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D.A.R.E. - A Disaster For Our Children

Aug 18, 2007
The Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program has become a major industry since its modest beginnings in 1983. It has been used in a majority of U.S. school districts and has spread to dozens of other countries. That would be good news except for one problem. It doesn't work. Worse, it actually increases drug and alcohol use among adolescents.

What's going on here?

DARE has trained police officers - over 50,000 - to deliver a 17-week series of lectures to school children, 36,000,000 of whom have "graduated" from the program to date. DARE is popular with almost everyone but that doesn't prevent it from being ineffective or counterproductive. The question is why?

There are numerous reasons for DARE's remarkable failure ranging from faulty theories of learning to the peddling of misinformation as fact, failing to make distinctions between legal medications and illegal drugs, while viewing all use (even by adults) as abuse, and presenting substance use in ways inconsistent with what most students experience with peers or see in their own homes.

Another reason applies to students who are at moderate risk of becoming substance abuser. While research tends to suggest that DARE has no effect on low or high risk students, it does increase the likelihood of moderate risk students becoming drug abusers. It's another manifestation of the focus effect. Focus anyone's attention on something and you will draw them to it, regardless of the intent. Simplistically, focus on your thumb while attempting to hammer a nail and it's your thumb that gets hit. Direct moderate risk students attention to drugs and, guess what, they will begin to experiment, especially during their rebellious teen years.

Other programs have much the same effect and they frequently reinforce each others' disastrous effects. It's long been popular, for example, to provide speakers from AA, NA, and other "recovery" sources so students can learn from others' experiences. The underlying lesson they learn is that a person can abuse drugs and alcohol for years, decades even, and not only survive, but become a popular public speaker. Not exactly the intended message.

Despite total failure, DARE isn't apt to disappear anytime soon. With annual revenues exceeding three quarters of a billion dollars, vested interests far outweigh negative results. Dealing drugs isn't the only way to make a buck off of parental and community fears and DARE is an enormous success at promotion and profiting.

There is, however, some good news in all of this. Looking at DARE's failure has shown what works. Known as "social norms marketing," this method relies on students over-riding desire to fit in. While DARE magnifies student drug use, thereby increasing use by tapping into students desire to fit in, social norms techniques publicize the actual use in schools and communities - always much lower than anyone thinks. Students then shift away from involvement as they conform to the newly "discovered" standard. When a credible school survey is conducted and the "surprising" results widely promoted, student drinking drops dramatically as students discover the truth. The technique is easy, inexpensive, fast acting, and effective in reducing smoking as well.

As always, the prohibitionist forces are arrayed against what works, especially when it is un-dramatic, moderate, and effective. However, as parents you can take back the role, and the responsibility, of educating and protecting your children. Talk to them. Listen to them. Do the real research with them. Your children deserve the best.
About the Author
Dr. Edward Wilson has been developing and providing alternative alcohol counseling, including moderation, sincve 1990. He is the co-founder and Clinical Director of Your Empowering Solutions, Inc, located in S. California. http://www.non12step.com
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