Challenging Dogma - Spring 2008

...Using social sciences to improve the practice of public health

Monday, April 21, 2008

D.A.R.E. – Is It Really As Simple As Saying “Just Say No?” – Tim Chettiath

Throughout the years, the use and abuse of illicit drugs and alcohol consumption has increased exponentially all across the globe, especially in the United States – the country with the highest substance abuse rate of any industrialized nation (4). As a potential solution to the increasing number of adolescent drug abuse, in 1983, the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E) program was introduced as a collaborative prevention program in which local law enforcement and schools joined together to educate students on the consequences of substance abuse and reduce narcotics-related crimes. Although vital for Americans to be aware of drug abuse through educational prevention programs, by using scare tactics, overlooking factors related to social influences and socioeconomic status, and failing to notice strong psychological issues, the D.A.R.E. program ineffectively reduced drug abuse rates.

During the late 1970s, surveys reported by federally funded projects such as Monitoring the Future, a detailed annual survey of high school students, and PRIDE, a congressionally authorized annual survey by the Parents’ Resource Institute for Drug Education, showed that approximately 39% of high school seniors reported using an illegal drug the previous month (1). It was slowly apparent that teenage drug abuse and addiction was becoming more prevalent in society, but for a number of different reasons. Some teens tried it out of curiosity while others out of peer pressure. However, many teens used it as a way to escape from their emotional problems or as a way to self-medicate themselves out of problems such as low self-esteem and stress (6).

With the intervention of D.A.R.E, the goal of the program was to establish positive relationships between students and law enforcement, teachers, parents, and other community leaders and provide children with the information and tools they need to live drug and violence free lives (2). Students who enter the program sign a pledge not to use drugs or join gangs and are taught by local law enforcement about the dangers of drug use in an interactive, 10-week, in-school curriculum. The curriculum included lessons about the effects of tobacco smoking and advertising, drug abuse, inhalants, alcohol consumption to health and peer pressure (3).

According to D.A.R.E., close to 26 million children in the United States are a part of the program, and the program’s supposed success has been depicted through its implementation in 80% of the nation’s school districts and now in more than 43 countries around the world (2 & 3). However, with nearly two decades of the D.A.R.E program educating adolescents, there was little or no apparent improvement of any quantitative measure that could be discerned by parents, public officials, or even students of the D.A.R.E. program (5). In 1997, statistics showed that 36% of the United States population had tried marijuana, cocaine, or some other illicit drug, while 71% of the same population had smoked cigarettes and 82% tried alcoholic beverages (4). Not only did the percentage of the population that tried illicit drugs increase, but so did the number of different illicit drugs that were being experimented with. The D.A.R.E. program received mixed reviews – some saying that it was successful as the number of students enrolled and districts participating increased every year, while many believed that the program worsened the problem and simply educated impressionable children to the types and methods of drugs and use (5).

Scare Tactics

In order for any prevention program dealing with adolescents to succeed, it is extremely important to understand the target audience and how best to approach the demographic. The target age group that D.A.R.E. initially focused on was students in the 5th grade who were approximately 12 years old. One reason why the D.A.R.E. program was not as successful as it could have been was because the program educated these 12-year-old students using scare tactics. Though the impact was infrequent and far from universal, when the scare tactics were successful at reaching the adolescents the impact was often only temporary.

One of the fundamental problems with D.A.R.E. is that it is premised on the notion that a police officer is the best change agent in impacting adolescents on these subjects. However, a police officer is an authority figure – an individual that will most likely have the least impact on adolescents since these kids are at an age when they are frequently anti-authority (8). The program failed to consider the fact that the young teens that they are attempting to reach are going through physical and hormonal changes, creating an atmosphere of constantly changing moods and thought processes. This is the age where adolescents long to make their own decisions, are eager for freedom, and no longer wish to be treated like children. They do not seek help and advice from parents or authority figures, but rather place an increased value on the opinion of friends (9). The D.A.R.E. program failed to realize that the target group that they focused on was one that was going through the most changes – physically, mentally, and emotionally. Therefore, by using a police office, a position frequently viewed as the highest level of authority, to dictate the appropriate course of action for a group known for their rebellious behavior will not be successful.

Focusing on the curriculum and education that was being taught in the D.A.R.E. program, teenagers were taught that all drugs are bad. Statistics and reviews of the D.A.R.E program show that students were taught that marijuana is an extremely dangerous drug used only by junkies, sold by violent criminals, and that one experiment with it would drive the person into a downward spiral of addiction. In addition, students are taught that drugs of all kinds pose the same dangers as the truly dangerous drugs like cocaine and heroin (10). However, the technique of scaring youth into believing that all drugs are equally bad will push them away from experimenting with drugs only until they see others who are not junkies trying marijuana and continuing to succeed at school, work, and life (7). Also, youth who are taught that marijuana is as bad as heroin are more likely to experiment with heroin if they experiment with marijuana with little consequence. Those individuals likely suspect that if they were lied to about marijuana, then they were probably lied to about “hard drugs” as well (7). The educational reality that adolescents receive through D.A.R.E. doesn’t match their everyday reality; and the result is cognitive dissonance, where students come to believe that their educators (police officers) lack credibility (7).

