For the past 30 years, the majority of American drug education has been propaganda and fear-mongering. Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) turns 30 this month, celebrating millions of elementary and middle school students learning the terrors of drug use.
I was 11 years old when a uniformed police officer, gun and all, entered my classroom. In weekly lessons, he taught us about drugs and how to avoid them. He told us that marijuana was an evil gateway drug. If you use it, you will die. If you use crack, heroin, cocaine, LSD, PCP or tobacco, you will die. Your friends will force drugs on you and you must turn them down. Then, you must make new friends.
As a preteen, this so-called education fostered curiosity in me. Like others my age, I wondered why people used drugs if they were so terrible. D.A.R.E. attempted to inspire fear, but instead, I was enticed.
In this, I am not alone.
Studies show that drug use in teens and adults has increased in the last thirty years. There are many factors in this change, but clearly D.A.R.E. is not effective.
Wondering if my memory was tainted by “Mean Girls,” I recently examined the D.A.R.E. website. It features pictures of cute kids and officers, while highlighting the girth of the program. The site includes a brief list of the drugs covered by the curriculum with reductive descriptions riddled with dire warnings. D.A.R.E. continues to omit that many illicit drugs have known medical or psychological benefits and that many people enjoy the effects of drugs with little to no detriment. MDMA, the main chemical in ecstasy, and cannabis, the proper botanical name for marijuana, are prime examples of this.
Knowing the risks of drug use is imperative, but failing to provide pertinent information is disingenuous and dangerous, especially for preteens and adolescents. Misleading this traditionally rebellious demographic and categorizing drugs as taboo makes them appealing without providing methods to avoid overdose and other possible harm. Creators and educators of D.A.R.E. are fostering physical and civic harm by hindering individuals’ ability to make informed decisions about their bodies.
Some form of drug use has been present in societies since prehistoric times. It will not be eradicated from ours by prohibition or an abstinence-only program. We need to acknowledge drugs as enduring chemicals.
Like all inanimate objects, drugs are neither evil, nor virtuous. While drugs exhibit risks, like owning firearms or driving a car, what makes them dangerous or enjoyable is the individual and their use habits.
Two years ago, Devon Tackels, the founder and former president of VCU’s chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, moved to end abstinence-only drug education and met with Kristen Donovan of The Wellness Resource Center. They recognized education as the most effective defense against harmful behaviors associated with drug use and jointly created Just Say Know.
Since the Spring of 2011, Just Say Know, affectionately nicknamed the “Anti-D.A.R.E.,” has been filling the gaping informational chasm by providing unbiased, factual drug information and debunking popular myths.
Topics from these free monthly seminars, led by a staff member from The Well and a student volunteer, have included prescription stimulants, MDMA, psilocybin, cocaine, alcohol, LSD, nicotine, bath-salts, and synthetic cannabinoids. More topics are planned and, as Just Say Know has grown, the co-founders have presented at academic and advocate conferences.
I have attended many sessions and last spring, Donovan and I led a seminar about cannabis. We spent weeks researching and planning the presentation over cups of caffeinated tea (which is technically a drug).
This amount of preparation is standard for Just Say Know to assure accuracy and avoid bias. With twenty to thirty students, we discussed positive and negative effects of the plant, risk of addiction and harm reduction strategies. We received positive feedback and anonymous clicker surveys revealed an increase in fact-based knowledge.
I am proud to participate in this revolutionary program and cannot praise the work of my colleagues highly enough. We work to spread accurate information because it’s the first step toward safety and bodily sovereignty. Resources like Just Say Know should be available to everyone.
Maybe one day, all educators, police officers and governments officials will respect our ability to make our own choices.