Speaking at a DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) conference this week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions praised the past work of the famous anti-drug program, saying it saved lives:
I believe that DARE was instrumental to our success by educating children on the dangers of drug use. I firmly believe that you have saved lives. And I want to say thank you for that. Whenever I ask adults around age 30 about prevention, they always mention the DARE program. Your efforts work. Lives and futures are saved.
Sessions may believe that the program saved lives, but decades of evidence-based research, including some conducted by the Justice Department he now heads, has shown the program to be ineffective — and it might even make the drug problem worse. A little history:
DARE was founded in 1983 as a partnership between the Los Angeles Police Department and the L.A. public schools. The idea was simple: Officers would go into schools to talk to kids, “boosting the self-esteem of students so that they can resist the temptation to use drugs,” as the Los Angeles Times put it in a 10-year retrospective on the program in 1993.
The program drew bipartisan praise and spread like wildfire. Politicians realized that by supporting DARE, they could paint themselves as pro-cops and pro-kids: a win-win. President Ronald Reagan proclaimed the first “National DARE Day” in 1988, a tradition that continued well into the Obama administration.
Eventually, the program was in place in up to 75 percent of the nation’s school districts, by DARE’s own count. At its height, the group boasted an eight-figure budget, with much of that money coming from government sources. Individual state affiliates raised millions more.
But with success came scrutiny. Public health researchers started looking for evidence that the program was meeting its goals of reducing teen drug use. The first wave of studies, published in the early 1990s, didn’t find any.
“The effectiveness of DARE in altering students’ drug use behavior has yet to be established," concluded a University of Illinois at Chicago study in 1991.
Other research arrived at similar conclusions. In 1994, the Research Triangle Institute, funded in part by the Justice Department, conducted a meta-analysis of all the existing research on DARE. Its conclusion was withering: DARE had little to no impact on rates of teen drug use.
“DARE’s limited influence on adolescent drug use behavior contrasts with the program’s popularity and prevalence," the authors wrote. "An important implication is that DARE could be taking the place of other, more beneficial drug use curricula that adolescents could be receiving."
The Justice Department was so incensed by this unexpected finding that it refused to publish the study, according to contemporaneous news reports. “I don’t get it," DARE’s executive director at the time said of the RTI study’s findings. "It’s like kicking Santa Claus to me. We’re as pure as the driven snow."
But the kicking had only just begun. More studies showing similar findings trickled out in the 1990s. One study even suggested that DARE students were more likely than their peers to experiment with drugs and alcohol. The authors of that study chalked that up to a possible boomerang effect: “an attempt to persuade resulting in the adoption of an opposing position instead.” Telling a certain type of kid that he shouldn’t do drugs may simply result in him trying drugs out of spite.
By 2003, the former General Accounting Office launched its own DARE study to see if the Justice Department was getting a decent return on its DARE investment. The conclusion? "No significant differences in illicit drug use between students who received DARE" and those who didn’t.