The fading war on drugs

How Osama bin Laden caused the decline of DARE, the anti-drug program that brought you "Just Say No."

Topics: Drugs, Osama Bin Laden, Terrorism,

The fading war on drugs

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the sheriff’s office in Jacksonville, Fla., found itself in a crisis. Bomb threats and anthrax scares were epidemic, and deputies had to respond to each one. At the same time, 80 of the department’s 1,475 employees were military reservists who could be called off the street to active service. Lacking money for new hires, Sheriff Nat Glover decided to cancel some prevention programs and move officers to street patrol. The first such program he cut was Drug Abuse Resistance Education, better known as DARE, which had used 13 cops to teach an anti-drug message to 12,000 Jacksonville-area elementary school students each year.

“We are reluctant to make this move,” Glover said in a news release. “DARE and other crime-prevention programs are important, but our first priority is patrolling the streets and we must fill vacancies created by the military call-up.”

A year earlier, Glover’s move might have been seen as heresy. But as the nation moves closer to the start of a new school year and the anniversary of the attacks, it is becoming apparent that Osama bin Laden may be succeeding where civil libertarians, some parent groups and critical researchers had failed, in pushing DARE out of schools.

The law of unintended consequences usually births some strange offspring, and in this case, DARE’s demise in many schools is clearly, if indirectly, linked to the terrorist attacks. Since 9/11, the feds have had to shift much of their work in white-collar crime, immigration and drug enforcement onto local police agencies. Local agencies at the same time are being squeezed by their first budgetary crises in more than a decade, another condition attributed at least partly to the attacks. And the poor economy is being blamed in part for the first rise in the crime rate since 1991.

During the past year, police departments and school districts in Fort Worth and Arlington, Texas, and Toledo and Canton, Ohio, have cut their DARE programs, based in part on budgetary concerns. Officials have done the same from Greensboro, N.C., to Council Bluffs, Iowa, and on to Mesa, Ariz. and Anaheim, Calif. Several other major cities — and even a few states — are contemplating action that would cut millions more from the program. Oklahoma already has cut its DARE spending from $919,000 in 1997-98 to just $155,000 this year.

In suburban Suffolk County, N.Y., police commissioner John Gallagher has given school districts a year to come up with a new program before his department stops participating in DARE, citing the $3.5 million annual cost of providing 33 officers, as well as questions about DARE’s effectiveness. “We have to face this honestly — the program is not going to work,” Gallagher told county lawmakers last December. “It has not worked.”

The choice for local communities is, in essence, simple. The DARE program in a medium-sized city has 10 police officers, each at roughly $60,000 a year. Is the city better off spending that $600,000 to put officers on the street to chase drug dealers and terrorists, or should it put officers in elementary school telling fifth- or sixth-graders not to smoke pot or drink alcohol?

The decision is not based purely on dollars and cents. Virtually every major study about DARE says it doesn’t work. Since 1995, a number of academic and government studies — by the U.S. surgeon general, the General Accounting Office and the National Academy of Sciences among others — have found that drug use among students who took DARE and those who didn’t showed little difference later in life. Some studies have even suggested that kids who go through the DARE program are more likely to use drugs and alcohol. Earlier this month, researchers from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill reported in the journal Health Education Research that DARE is not merely ineffective, but that it is “not a very good use of taxpayer money.”

What the studies don’t say is why, exactly, it doesn’t work. Most researchers agree that fifth- and sixth-graders are too young for the intensive training. Another problem has been the lack of interactive teaching methods by the police officers. The best drug-abuse prevention programs, researchers have found, use discussion groups and Socratic-method question-and-answer sessions instead of lectures. Lastly, researchers think there is a problem with the DARE message itself. The officers don’t make a distinction between alcohol and marijuana and harder drugs like cocaine and heroin. When kids see their friends experimenting with marijuana in eighth grade, and don’t see the full-blown addiction that the DARE officers warned about, they may throw out the entire DARE message.

Still, as long as the war on drugs was the nation’s No. 1 war, DARE was politically untouchable. In such a climate, DARE found its way into 80 percent of the nation’s schools. But two generations removed from the 1960s, American attitudes about drugs — and especially marijuana — have softened. The “Just Say No” teaching of DARE now seems an anachronistic leftover of the Reagan era, a slogan with little substance. Nevada residents in November will vote on an initiative to make marijuana legal and regulate its sale, just as the state does with alcohol and tobacco. States are debating the medical use of marijuana; industrial hemp is being positioned as a cash crop. England has just decriminalized marijuana, and Canada will probably do so soon, which will no doubt rejuvenate the decriminalization debate in this country.

