From the early 1980s to the mid-2000s and in some places still today, America’s kids have gotten their drug education from DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education)—founded in 1983 at the height of the late Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign—despite the emergence of evidence that the program is not effective in deterring drug use. One element of DARE’s ineffectiveness is its alarmist, unscientific and ongoing hostility to marijuana.
Despite new research and changing attitudes towards marijuana, DARE is desperately holding onto its outdated conclusions. Recent rumors that DARE had removed anti-marijuana material from its curriculum, in order to be more in line with society and science, were angrily denied by the program.
Back when Los Angeles county school district decided to end its zero-tolerance drug policy in 2014, for example, California DARE coordinator Steve Abercrombie went on a anti-pot rant. “It seems we keep giving in more and more to different crimes and criminal activity. When does it stop? When do you finally say you need to follow the rules?” he said. “I’m surprised they don’t hand [cannabis] out when they hand out their workbooks…. They’re so out in space, it’s unbelievable.”
And DARE happily continues to host anti-pot propaganda on its website. In one particularly embarrassing episode, the organization unwittingly posted a piece of satire about children dying from eating THC-laced candy.
More recently, DARE posted an “exposé” of legal marijuana from Colorado Springs Gazette. The multi-part series is rife with distortions and straw-man arguments. Legalization failed to empty the state’s prisons and fill its coffers overnight, went one line of reasoning. DARE’s website summarized the Gazette’s conclusions about legal weed: “The Gazette calculated that one ounce of concentrated THC, infused into foods, is the equivalent of 2,800 serving sizes of marijuana edibles!” The questions of how likely users are to obtain an ounce of pure THC, and how likely they’d be to consume it in one go remain unaddressed.
There’s also a ton of alarmist material about edibles and children: “A lot of marijuana-infused ‘edibles’ look like kids’ candy, such as gummy bears and lollipops. Innocent children too young to read labels eat them and overdose.” Of course, precisely zero fatal marijuana overdoses occur in the US each year; might DARE’s time not be better spent advising parents on subjects like the importance of storing medications out of the reach of kids?
Jerry Otero, youth policy manager of the Drug Policy Alliance, thinks that many of the DARE program’s fundamental flaws originate from the professional background of its architects. “It’s important to note,” he says, “that DARE’s original curriculum was not shaped by prevention specialists but by police officers and teachers in Los Angeles.”
And the culture of zero-tolerance long fueled by DARE still has negative repercussions, says Otero. “Although the DARE program no longer dominates the school-based drug prevention field, its trademark zero-tolerance approach does.” He notes that even though “Keeping it Real,” the drug ed. program that now dominates school drug curriculums, has dropped marijuana from its list of priorities, students are still being “scared straight.”
“This hasn’t worked for decades, and it’s not working now,” says Otero.