Monday, July 17, 2017

Why Jeff Sessions Should Just Say No to the D.A.R.E. Program

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is at it again with his "tough on crime" stance. Sessions spoke at a training conference for D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Enforcement) last week saying that he wanted to restore D.A.R.E. to its former glory. He opined that it is the "best remembered anti-drug program today."

D.A.R.E. is a non-profit that started in 1983 with the intention of fighting the War on Drugs. Its notoriety gained sufficient attention to earn various amounts government funding over the years. It was a demand-side initiative to educate children in order to prevent the use of controlled substances. The idea behind D.A.R.E. was simple: tell children how bad drugs are and they will be deterred and scared enough to not use them. It has become widespread where it reaches 75 percent of schools in the United States. The question on all of our minds, and that should be on Jeff Sessions' mind, is whether D.A.R.E. is a successful in cutting back drug use.

Courtesy of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) funding the survey Monitoring the Future, we can already observe a couple of issues with correlation between D.A.R.E. and drug use (see below). One is that drug use was dropping before D.A.R.E. even started. The other is that by the time D.A.R.E. became commonplace in the 1990s, drug use among teens climbed back up.

Looking at the graph below might not be convincing unto itself. After all, correlation is not the same as causation. So let's take a look at the empirical evidence on D.A.R.E.:

  • A 10-year follow-up of the program conducted by the American Psychological Association found few differences between the DARE group and the comparison group in terms of drug use, perceptions, or self-esteem (Lynam et al., 1999).
  • The Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducted a study in 2003, which found that "no significant differences in illicit drug use between D.A.R.E. and non-D.A.R.E. students." 
  • The Surgeon General concluded in 2001 that D.A.R.E. was insignificant, as did a multivariate meta-analysis of 20 controlled studies (Pan and Bai, 2009). 
  • The Bureau of Justice Assistance, an organization that would be more inclined to agree with the D.A.R.E. program's mission, discovered in its 2009 study that the effects of D.A.R.E. on drug use were negligible. 
  • George Mason University's Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy reviewed multiple studies on D.A.R.E.'s effectiveness. After reviewing the empirical evidence, the Center classified D.A.R.E. as "what doesn't work." 
    • One of the studies even found negative effects on alcohol and tobacco use (Sloboda et al., 2009). 

D.A.R.E.'s more recently developed "Keepin' It Real" program is shown to have modest success. The reason for its success, however, is because this new program is different both in content and form. Rather than bombard children with scaremongering lectures on drugs, this program focuses on communication and decision-making skills. The reason why it only had modest success in certain instances? Because police officers are not equipped to handle what is largely a health issue. If we are to address drug abuse, it should be done by experts in trauma and mental health. Plus, police officers symbolize authority, which is exactly what children and early teenagers are gearing to rebel against. It could explain why Penn State University's Wharton Public Policy Initiative expresses doubts about this latest D.A.R.E. program. Between that and the straight-up fear-mongering, is it a wonder that D.A.R.E. is so ineffective?

Sessions is having nostalgia for a 1980s that never existed, the one where he erroneously believes "tough on crime" worked back then. The truth is that "tough on crime" failed, and that D.A.R.E.'s initial model of scaremongering did not do anything significant to prevent drug use. Why Sessions wants to go back to that model is beyond me. Addiction is not a criminal issue; it's a health issue. Until Sessions realizes that, it will simply be more of the same failed "tough on crime" policy from the Attorney General's Office.

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