“In political theory of power and control it is historically shown that fear tactics ultimately result in a discontented resentment and distrust of the authority which dispenses the fear, and not that thing/person/idea which the authority has encouraged the fear of. Simply put, you hate the people that make you scared, not what they say to be scared of” (5). Although the intentions of the program to have trained police officers educate students and to encourage them to step away from the direction of alcohol and drug use are seemingly good, the strategy of using scare tactics, intentional or otherwise, was counterproductive and simply lead adolescents to lose trust in authority and the program as a whole.

Socioeconomic Status and Social Influences

One of the strongest reasons why the D.A.R.E program was not as successful as anticipated was due to the socioeconomic status and social influences that certain adolescents were exposed to. Depressed individuals living in long-term poverty are exactly what drug dealers are looking for to keep their businesses booming (12). Discouraged youth, looking for someone who needs them, can guide them, and provide a place to belong are an easy target for seduction into the drug trade. Families who have dealt with chronic feelings of oppression associated with isolated environments and barriers to obtaining resources for basic needs are especially vulnerable to the need to escape the realities of life; alcohol and drugs address that need (12). Parents, along with the D.A.R.E program, try to keep kids from participating in illicit drug activities. However, with few other opportunities in isolated neighborhoods in the inner-city and rural areas, it is difficult to find ongoing positive activities to keep teens away from trouble. The discouragement of living in poverty and the seduction of the drug trade, unfortunately, overpower the best intentions of both parents and the program.

Many children of low income families were involved in illegal activities such as drug trafficking (selling or delivering) because they needed to help support their family or simply because they are vulnerable as they struggle through the difficult years of junior high school and see no role models who are earning the kind of money that buys the “right” clothes or car needed to feel important (12). According to a study on drug trafficking among urban, low-income African American children and adolescents, 18% of participants had been asked to traffic drugs and 38% had seen someone else being asked to traffic drugs (11). Compared with children and adolescents who had not been exposed to drug trafficking, those who were exposed reported more risk-taking and delinquent behaviors (anti-authority) and drug use. According to an article based on the study, “While national prevalence data are not available regarding the practice among youth, data from low-income, urban settings suggest that as many as 6% to 9% of youth aged 9 to 15 years may be involved. 12% of boys and 3% of girls in grades 6 and 7 and 20% of boys and 7% of girls in grades 7 and 8 were asked to sell drugs (11),” which is the age demographic that D.A.R.E. initially focused on.

In addition to a strong influence by drug bosses that the D.A.R.E. program likely had minimal impact on, children of families from all income levels were greatly affected by the social influences of peer pressure, which plays a much stronger influence. No matter how much funding is put into the D.A.R.E program to help kids from substance abuse, the prevention program can not help adolescents at a time in their lives in which they must set up an identity to escape identity diffusion and confusion (13). At this age, children give much importance to their friend’s opinions. Friends are thus empowered to manipulate each other, exploiting the inherent need for acceptance. This peer pressure among adolescents is very important because it influences one’s personality and intervenes in the development of their morality. According to Kawaguchi’s article, Peer Effects on Substance Use Among American Teenagers, the cause of substance abuse among peers is that everyone else is using it and there appears to be no ill effects. Peer pressure obliges adolescents to do the same thing as their friends and to conform to the rules of the group. Therefore, adolescents start using drugs even if they are convinced that they are harmful for their health (13). In teen’s age, even with the drug education they receive from D.A.R.E., adolescents want to conform at any price and sometimes addiction to illicit drugs is the price they pay.

Psychological Factors

Along with scare tactics and socioeconomic status and social influences, the third reason why the D.A.R.E. program was an ineffective substance abuse prevention program was due to psychological reasons. There are two paths to drug use – to use drugs simply to feel good and be “cool” and another more intractable reason: to try to make one feel better, or even normal. The latter includes a group of adolescents stuck with difficult life situations, which includes suffering from a variety of untreated mental disorders, like clinical depression, manic-depressive illness, panic disorders, and schizophrenia (2). According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, “Estimates are that as many as 10 million children and adolescents may suffer from emotional and psychiatric problems of such magnitude that their ability to function is compromised, and the majority of those kids are at extremely high risk of becoming addicted to drugs.” This is due to the fact that these adolescents are not using drugs just to feel good, but are instead trying to self-medicate themselves with drugs in the same way that anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications are used. Medical research has shown clearly that this kind of drug use only exacerbates underlying psychological problems (2).