Since Sept. 11, the place of drugs in the nation’s hierarchy of enemies clearly has been diminished. The war on drugs has given way to the war on terrorism. The FBI has moved 400 agents from drug enforcement to anti-terrorism duties. In its searches of freighters on the high seas, the Coast Guard has made plastic explosives a priority where bales of marijuana used to be the chief target. Planes that used to search for drug traffickers are now patrolling the skies for suicide bombers. In many communities, the choice has come down to public safety vs. youth drug-and-alcohol abuse prevention.

“There is a lot of shifting going on right now,” says Tim Lynch, director of the libertarian Cato Institute’s project on criminal justice. “The feds are trying to get the locals to handle more of the burden. Americans are looking at the war on drugs in new ways. Priorities have changed. Maybe that’s why DARE is being looked at more closely. 9/11 is a major factor, because of the necessary shifting of resources.”

Some pundits said in days after 9/11 that irony was dead, but there is a lot of irony here. One of the major criticisms of DARE from civil libertarians was that the program encouraged kids to turn in their dope-smoking parents. President Bush now wants ordinary citizens to fight the war on terror by watching their neighbors through Operation Tips. It is just another example of how the war on terror has trumped the war on drugs.

DARE has long been the favorite P.R. program of police departments, and it has been a considerable risk for local sheriffs and police chiefs to publicly question its value and then cut its budget. Started in 1983 by former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates, the drug abuse prevention program would take officers off the street and put them into the classroom — usually the fifth or sixth grade. The message was uniform and straightforward, with the underlying assumption that the program could teach kids how to say to no to peer pressure. So well-received was DARE that it now serves 36 million kids in 54 countries.

But the program has long had dubious reputation. It has provided some valuable education and given parents an entry point for important discussions with their children about drugs and related issues. At the same time, though, it has sometimes left children with bizarre misimpressions — for example, that parents who drink wine or a cocktail at home are a cause for concern.

DARE’s success was always tied to being more than merely a drug-prevention program. School districts liked it because it took the burden off them to come up with a federally mandated drug prevention program. Most parents liked the feel-good interaction of cops meeting their kids in the classroom. Politicians loved DARE because it gave them a chance to be anti-drug and pro-family at the same time. For local police, it was a chance to show that they could be sensitive and caring, more than automatons with mirrored sunglasses who wrote speeding tickets and swung billy clubs.

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But that rationale has sustained some serious damage in recent months. In Los Angeles, where DARE started, Mayor James K. Hahn proposed earlier this year that all 119 DARE officers be cut from the police force; under a compromise reached in May, 44 officers will remain in the program. “Getting more officers on the street to help address the crime problem is a top priority for the mayor,” Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Matt Middlebrook told the Los Angeles Times.

It is instructive to hear the comments by the police chiefs who are cutting their DARE programs. Elimination of DARE is not strictly a budgetary issue, they say, but in a time of budget crisis, the expense is a hard one to justify.

“If the program was working magic, then maybe we’d consider finding ways to funding it,” says Toledo Police Chief Michael Navarre. “The studies saying DARE doesn’t work made it easier for us. We already have to fund putting police in the schools. I just couldn’t commit to nine additional officers to fully staff the program.

“The principals loved DARE,” Navarre continues. “But when you show them the research, and we look at our budget, it becomes an easy decision. We have received very little grief for this decision. The educators, the school board members, the local politicians, they all back me on this.”

Trying to get a handle on how much money goes into DARE is difficult. Neither Glenn Levant, president of DARE America, nor his staff returned calls for this story. By all accounts, though, the program offered through the private nonprofit organization is extremely expensive. When all the federal, state, local and private contributions are added up, some experts put the price tag at $1 billion a year.

Perhaps Sept. 11 and the related budget problems were the most immediate cause of DARE’s recent troubles, but its credibility had long been weakened by doubts about its effectiveness. That caused the U.S. Department of Education in 1999 to take DARE off its list of approved programs, meaning federal funds could not be used for DARE unless the local school district did its own study showing its effectiveness. Before the current budget crises, the federal guidelines mattered little. School districts would fund their prevention programs through the federal Safe and Drug-Free Schools programs, and add the DARE program for the elementary kids at local law enforcement’s expense. Now, the added expense of DARE is being questioned.

