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Are Drug Education Programs Effective?

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Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

December 7, 2022

Table of Contents

Over the years, we’ve been led to believe that drug education programs are good for young people, but are they? We look at the effectiveness of this practice.


As far back as many of us can remember, the DARE program was at the forefront of drug education programs. Therefore, when examining the effectiveness of drug education programs, it’s logical to start here. DARE was born from the concept that talking to children at an early age about substance abuse was an important task. For decades, parents grew frustrated over the years as they struggled to find ways to talk to their children about addiction. For those who don’t know, the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program is used in nearly 80% of the school districts in the United States, in 54 other countries around the world, and is taught to roughly 36,000,000 students each year. Therefore, it’s important to know if this highly popular drug education program is effective in reducing alcohol and drug use. Unfortunately, studies have proven that the program, while noble and well-meaning, has not yielded the desired results. At one point, the U.S. Department of Education has prohibited schools from spending its funding on DARE because their studies have shown than the program has proven to be completely ineffective in reducing alcohol and drug use. In fact, independent scientific evaluation studies have consistently shown that DARE is ineffective in reducing the use of alcohol and drugs and is sometimes even counterproductive — worse than doing nothing. That’s the conclusion of the U.S. General Accounting Office, the U.S. Surgeon General, the National Academy of Sciences, and the U.S. Department of Education, among many others. Leaders of DARE say the program shouldn’t be judged solely by the evidence obtained from empirical research studies. They tend to be indifferent to factual evidence and prefer to rely on feelings, impressions and hopes. As one DARE leader explained: “I don’t have any statistics for you. Our strongest numbers are the numbers that don’t show up.” DARE’s leadership dismisses studies questioning the effectiveness of drug education programs. It’s argued that the program doesn’t need to be evaluated because it’s based on proven educational theories and techniques. Not so, according to the experts who should know. “World-renowned psychologists Bill Coulson, Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow developed the theories that DARE was founded on. Rogers and Maslow later admitted their theories were wrong and off-base. Coulson concluded that the program is ‘rooted in trash psychology.’” If people insist on evidence, MADD leadership points to surveys that ask students, parents and teachers whether they like the program. Although irrelevant to effectiveness, most people report satisfaction with DARE. The organization‘s leadership argues that such satisfaction demonstrates effectiveness.

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D.A.R.E. Offers Proof

DARE has a double standard for proof. On the one hand, it says the fact that most people like the drug education program is proof that it’s effective. On the other hand, it insists that only a nation-wide study over many years and costing three to five million dollars could demonstrate that it’s not effective! DARE plays a game of “heads I win, tails you lose.”

When the National Institutes of Health/University of Kentucky study found DARE ineffective, the organization’s leader called it “bogus,” an “academic fraud,” and claimed that it was “part of an anti-DARE vendetta by therapists.”  He dismissed the results as “voodoo science” and charged, without any evidence, that DARE’s critics are biased by their financial interest in prevention programs that compete with DARE. “I truly believe they are setting out to find ways to attack our programs and are misusing science to do it. The bottom line is that they don’t want police officers to do the work, because they want it for themselves.” Proponents seem inclined to ignore scientific research findings. “In Houston, Texas, where a study showed a shocking 29% increase in drug usage and a 34% increase in tobacco usage among students participating in DARE, the police chief defended it by saying he would use the results to ‘fine-tune the program to better serve the children.’” And he unashamedly promoted spending $3.7 million on DARE in the city. It seems that some people were adamant that the effectiveness of drug education programs like DARE were not just a good idea, but they showed tangible improvements. The data, at least up until 2009, didn’t support this. Other problems were cited by Charity Navigator, who gave this non profit a two star rating and noted that DARE’s president rakes in $225,000 a year in salary.

Changes to DARE and the Impact

In recent years, prevention scientists have helped DARE replace the old curriculum with a course based on a new concepts that should make the training more effective for today’s students. The new course, called “Keepin’ it REAL,” differs in both form and content from the old DARE. It has replaced the long, drug-fact laden lectures with interactive lessons. The thought is that presenting relevant, real-life stories might help kids make smart decisions. Unveiled in 2009, DARE administrators mandated that middle schools across the country that were teaching the old program to switch over to the 10-week, researcher-designed curriculum for seventh graders. By 2013, DARE had made the same mandate in elementary schools which then started teaching a version of those lessons to fifth and sixth graders. “It’s not an anti-drug program,” says Michelle Miller-Day, co-developer of the new curriculum and a communications researcher at Chapman University. “It’s about things like being honest and safe and responsible.” Even so, “Keepin’ it REAL” has reduced substance abuse and maintained anti-drug attitudes over time among students in early trials—an achievement that largely eluded the former iteration of the program. What DARE recognized was that their original curriculum was not shaped by prevention specialists but instead by police officers and teachers in Los Angeles. When DARE started way back in 1983, it was designed to to curb the use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco among teens and to improve community and in particular, police relations. Fueled by word of mouth, the program quickly spread to 75 percent of U.S. schools. While studies are still being done, this program seems to be making an impact. For that reason, this encouraging news is a big relief to so many people who have poured their hearts and souls into making a difference.

Increasing the Effectiveness of Drug Education Programs Through Multiple Approaches

Some prevention interventions are designed to help individuals develop the skills and habits to lead a healthy life. Others focus on creating environments that support healthy behavior. Research indicates that the most effective prevention interventions incorporate both approaches. Targeted prevention identifies and reaches out to populations that are at a higher risk for substance misuse. Any prevention approach should be used with the Strategic Prevention Framework (SPF). Learn more about applying the SPF. The prevention workforce must also have the cultural competence to effectively engage with the individuals or communities they are targeting. Learn more about cultural competence and the SPF. Sustainability is another important component of prevention efforts, and the focus of any such effort should be on sustaining positive outcomes and not in sustaining any individual program. As we’ve learned in recovery treatment disciplines, a multifaceted approach yields the best results. While scientists and researchers continue to study the effectiveness of drug education programs, many new and existing drug education programs continue to undergo refinement, each looking for any scrap of validation for their efforts. In a way, the attempts themselves are a good thing, as scientists and researchers are studying the effectiveness of drug education programs at a granular level. One thing that is clear is that part of drug education must continue in the classroom. A 2009 National Academy of Sciences report on preventable mental, emotional, and behavioral problems in young people found that effective classroom-based programs:

  • Focus on life and social skills
  • Focus on direct and indirect (social) influences on substance use
  • Involve interactions among participants
  • Emphasize norms for, and a social commitment to, not using drugs
  • Include community components
  • Are delivered primarily by peer leaders
  • Emphasize the benefit of building life skills and social resistance

If you or a loved one is struggling with substance abuse, our team at Renaissance Recovery can help. Please contact us today to learn more about how we can help you fight back against drug or alcohol addiction at our Orange County rehab.



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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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