In addition to mental health problems that lead adolescents to substance use as a coping strategy, many develop psychological inadequacies and behavior issues from within the family environment and household. Family factors that may lead to or intensify drug use are thought to include prolonged or traumatic parental absence, harsh discipline, failure to communicate on an emotional level, chaotic or disturbed members and parental use of drugs, which provides a negative role model for children (14). A study done by the California Cannabis Research Medical Group (CCRMG) showed that “a large percentage [of adolescents] had been raised by single mothers and that many biological fathers of intact families were either heavy drinkers or preoccupied with work suggested a common etiology for the symptoms exhibited in adolescence (15).” It is common for children without a strong paternal influence in their early lives to engage in aggressive adolescent drug sampling.

Furthermore, many adolescents adopt the alcohol consumption and tobacco use behavior of their parents who come home from work and have a drink or cigarette as a stress reliever. Thus drinking and smoking become banal, with no visible ill effects. This is called the Modeling Theory - new ideas and behaviors can be acquired simply by watching what other people do. During the early years of a child’s life, parents and family members are the models from which children mimic their actions. Some parents indirectly implant the idea in their child’s head that alcohol consumption is related to happy occasions (7). For example, if a parent comes home from work after receiving news that they received a promotion, he or she may go home with a bottle of champagne or wine to celebrate. This leads adolescents to believe that alcohol consumption is associated with happy occasions and an excusable reason to drink.


Substance abuse has been a growing concern in the United States for the past few decades. With an increasing number of adolescent drug use, the D.A.R.E. program was initiated as a solution to the problem. As a substance abuse prevention program, geared towards educating children in their early teenage years that drug and alcohol use is wrong and associated with negative consequences, it has generally been a failure. In the past few years, the youth of the United States have had more drug education than any other in the history of the country through D.A.R.E. With record amounts of money being spent on drug education, children are still just saying “yes” instead of “no” (7). This is because D.A.R.E. was not as effective as anticipated because the program used scare tactics, failed to consider socioeconomic status and social factors, and did not take into account psychological issues. These factors were more of an influence than a police officer educating adolescents on why and how to “Just Say No.”

Research shows that key risk periods for drug abuse are during major transitions in children’s lives. First when children leave the security of their family and enter school, then when they experience new academic and social situations in middle school, next when they enter high school facing additional social, emotional, and educational challenges, and finally when they leave for college and are own their own, which is when their risk for drug and alcohol abuse is very high (5). Consequently, the D.A.R.E. program must change its teaching techniques and target group. In order to be successful, the program must come in 2 parts – both a prevention and an intervention program. The prevention program must continue to focus on adolescents, but what must be understood is that the program is just a tool. Parents must be educated as well and play a more significant part in helping their children practice what they learn in the program. In addition, the program needs to focus on intervention, which helps those already in trouble and in need of help regardless of their age. Without these changes to the program, D.A.R.E. will continue to fail to get their message across to adolescents and substance abuse will continue to rise and may get significantly worse.


1. Johnston, L. D., O'Malley, P. M., & Bachman, J. G. (2001). Monitoring the future: National results on adolescent drug use. Bethesda, MD: The National Institute on Drug Abuse




5. Meyer D. Glantz and Christine R. Hartel. Drug abuse: Origins & Interventions

6. Helpguide. abuse_addiction _signs_ effects_treatment.htm#teenage

7. Druglibrary.

8. Newcomb, M.D., and Bentler, P.M. (1986). Substance use and ethnicity: differential impact of peer and adult models. Journal of Psychology, 120:83-95.

9. Bailey, S.L., and Hubbard, R.L. (1991). Developmental changes in peer factors and the influence on marijuana initiation among secondary school students. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 20:339-360

10. Kurtzman, T. L., Otsuka, K. N., & Wahl, R. A. (2001). Inhalant abuse by adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health, 28, 170-180.

11. Xiaoming Li, PhD; Bonita Stanton, MD; Susan Feigelman, MD, Exposure to Drug Trafficking Among Urban, Low-Income African American Children and Adolescents, 2/161.pdf

12. Understanding Substance Abuse. Building Communities of Support for Families in Poverty.

13. Kawaguchi (2004). Peer Effects on Substance Use Among American Teenagers. Population Economics, 2, 351-367.

14. Anthony P. Jurich et al., "Family factors in the lives of drug users and abusers", Adolescence 20 (77): 143-159, 1985.

15. California Cannabis Research Medical Group. journal/05spr/anxiety.html

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