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Research Scientists Call for Re-Evaluation of Drug Education

Drug Reform Coordination Network (DRCNet)
Special Bulletin

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Contact: Michael Shellenberger, (415) 255-1946

December 19, 1996

As scientists and researchers who specialize in drug education research, we are deeply concerned about the latest survey results released by the Department of Health and Human Services that show a significant rise in drug use among American adolescents.

Even more troubling are the recommendations and strategies advocated by government officials to curb this rise in teen drug use, none of which directly address the heart of why more, not less, adolescents are turning to substance use. A major part of the answer lies in the failure of current drug education programs aimed at young people -- programs we believe must be seriously re-evaluated.

Research on educational practices and adolescent development suggest that effective drug education would focus on the capabilities, not inabilities, of young people, foster awareness and responsibility in youth decision-making, and allow adolescents to participate as full members of society.

One fact is clear: Today's youth have had more drug education than any other group in the history of this country. Yet substance use continues to skyrocket. From 1991 to 1994, the federal government pumped $3.5 billion into drug prevention and education programs, including the well-known Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program. President Clinton's 1997 drug policy strategy calls for even further increased allocations for prevention education.

We are troubled by the acceptance of these programs despite the fact that not one scientifically sound study has been done that proves their efficacy. Our national debate on adolescent drug use must be opened to include discussion of th eneed and means for improving drug prevention education.

Two key, publicly-funded studies conducted in the past two years point to the need to change the current drug education curriculum.

1. A Meta-Analysis of Project DARE Outcome Evaluations, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice to evaluate the effectiveness of DARE programs, concluded:

* "DARE's limited influence on adolescent drug use behavior contrasts with the program's popularity and prevalence. An important implication is that DARE could be taking the place of other, more beneficial drug use curricula that adolescents could be receiving."

* "DARE's core curriculum effect on drug use.is slight and except for tobacco, is not statistically significant."

2. In Their Own Voices: Students and Educators Evaluate California School-Based Drug, Alcohol, and Tobacco Education (DATE) Programs, commissioned by the California Department of Education to evaluate California's various drug prevention programs concluded:

* students overwhelmingly reject the "no use" or zero- tolerance message as not credible;

* 7 out of 10 students said they felt "neutral" or "negative" toward DATE educators;

* 4 out of 10 said DATE programs had no impact "at all" on their substance use decisions;

* only 1 in 10 students said the programs affected them a lot of completely;

* programs intended to assist "at risk" students failed to provide them needed services and often resulted in detention, suspension, and expulsion.

The DATE evaluation is the only major study of its kind to involve extensive interviews with young people.

Despite these provocative findings, the Department of Justice has refused to publish the DARE report, and the California Department of Education refused to publish the DATE study, citing "methodological flaws" although data collection and analysis were performed with the DOE's full oversight and cooperation. Additionally, the study was reviewed and found to be scientifically sound by 35 independent experts, and its findings have been accepted for publication in several leading research journals.

Currently, only programs that employ a "no use" message are eligible for funding from the federal Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services. We agree with the assessment made by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) in 1991 that this funding provision should be replaced by one that expands opportunities to improve upon present efficacious middle school programs and to encourage evaluation of realistic and innovative programs for high school youth.

While we are critical of existing drug education programs targeted at young people and urge a thorough re-evaluation of these programs, we are not calling for the legalization of drugs, nor are we advocating a "pro-use" agenda. Our criticisms are also not limited to DARE; the same failed zero- tolerance messages lie at the center of nearly all drug education programs used nationwide. We also want to note that we are not speaking on behalf of the institutions we are affiliated with, but as concerned individuals.

The answer to curtailing the rise in adolescent drug use is not to eliminate drug education altogether. Nor can the problem be solved by simply calling for a return to "family values." Our goal as a nation should be to *improve* drug education programs for the health and safety of generations of young people.


Bonnie Benard, MSW. Substance Abuse Prevention Specialist, consultant with Resiliency Associates in Berkeley and research editor of the journal, Resiliency in Action.

Jerome Beck, Ph.D. Dr. Beck is Co-Director of Educational Research Consultants and has published numerous articles on patterns of drug use and drug education. He was one of the principle members of the University of Oregon Drug Information Center.

Joel Brown, Ph.D., MSW. Dr. Brown is Director of Educational Research Consultants and directed research entitled "In Their Own Voices: Students and Educators Evaluate California School- Based Drug Alcohol and Tobacco Education (DATE) Programs." Commissioned by the California State Department of Education, this was the largest evaluation of any drug education program -- including DARE -- ever conducted in the U.S.

Marianne D'Emidio-Caston, Ph.D. Supervisor, Elementary Teacher Education, Graduate School of Education, UC-Santa Barbara an Co-Director of the 1995 DATE evaluation.

Rodney Skager, Ph.D. Professor of the Graduate School of Education, UCLA, Director of the "California State Attorney General's Substance Use Survey," one of the largest on-going surveys of adolescent substance use in the U.S.

Nancy Tobler, Ph.D., MSW. Research Associate Professor, SUNY at Albany: Author of the definitive meta-analyses on school based drug-education and co-author of the Department of Justice "DARE Meta-Analysis," one of the most comprehensive evaluations of DARE performed to date.

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