Anti-drug program could use lesson in relevance

DARE: Its methods are just another form of the social pressure it aims to combat, says a recovering addict.

April 08, 2001|By Crispin Sartwell

I RECENTLY saw my 10-year-old stepson Vince "graduate" from the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program - DARE for short. He sang "1-2-3 F-R-E-E" and "Talk It Out" and took a "solemn vow" to "say no to alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs, and yes to my own self-worth."

But I don't think he is, in the end, any less likely to use drugs than when he began. What he's learned, if anything, is that the adults involved, well-intentioned though they are, don't understand drugs or children.

Taught by police officers in 75 percent of the nation's school districts, including Baltimore, DARE is the dominant program for anti-drug education in this country. Its red diagonal logo has become ubiquitous in schools, on cars, on T-shirts.

Born in Los Angeles in the era of Nancy Reagan and "Just say no," DARE has had to weather a series of studies - including ones by the surgeon general and the National Academy of Sciences - that suggest it is completely ineffective.

As a recovering drug addict, I didn't need the studies. The DARE program - as indicated by the materials that Vince brought home, the songs he and his fifth-grade classmates sang at the graduation, the Web site, and so on -only has one idea of the cause of drug use: "peer pressure." And it only has one approach to dealing with it: turning up a kid's resolve to say "no." And it only has one sort of person telling kids how and why to do this: police officers.

In response to the studies, DARE officials have unveiled a new version of the program. Some of the studies actually seemed to indicate that DARE grads were more likely to use drugs. Officials attribute this to the supposed fact that DARE's emphasis on peer pressure made drug use seem even more prevalent than it is.

So the new approach focuses on "social norms," and tries to show students that they don't have to buckle under to a norm of drug abuse. Perhaps you are thinking that this is exactly the "peer pressure" approach in slightly more obscure words, and perhaps you are right.

So what's wrong with this approach?

I think that if you have ever been a serious drug abuser, you understand. It's true that "peer pressure" can be the occasion for people to try drugs. Certainly, if no one around you has any drugs, you won't be trying them. And when your friends are doing drugs, it goes very quickly from seeming impossible or worthless to seeming something like normal.

Drug abuse can also create a kind of small-group solidarity in which the cool people who use drugs are opposed to the straights or cowards who do not. But note that even these factors make the whole situation much more complicated than the question of whether you can say no when urged to do drugs: The situation is one of complicated inclusions and exclusions, of membership and identification, of finding a cultural zone in which you feel comfortable.

If you're happy in a cultural zone defined by police and what they want you to do, then you don't have to worry about whatever pressure the freaks and rappers might bring to bear on you. But it's not too much to say that few teen-agers with guts or creativity are so heavily identified with authority that they aspire to police culture.

Indeed, the cure provided for peer pressure by the DARE program is simply social pressure from nonpeers, and even on its own assumptions the strategy would be workable only if "social norms" defined by teachers, administrators and police officers operated more powerfully in the lives of young people than the norms of the groups to which they actually belong. Any young person for whom that is true is never going to be much of a drug abuser anyway.

One source of the peer pressure that the program tries to deal with is popular culture, and Vince was subjected to a criticism of the various pop icons he loves, such as Eminem.

The people who designed the program might think seriously for a moment about how effective a police officer is as a rock critic. Even if the officer knows rock music, how influential can a cop be in persuading fifth-graders not to listen to music they like?

Implicit in the DARE program is a condescending view of young people which says they are incredibly easy to manipulate and are constantly doing things they think are wrong because it seems cool or Eminem is telling them to. This accounts for the program's diagnosis of the causes of drug abuse and for its prescriptions.

The approach is exclusively slogans, posters, songs chanted in unison, pledges of loyalty and so on. Really what this resembles is not education on any reasonable account but the sort of indoctrination practiced by authoritarian political regimes. Any self-respecting young person ought to rebel against that sort of thing, and indeed Vince's final essay explaining what he'd learned in DARE was titled "I Do Not Like the DARE Program."

As he put it: "I think that some people (me, for example) like making their own choices and don't like being told which way they should go or what choice they should make."

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