“In the early days, there were all those combinations of funds and if you had to hire some additional officers, you didn’t put a dent in the budget,” says Luanne Rohrbach, a research assistant professor at the University of Southern California who specializes in drug abuse programs. “But a lot of those funds have dried up. The times have changed dramatically in the past year.”

Consider the situation in Arlington, Texas. The school district gets $232,069 in federal funds from the Safe and Drug-Free Schools program. In the past, the city and the school district would split the $613,000 cost of DARE, with the city kicking in $263,000 for 10 officers and the school district picking up the $350,000 tab for materials and training. With the city looking to cut $2.5 million from its budget, and the school district facing similar cuts, the chance to save $613,000 on DARE costs was attractive to both sides. Starting this school year, Arlington officials will use their federal money for an in-house drug prevention program taught in all grades by health-science teachers and counselors.

Bill Modzeleski, director of the Safe and Drug-Free Schools program for the U.S. Department of Education, says the department is officially neutral on DARE. “We are not saying the federal dollars cannot be used for DARE,” says Modzeleski. “But we treat it the same as any other program. If we don’t see any change in behavior, we don’t fund it. We hold their feet to the fire and test these kids. We have to see improvement in the behavior.”

But his boss — President Bush — is a big DARE fan, and Modzeleski hedges a bit when discussing the program. Despite the critical studies, he says, DARE does many good things. When asked to name what DARE does well, he points to one attribute that has little to do with alcohol and drug-use prevention: “Research shows that DARE builds a better relationship between law enforcement and children,” he says. “When they go out on calls, they won’t have kids throwing eggs at them.”

Critics say DARE extracts a high price from police departments — and ultimately, from taxpayers — to achieve that benefit. But putting police in the classroom is crucial to the program, supporters say. Dr. Herbert Kleber, professor of psychiatry and director of the division on substance abuse at Columbia University Medical Center, serves as chairman of DARE’s science advisory board, and when I ask him why police officers are so central, he repeatedly refers to what he calls the “DARE delivery system” and the “consistency” of the police officers who teach the program.

“No matter how good the curricula is, consistency in presentation is crucial,” Kleber says. “The turnovers of teachers are enormous — less than one in nine were there one year to the next. The officers are carefully chosen and well-trained and they consistently deliver, year after year.”

The argument about police officers being the best way to deliver drug-abuse training programs is somewhat specious. It’s like saying that McDonald’s can make a burger that tastes the same whether you are in Paris or New York, and that the ability to achieve such consistency is remarkable. The more important question is whether the burger is any good. Even if the war on terror ended tomorrow and budgets became healthy again, it is not assured that DARE would immediately jump back into the communities as their anti-drug program of choice. DARE has sustained too many hits from researchers, too many hits from budget-conscious police chiefs. There are other programs increasingly seen as more effective.

While DARE officials are reluctant to talk about the program’s quality, they have tacitly acknowledged problems: They have commissioned a $13.7 million study, paid for by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, to rework the program by 2006. Already, though, there are significant questions about whether the revised approach will be any better than the current one.

Some think the new DARE may be even more labor intensive. The six-city pilot program, involving 30,000 students, would move the training from elementary school to middle school, be more interactive and have follow-up sessions in high school. And while Kleber says the changes in the new DARE will be based upon the latest research, police officers still will be the instructors.

More labor intensive also means more expensive — and those who want to spend more on DARE appear to be ignoring how the war on terror is draining money and staff from the war on drugs. William Alden, DARE America’s Washington-based consultant, recently told the Columbus Dispatch that as much as $30 million will be needed nationwide to retrain officers and provide new materials for the new program. That brought a pointed response from Sgt. Earl Smith, the Columbus Police Department’s public information officer.

“We can’t afford what we’ve got,” Smith said. “How are we going to do more? I don’t know that anyone is saying they’re against DARE, conceptually. The question is: Is it doing what we need of it, and can we afford it?”

The new the study won’t be finished until 2006, and in cities and states nationwide, police executives are making other plans. Says Michael Navarre, the Toledo police chief: “We don’t want to wait that long.”

Dan McGraw is a writer living in Fort Worth, Texas. His memoir, "First and Last Seasons: A Father, A Son, and Sunday Afternoon Football" was published in 2000 by Doubleday.

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