National DARE Day Celebrates an Ineffective Program

National DARE Day celebrates an ineffective educational program. It’s a triumph of ideology, emotion and hope over science and truth. DARE is Drug Abuse Resistance Education program.

Dr. Marsha Rosenbaum, director of the Safety First Project, is author of this piece.

Drug Abuse Resistance Education

I first heard of Drug Abuse Resistance Education when my daughter, Annie, was in fifth grade. She came home from school one day announcing, “Mom, you’ll be glad to know that I now know everything there is to know about drugs.” I tried not to panic, took a deep breath, and calmly asked how she knew so much about drugs.

“I am a graduate of the D.A.R.E. program!”


I asked what she had learned. Annie proceeded to draw a large circle on the chalkboard in our kitchen. “This, Mom, is a brain.” She then filled the “brain” with little circles that represented “brain cells.” Finally Annie took the eraser, erased half of the big circle, and told me, “When a person smokes marijuana, half of their brain cells are erased forever.” I gulped and then tried to figure out what to do about the gross misinformation I had just heard from my daughter.

National DARE DayThat discussion occurred nearly twenty years ago, but little has changed about drug education in general and D.A.R.E. in particular. For the past two decades, federally funded school-based drug prevention education programs have carried a singular message. In content it’s “drugs are bad” and in message it’s “just say no.” And D.A.R.E. has been by far the most popular program. It reaches 80% of American school districts.

DARE is Ineffective

Half of all American teenagers try illegal drugs and 75% drink by the time they graduate from high school. So obviously teenagers are not heeding our admonitions to abstain.

Indeed, study after study in the mid-to-late 1990s demonstrated DARE’s failure to prevent teens from using alcohol and other drugs. One mega-analysis even showed that D.A.R.E. graduates had higher rates of drug use than the non-D.A.R.E. control group. Even the Department of Education dropped D.A.R.E. from it list of “evidence-based” prevention programs.

Teen alcohol and other drug use is a serious issue that continues to concern parents, educators, and young people themselves. Instead of celebrating a program that has consistently failed, we should seize this anniversary to institute real drug education.

My daughter’s pronouncement back in 1987 prompted me to use my research skills. I began looking critically at and writing extensively about D.A.R.E. and other school-based prevention. I’ve learned that a combination of our drug-obsessed culture (think alcohol, caffeine and the proliferating pharmaceuticals); the abject failure of scare tactics, risk warnings and zero tolerance policies to deter; and teenagers’ ability to and insistence upon making their own decisions means we must shift gears.

Safety First

Just as with sexuality education, we must acknowledge that although abstinence would be ideal, it may not be realistic. This necessitates a fallback plan that goes beyond zero tolerance and stresses safety first. I’m grateful that my own kids made it out of the teen years as healthy, whole young adults. And I hope that parents and educators will be open to innovative strategies, such as those featured in the Safety First Project of the Drug Policy Alliance. They challenge the failed status quo.

Reference for National DARE Day

Posted with minor edits by permission of Dr. Marsha Rosenbaum. She is director of the Safety First Project at the Drug Policy Alliance. Dr. Rosenbaum is a National Institute on Drug Abuse scholar and parent of four children.

Note about National DARE Day

Presidents annually declare a “National DARE Day” in April. Yet they never questioning the effectiveness of the failed program. The appropriate date for that day would be April first — April Fool’s Day.