DARE Redux

Some recent highlights and curiosities from the amazing world of cannabis science and therapeutics.
By Adrian Devitt-Lee On June 18, 2019
Bud of marijuana balanced on the point of a school pencil, in a row of pencils with their eraers pointing up, isolated on white.

A study of middle-school drug prevention published a stunning statement in the journal Addictive Behaviors: Personally threatening children is not the best way to make kids fear cannabis. The study, performed by psychologists at Claremont University in California, is a redux of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program founded during Ronald Regan’s drug war. The authors’ stated goal was to ensure that kids who were apathetic towards cannabis could be made to fear the plant. So the researchers began with 538 middle-school students. They then picked a subgroup for further “education,” comprising 101 people who were resistant to the DARE redux, but who were ambivalent to cannabis and had never used before. The authors report — without chagrin — that personally threatening these pre-teens was not effective. It’s worth reiterating that — over 100 middle school students were deemed not sufficiently fearful of cannabis, and so were threatened to further scare them. The researchers also tried belittling the kids (“experts have found that [people like you] are very childish”). And, just as in the DARE programs of the past, it didn’t even work. This leads into one of the major criticisms that DARE has faced. When teens realize that the horror stories of “reefer madness” were exaggerated, they start to question whether other drug education is equally misinformed. Is binge drinking that bad? Is sharing needles really unsafe? Thus, poorly designed drug education ends up leading to more dangerous drug use. Because in reality, almost no other recreational drugs are as safe as cannabis. DARE programs and their successors like the study here undermine genuine harm-reduction efforts by giving people cause to disbelieve and disengage. But the examples of Switzerland and Portugal have shown that harm-reduction and decriminalization is the best way to reduce dangerous drug use. DARE — with an approach akin to abstinence-only sex education — has consistently drawn criticisms of this nature. Their hard-line view has led them to promoting fake news. They have encouraged children to act as informants, reporting parents to the police for drug use. DARE currently runs the keepin’ it REAL campaign, which appears equally ineffective.

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Adrian Devitt-Lee, Project CBD's chief science writer, is employed as a research chemist by the University College of London.