Although I’ve been out of elementary school for over a decade, I occasionally still find myself humming a certain tune drilled into my head around fourth grade. A uniformed policeman would come into my homeroom, pull out a CD and a boombox, and a cheesy synthesizer beat would introduce the determined lyrics: “D! I won’t do drugs! A! Won’t have an attitude!” and so on through the acronym D.A.R.E., standing for Drug Abuse Resistance Education.
The program presented basic information about illicit substances and their life-destroying impacts, emphasizing that the proper response to these deadly drugs was to “just say no.” But if studies of D.A.R.E.’s effectiveness are to be believed, its theme song may have been a much more memorable takeaway than its message. A typical meta-analysis (a study on the results of other studies) published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health concluded that the program had nearly insignificant effects on both reducing drug use and promoting prosocial behaviors such as family bonding and respect towards authority figures.
Further research has suggested that D.A.R.E. may even work against its own goal of reducing drug use. One of the earliest studies analyzing the program, published in 1992, found that D.A.R.E. graduates actually had higher rates of hallucinogenic drug use than students who hadn’t gone through the training. Slight increases in tobacco and alcohol use have also been observed in groups of teens as an effect of D.A.R.E., possibly because the program’s emphasis on resisting “hard” drugs such as cocaine and heroin makes these more socially acceptable substances seem like comparatively lesser threats. In response, the Association for Psychological Science published an article including D.A.R.E. on a list of psychological treatments that “probably produce harm in some individuals.”
D.A.R.E.’s central message is simple enough to deliver, so why has the program proven so ineffective? Psychologists believe that its focus on top-down education, rather than interaction or peer-to-peer collaboration, is largely to blame. As drug experimentation is often shared within age groups, the practice students get in “saying no” to the middle-aged police officer running the program has little bearing on the social skills they would need to deny drugs from a similarly aged friend. The program’s duration, usually lasting over several months on a weekly basis, has also been criticized as too short to accomplish any lasting good.
The program responded to some of these issues in 2009 with the adoption of “Keepin’ it REAL,” a new set of educational techniques that emphasizes “life skills such as decision-making, communication and drug-resistant strategies.” This more nuanced approach has already shown improvements in effectiveness, especially for reducing alcohol and marijuana use. By paying greater attention to the psychology of drug education, D.A.R.E. may finally achieve more than publishing a catchy melody.