Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
If you attended school or smoked crack in the last 30 years, you probably graduated from D.A.R.E., the drug-prevention program that teaches kids to “just say no.” According to D.A.R.E.’s website, 75 percent of US school districts and more than 43 countries teach their curriculum. This would be great news if the program actually helped prevent addiction.
Since police officers first taught D.A.R.E. over 30 years ago, the American Psychological Association, the Office of the Surgeon General, and the Government Accountability Office have critiqued the organization’s tactics. The program lost federal funding in 1998, but since 2009, D.A.R.E. has used the acclaimed keepin' it REAL curriculum, a Penn State-developed drug-education program targeting middle schoolers. Keepin’ it REAL has been tested on 7,000 students and—unlike D.A.R.E.'s old-school lesson plan—has been included on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices. Students who completed keepin’ it REAL are less likely to drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes and weed.
This is nice to read, but do we really want D.A.R.E. implementing any more drug-education curriculums? Studies prove D.A.R.E. has failed in the past, and behind those studies are students who were promised a good drug education but instead found themselves addicted to drugs only a few years later. To learn more about the story behind the data, I sat down with several drug addicts from across America to talk about how D.A.R.E. failed them.
VICE: What about D.A.R.E. sticks out?
Shorty: We all sat on the floor while people demonstrated people smoking, drinking, and doing drugs. It scared me a little. I was afraid that maybe the first time I tried anything I would die. They told us how addictive crack, cocaine, and heroin are—the statistics, the numbers, the probability of becoming addicted after the first hit or dose. You know what that made me wanna do? Smoke crack, snort cocaine, and do a dose of heroin to see if I could beat the statistics. I did it all.
What would have gotten through to you—if anything could?
I don't think anything would have gotten through to me. I had an uncle who died of a drug overdose around the time I learned about D.A.R.E.—even that didn't stop me from wanting to try [drugs]. I needed to take the risk and experience it myself.
Did anything about D.A.R.E. help you?
Cliff: D.A.R.E. had a volunteer speaker from a correctional facility speak about his addiction. I felt like I had a connection with him because we grew up in the same environment. I felt having a police officer teach this program was a good idea, because they have experience in the field of drug abuse and they see it every day.
Did your drug education fail you?
I think my school had several resources that could have helped with substance-abuse issues. I never [sought] out any help, because I did not care at the time.
What eventually got through to you?
I became sober once I got arrested for a theft charge. I was admitted to treatment several times and eventually started going to N.A. meetings.
What do you remember about D.A.R.E.?
Travis: I remember them really pushing us to believe that only losers used drugs. The programs were a scared-straight approach [that] appeals to people who aren't addicts. The biggest thing that sticks out is the emphasis on just say no. We practiced saying, “No.” I was on board with saying no to drugs. I think there was a really big emphasis on abstinence. They never showed us the realities of drugs and alcohol. We all saw a black lung and looked at a liver with cirrhosis, but the effects on your personal life were skipped over almost entirely.
How did you fall into drugs?
I was always curious, but between my religious upbringing and the support of my straight-edge friends, I was able to stave it off until I was an adult and out of my hometown. I would fool around with [cough medicine] and prescription medication, but I didn't make it a habit until I smoked weed with my brother-in-law for the first time. I had nothing else holding me back—I was unemployed at the time, and he asked me if I wanted to try it with him. I didn't hesitate. Every time with every [substance] was different. Sometimes it was to fit in. Sometimes I chased it. The first time I used pills, I immediately felt like things were OK.
What could have stopped you from trying drugs?
Nobody could stop me. I did what I wanted. I ditched friends who objected to my use and made new friends who I could get drugs from or who could help me find them. I had countless interventions and dangerous experiences. I picked up a dealer once who was covered in blood and took him to the dollar store to get a new t-shirt. I drove drunk and high even though I always said I wouldn't.
Did you think you would ever try drugs?
Madison: Looking back, I was certain I would never use at the time, because I was scared of getting in trouble and never thought I would be exposed to drugs of any kind. I felt the same way about alcohol. I was incredibly naive about the ease of access and prominent existence of drugs in middle and high schools.
Do you think your education didn’t teach you about addiction?
The mention of the disease of addiction was nonexistent. The fact that addiction is deadly to the body, mind, and spirit was overlooked. I was shown pictures of strung out teens who skipped school and stole from their mom's purse or sister's piggybank. I knew that would never be me—I was a high-functioning active drug addict and alcoholic. It took me a long time to admit I had a problem simply because I had a bachelor's in accounting from UD, a high-paying job, a nice house, and plenty of opportunity.
Did D.A.R.E. answer your questions about drugs and alcohol?
Shaundra: No. Not at all. It's lead by authority, which kind of gives you a scare tactic. I think it'd be more effective to incorporate real, live recovering addicts, such as myself, to tell their stories, if you really want to teach kids the truth about that lifestyle.
Were you curious about drugs growing up?
No. I was never really curious about drugs growing up. I think what happened is I had [told] my dad that I'm bisexual and he kind of disowned me and kicked me out when I was 16—I had previously been bullied about this at school. A few days or weeks later, my best friend asked if I wanted to try marijuana. She had never done it before either, but we wanted to see what all the fuss was about. In hindsight, I think my first time was very much [due] to peer pressure.
You took D.A.R.E., correct?
Dustin: I did in elementary school. The issue was I didn't encounter drugs until later and all the D.A.R.E. stuff I learned had washed away.
Why did you use drugs?
Lack of structure in my childhood and the genetic disposition. Both my father and mother are addicts, and my brother uses meth IV. Culturally, I grew up in an environment where drug use didn't have a negative connotation. I never developed proper coping mechanisms to deal with the stress. Drugs are an easy replacement coping mechanism.
What do you think about discussing addiction in drug education?
Addiction and substance abuse is typically a symptom of another issue. Everyone uses for different reasons. Being able to link consequences directly to use, and to take away the glorification aspect, is something that has to happen. Unfortunately, most children can't understand the path from decision to consequence at an early age.
Do you remember anything about D.A.R.E.?
Leandra: D.A.R.E. was the program with the dog back then—McGruff or something like that. They were teaching us about drugs and peer pressure, things of that nature. We earned a red and gold ribbon that said, “Say no to drugs.” We learned the street names and effects of drugs.
What would you have changed about drug education to suit you better?
One of the main things I think the program didn't do was make it real to me. I was young, yes, but I didn't know anyone who was or had ever been an addict, so it was like it just couldn't happen to me. I didn't learn that it could be anyone at anytime. For those who are not or do not personally know someone who is an addict, I tell them to not be so quick to judge, because they don't know why that person is like that. No one wakes up one morning and decides to be an addict. It is a long, dark road full of pain and heartache, compounded by a string of bad decisions which leads to more suffering.