Drug education in America is at a crossroads. Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars spent annually on prevention programs, drug use among American youths continues to rise.
The debate over the reasons for rising teen drug use is vigorous. But a growing number of people believe that the monolithic, 1980s "Just Say No" drug-education programs are ineffective, and that new and innovative methods are needed.
The epitome of the "Just Say No" crusade is Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE). The program is highly popular - embraced by everyone from President Clinton, who requested $620 million for the program this year, to local school boards - but its mandate in the classroom has been sorely tested recently. Communities from Washington State to Florida - including cities as large as Seattle - have deep-sixed DARE, believing they don't get enough bang for their buck.
"DARE has a wonderful reputation, which is largely undeserved based on the results it produces," says Jane Irvine Henderson, deputy superintendent of public instruction in California, the senior educator overseeing drug-education programs.
For 14 years, DARE has sent uniformed police into more than 8,000 communities in the US to deliver a carefully scripted message about the dangers of drugs. The main targets have been fifth- and sixth-graders, who receive a 17-week course.
The problem is, there is no clear evidence that DARE, and other similar programs, have any effect on reducing drug use. "Does it work?" asks Anne Voight, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department's National Institute of Justice. "We just don't know."
Critics of DARE cite a number of scientific studies that show it is ineffective, including a study on California's antidrug programs published last week.
The authors of these studies argue that such programs are ineffective because they depend on non-interactive methods, putting authority figures up to deliver classroom lectures. They say the unyielding "no use" message also presents teens with an unrealistic goal that undermines the overall credibility of the campaign.
Nancy Tobler co-authored a comparative analysis of some 120 programs, which she broadly divided into two groups: non-interactive and interactive. Dr. Tobler found that the programs that emphasized student participation, using peer-led discussion and other methods to understand the dangers of drug use and to learn refusal skills, produced significantly lower levels of drug use.
Similar conclusions were reached by the authors of a three-year study of California's drug-education programs, conducted from 1991 to 1994 and including interviews with more than 5,000 students. Kids reported that drug education had no effect, particularly as they got older. Their everyday experience - such as seeing their parents use alcohol in moderation - undermined their acceptance of a simple stricture not to use drugs in any amount or circumstance.
"When students understand they are not being taught to weigh the evidence," says co-author Joel Brown, "they come to reject the message as well as the messenger."
But DARE officials and supporters counter with their own studies. DARE spokesman Ralph Lochridge dismisses DARE's critics as either failing to understand the program or as advocates of drug legalization.
Federal officials reject any more-tolerant stance on drugs. "The message kids are going to get is that adults are expecting us to use drugs, so let's go ahead and use drugs," says William Modzeleski, head of the Department of Education's Safe and Drug-Free Schools program.
These officials, however, do support a shift towards more innovative programs. The DARE curriculum was revised a few years ago to incorporate more interactive techniques. The police instructors now work more with groups, use role-playing methods, and teach skills for coping with peer pressure.
Yet many educators are still turning from programs like DARE toward broader approaches to drug education: dealing with it in the context of other social issues such as teen pregnancy and violence. In California, the Healthy Start program is encouraging a wide range of methods, including organizing greater parental and community involvement, relying more on small-group counseling and individual mentors, rather than classroom instruction.
Instead of DARE, the E.R. Taylor elementary school in San Francisco uses "Youth Aware Life Skills," a drug-prevention program that operates in 45 San Francisco schools. The program relies heavily on small support groups, which use role-playing and other group activities to help kids cope with peer pressure and family problems.
The aim is to provide alternatives for kids, says Gloria Riordan, Healthy Start Coordinator at E.R. Taylor. "Kids turn to drugs because they have nothing to do."