort is made at reconstructing the program to make it a more effective combatant to drug abuse and drug violence.

Works Cited:

  • Cohn, Jason. “The LAPD Guts DARE.” Rolling Stone, 7/4/2002 Issue 899/900, p57, 1p.
  • Glazer, Sarah. “Preventing Teen Drug Use.” CQ Researcher, 28 July, 1995
  • Masci, David. “Preventing Teen Drug Use.” CQ Researcher, 15 March, 2002, Volume 12, No. 10. Accessed October 1, 2003,
  • Thompson, Michael K. and Zagumny, Matthew J. “Does DARE Work? An evaluation in Rural Tennessee.” Journal of Alcohol & Drug Education; Winter97, Vol. 42 Issue 2, p32, 10p, 2 charts.

Read other articles by Drew Harris

Drew Harris is a English Major who is in his junior year at Mt. St Mary's College.  Drew also serves as the English editor of