The antidrug program D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) began in 1983, at the height of Ronald Reagan’s escalation of the war on drugs, with a wholesome-sounding mission: to teach students “good decision-making skills to help them lead safe and healthy lives.” Since then, millions of adolescents have been taught the line-in-the-sand “just say no” approach to narcotics. But the intervening 33 years have seen a sea change in American moral attitudes, especially regarding drugs. Today the United States is headed toward a marijuana boom, with 23 states and Washington, D.C. decriminalizing the substance and four (plus D.C.) making recreational use legal. Americans are smoking—not to mention eating, drinking, vaping and dabbing—in public, in greater numbers and with far greater acceptance than ever before.
That has made “just say no” and other hangovers of abstinence-based methods seem beyond outdated. Even D.A.R.E. has come around, in a way. With public opinion leaning toward tolerance and with local, state and federal drug laws murkier than ever, the organization is facing an identity crisis: How do you teach children about marijuana, especially in communities that basically respond to it with a shrug?
The answer so far has been, more or less, to drop weed from the lineup altogether. “When we create a curriculum, we have to create one that fits all geographic areas,” says Scott Gilliam, a D.A.R.E. regional director who oversees pot-friendly states including Alaska and California and who has been with the organization since its inception. “With all the controversy and changes within the marijuana arena, we had to leave marijuana out—we couldn’t teach the same thing in Colorado that’sn being taught in some small community in Utah.”
D.A.R.E.’s decision to drop marijuana came in 2012, on the cusp of a national shift in pot laws that occurred when Colorado and Washington became the first two states to permit recreational use. The change was the culmination of an evolution that began in 2000, after research from the Department of Education and the Surgeon General revealed D.A.R.E. was ineffective. Another study found little difference in drug use, attitudes and self-esteem between students who had gone through the program and those who had gone through a “standard drug education curriculum.” D.A.R.E. switched from lectures to a discussion-group model, and in 2009 it established a new curriculum for adolescents called “keepin’ it REAL” that hinges on open dialogue between teachers and students instead of scare tactics detailing the horrors of drugs.
These days D.A.R.E. is markedly different from the program of yesteryear, its directors contend. “It’s not the sage on the stage, like in the old days,” says regional director Mike Lien. “It’s more the instructor teaching kids about the adverse impacts of drug use and giving them better life skills to make good decisions.”
While D.A.R.E. seems content with its new model—everyone I spoke with from the organization made sure to tout their “science-based” approach, perhaps because the group’s funding used to be directly tied to whether its methods were scientifically sound—not everyone buys the idea that the program has kept up with how young people and drugs intersect today.
Pushing a science-based system is D.A.R.E.’s “party line,” says Marsha Rosenbaum, director emerita of the San Francisco office of the Drug Policy Alliance, an anti-drug-war nonprofit dedicated to “promoting drug policies that are grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights,” as DPA’s website states. (In a talking-points statement, the DPA describes itself as “firmly committed to reducing drug abuse among youth.”)
Rosenbaum is known for creating the DPA’s “Safety First” booklet, a guide for parents and educators first published in 1999 that served as an alternative to hard-line abstinence-only programs. The DPA says it has distributed more than 350,000 copies of “Safety First” (now in its sixth edition), in at least seven languages. And though Rosenbaum was initially impressed by D.A.R.E.’s move to drop pot back in 2012, she soon had a change of heart.
“When that came out, at first I was excited. I thought, Oh my God, this is a real game changer. D.A.R.E. has decided that marijuana is not the dangerous drug they’d said it was, and they’ve taken it out of the curriculum,” Rosenbaum says. “I called them right away for clarification, and the more I talked to the guy, the more I realized, Wait a minute. I looked at what they tell kids if they ask about marijuana, and it’s pretty much the same old, same old.”
What happens when kids ask about marijuana in a D.A.R.E. classroom today? Officers are instructed not to bring up the subject on their own, but when students do ask, the organization’s policy is to “keep the information very basic and at an age-appropriate level” and to tell children that marijuana is a drug that can affect their mind; cause them to forget; make it hard to concentrate, learn and sleep; make them irritable and anxious; and affect their schoolwork.
Gilliam tells me one goal of this policy is to avoid putting officers in a position where they’re forced to talk about ever-shifting marijuana laws. But Rosenbaum scoffs at this, saying the plan does nothing to distinguish between use and abuse and is no different from what D.A.R.E. was doing years ago.
“I think it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” she says. “It’s rhetoric. ‘Keeping it real’? What’s real? I think the emphasis on decision making, which most of the drug education programs do now, is good. With D.A.R.E. there’s only one right decision, and that’s to say no—but kids are going to make their own decisions.”
If Rosenbaum is correct, where does this leave kids? D.A.R.E. is still used in approximately 70 percent of schools across the nation, and the organization thinks it has successfully kept up with the times. Rosenbaum and the Drug Policy Alliance disagree. Meanwhile, a recent study in The Lancet Psychiatry found that legalizing marijuana did not lead to an increase in adolescent drug use. The finding is counter to D.A.R.E.’s rhetoric—“Simply put, legalization would drastically increase marijuana use and use disorder rates”—but doesn’t necessarily negate its curriculum. Until there is concrete evidence on the efficacy of D.A.R.E.’s current model, including its marijuana policy, the issue will be stuck in a thick, decriminalized haze.