D.A.R.E. to be different

On Feb. 15, the announcement came that D.A.R.E., the nation’s largest and most well-known substance abuse prevention program, will shift its self-acknowledged ineffectual anti-use campaign to a more comprehensive strategy for drug abuse prevention.

While this news would be a welcome improvement over the simplicity of the failed 1980s “just say no” mantra, the proposed change in focus does not move beyond more of the same tired propaganda concerning illicit drug use. Given that the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program was created in 1983 by the Los Angeles Police Department, it is regrettably clear that the thrust of its mission remains politically-motivated enforcement rather than unbiased health education.

Continuing to cast all illegal drug use as abuse, the new D.A.R.E. agenda merely readjusts its “just say no” message, by shifting who says it—from police officer to classmate. The principal investigator for the new project says that the program “draws on what we have learned from our research about the elements of effective prevention by addressing the normative beliefs, personal attitudes and problem solving and resistance skills of students.” In other words, what they are calling “prevention science” will seek to use engineered peer pressure to cast all users of illegal drugs—including responsible users—as aberrant. The problem with this strategy is that it still relies on scare tactics (in this case, peer intimidation) and does not acknowledge the possibility for responsible consumption of potentially useful substances that are, under the on-going fever of the Drug War, currently outlawed.

Drug abuse is a problem. Drug use, need not be. Much of today’s "drug problem" is the result of an infantile cultural relationship with drugs and a national drug policy based on zero-tolerance rather than respect. It’s no surprise that the result is a country at war with drugs. It’s time to change our way of thinking about drugs to embrace a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the potential benefits as well as the potential harms of a spectrum of drugs and their uses.