Commentary | Education

Lessons—Reality Check is Overdue In Preventing Drug Abuse

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


Reality Check is Overdue In Preventing Drug Abuse

By Richard Rothstein

When Al Gore admits and George W. Bush implies youthful use of marijuana or worse, should schools adopt a “do as I say, not as I do” drug curriculum, or seek another approach?

Drugs are dangerous, especially for youths whose families, peers or neighborhoods do not create pressure for responsible choices. And drugs are illegal.

But many successful adults used drugs casually. And experimentation by adolescents, most of whom still turn out O.K., continues. The 1990s saw teenage drug use grow while crime by youths declined.

Effective drug education is needed, but most programs exaggerate dangers and condemn use so harshly that youths who fail at total abstinence are not helped. This approach may not work.

Some efforts to reduce teenage drinking or early sex seem smarter. Underage drinking is illegal but colleges and a few high schools have “safe ride” programs with “no questions asked.” It is contradictory to offer trips home from alcoholic parties while telling teenagers not to drink, but the mixed message can save lives.

Likewise, health teachers urge sexual abstinence, yet some high schools also distribute condoms. Delay sex, they say, but if you go ahead, be safe. When AIDS seems to threaten, consistency is a lower priority.

But “just say no” dominates drug education. A common program is DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), used in two-thirds of all districts at a cost of nearly $1 billion. DARE is taught by police officers, mostly in the fifth and sixth grades. The White House drug policy director, Barry R. McCaffrey, calls it “the premier drug prevention program.”

Yet researchers find it does not work. DARE gets children to parrot responses about how terrible drugs are, but they then apparently use drugs at the same rate as non- DARE students. Some evidence suggests that DARE-trained adolescents use drugs even more.

Critics worry that DARE uses such exaggeration that once children realize they were misled, they may discount even true messages. The DARE workbook says marijuana users “are slow, are dull, have little ambition.” But 10-year-olds know of older siblings, parents, even presidents, who used it without becoming dull or ambitionless. Children must then choose between DARE and their own observations. DARE is unlikely to prevail.

Other official warnings are also troubling. Advertising sponsored by Mr.McCaffrey’s office tells children, if you use marijuana “it will kill your mother.” Official “tips” urge parents to say, “If you took drugs it would break my heart.”

Parents should think twice before heeding such advice.
Although parents do not want children to try drugs, half of all teenagers do. Parents should insist that children have safe places to go with friends and that they know not to drive when “high.” Parents should encourage teenagers to call home for help. But threats of parental suicide and heartbreak may lead to secret experimentation in risky settings or with friends that parents neither know nor approve.

Official policy is puzzling because “just say no” has a long history of failure. Before Prohibition, schools exaggerated alcohol’s dangers. A widely used textbook said that in adult beer drinkers, “a slight cold brings on a fatal pneumonia.” Children who saw parents drink beer and survive colds then ignored other temperance messages.

A 1930s Bureau of Narcotics campaign warned that marijuana would cause teenagers to commit vicious crimes. The bureau promoted a 1936 commercial film, “Tell Your Children,” warning that marijuana caused teenagers to rape, murder and commit suicide. The film’s claims were so excessive that it was later rereleased as a satire and shown widely on college campuses, now titled “Reefer Madness.”
A 1963 presidential commission also claimed that drug use would “destroy” teenagers. But drug use has continued.

In 1991, the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, found no evidence that “just say no” teaching was more effective in reducing drug use than programs that recognized teenage behavior but tried to limit it. Neither Congress nor the executive branch paid heed.

Some curriculums may be more effective than DARE. Teachers can give realistic information about the harm drugs do, and integrate health with other lessons. But no programs have yet navigated the problem of how to counsel against drugs while also supporting youths who ignore the advice.

Mayor Ross Anderson of Salt Lake City recently prohibited his police force from taking part in DARE work. Schools should not “moralize and exaggerate, but provide students with the basis for making decisions to avoid drugs,” he said.
Mr. Anderson also wants to emphasize harm reduction. “Now,” he said of the current approach, “if there is any drug involvement, you are suspended or expelled. But if school administrators discover a problem, they ought to work with parents and students in a nonpunitive way.”

Salt Lake City is not the only city to reconsider DARE. But in most places, this ineffective and costly program still holds sway.

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