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More money is being pumped into drug
education than ever. Yet the image of drugs continues to be one of
glamour rather than danger. As teen drug use holds steady, this much is
clear: No one seems to know just what to teach kids about drugs - or
how, or when.
| Staff writer of The Christian Science
When George Bush delivered his State of
the Union address last January, he was quick to proclaim his
administration's faith in drug education. "We are fighting illegal
drugs," the president told a roomful of applauding legislators, "by
cutting off supplies and reducing demand through antidrug education
fact, the number of experts who still embrace the "cutting off supplies"
approach to the war on drugs is an ever-increasing minority. But at the
same time interest in drug education as a means of battling illegal drug
use remains strong. For the past decade, experts and politicians across
the political spectrum have been stepping up the argument that
education, rather than tough drug laws and border control, will be the
most effective means of turning teen drug use in
America on its head.
whole lot, then, is riding on the success of existing drug education
programs, and the Bush administration knows it. Among the provisions of
this year's National Drug Control Strategy: $170 million earmarked for
the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign and $694 million for the
Drug-Free Schools and Communities Program.
yet, during a summer rife with the results of studies on drugs,
anti-drug campaigns, and drug prevention, it became increasingly clear
that no one seems to know just what to teach, or how, or when. A few
scenarios show that some of the methods adults use to push kids away
from drugs may actually be drawing them nearer.
June, drug czar John Walters proposed drug testing in schools across the
country just weeks after a multiyear study funded by the National
Institute on Drug Abuse found that students in schools that have drug
testing are likelier to use drugs than those in schools that don't.
late July, on the same day that Cheech & Chong - long associated with
marijuana use - announced work on their first film in 20 years ("They
have a whole new generation of fans out there," New Line Cinema's Kent
Alterman beamed), the Harvard School of Public Health released its
College Alcohol Study. Education programs aimed at reducing drinking at
college may encourage it, the study found.
August, shortly after participating in an antidrug film, a 15-year-old
England was found in his grandfather's garden after overdosing on a
fistful of Ecstasy pills. The tablets had been stamped with kangaroos,
and three 16- and 17-year-old boys were arrested on suspicion of
supplying them. How could a student so involved in drug prevention, the
world asked, so completely escape its message?
Experts continue to wonder why it remains so hard to identify the
elements of a truly effective drug program. Considerable time, money,
and effort have been thrown at the question, and yet the hearts and
minds of many young people seem to remain largely resistant to the
cautionary messages of adults. Drug education programs may have
statistics, case studies, and "just say no" techniques on their side,
but drugs have supposed glamour, adventure, and the promise of peer
acceptance on theirs. Messages coming from teachers and adult seem only
rarely able to compete.
history of drug education is short and poorly documented. Many drug
experts are as uncomfortable discussing it as they are talking about
illegal drug use, in part because it is riddled with failed programs,
and in part because of the implicit admission that it is still too early
to declare any of the latest ones effective.
of the first attempts at drug education came in the form of a 1936
pseudo documentary, "Reefer Madness," which hyped the harmful effects of
marijuana, "the killer weed." A cult classic since its rescue from the
Library of Congress in the '70s, the film was the first in a wave of
scare tactics that would play a pervasive role in drug-education
programs for the next 50 years.
the late '80s, when an egg and a frying pan were used as a metaphor for
the brain on drugs, the campaign was shunned into oblivion. Out of the
backlash was born the popular slogan, "A mind is a terrible thing to
confuse with an egg." Kids weren't buying it, and antidrug campaigners
admitted that fear and exaggeration don't work.
"Kids today are rightly suspicious," says Meredith Maran, author of the
recently released "Dirty: A Search for Answers Inside America's Teenage
Drug Epidemic," in which she shadows three adolescent drug users to try
to find out why they use and who, if anyone, is helping them stop.
"Teenage disbelief and suspicion of drug prevention programs is rooted
in scare tactics," she says. "When I was 16 and started reading stories
about drugs I was taking, and compared my reality to that, I said
'that's that.' To this day I don't trust anything from those sources."
today, some drug education experts are reluctant to talk about what has
become the most widely used prevention program - Drug Abuse Resistance
Education (D.A.R.E.) - since the Los Angeles Police Department founded
it in 1983.
Preliminary studies showed a rapid reduction in drug use among the
fifth- and sixth-graders who went through the program, and nearly two
decades of federal funding followed. But in the late '90s, a new wave of
studies deemed the program not only ineffective, but a possible cause of
rising drug use among teens. More kids who had been through D.A.R.E.
said they were trying drugs than those who hadn't.
Despite these findings, D.A.R.E. remains the program of choice in 80
percent of US public school systems - and the curriculum has yet to be
replaced or improved upon.
Herbert Kleber, director of D.A.R.E.'s Scientific Advisory Board, admits
the program continues to be used in part because of its monopoly on drug
education. It had parents, teachers, and legislators enraptured for 15
years, he says, and there was little room, not to mention money, to
develop other programs. "If D.A.R.E. disappeared tomorrow, money wasn't
going anywhere else," Dr. Kleber says. "So the way to deal with it was
not to kill it, but to fix it."
a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the board appointed
Zili Sloboda at the National Institute for Drug Awareness to develop an
D.A.R.E. would stay, says Kate Kraft, the foundation's senior program
officer, for logistical reasons. "D.A.R.E. has quite an effective
distribution network," she says. "The issue was, if you could create a
prevention curriculum that followed state-of-the-art evidence about what
works, and distribute that through a ready-made distribution center -
D.A.R.E. - could it be effective?" They are betting that it can.
Sloboda has been working on the new curriculum for four years, and the
conclusion she has reached - that a 10- or 17-lesson antidrug program in
fifth or sixth grade isn't enough - is one that ninth-grader Isabel
Maremont grasped long ago, baffled that it took a task force of experts
four years and thousands of dollars to understand this.
"I don't really remember anything from
D.A.R.E.," Isabel says with a shrug. "We only had it in sixth grade, and
I threw away my binder a long time ago. But now is the time we start
wondering whether we'll ever try anything."
Which is why Sloboda is testing her D.A.R.E. revamp, "Take Charge of
Your Life," in seventh and ninth grades, when students are reputedly at
the highest risk of experimenting with drugs. The study is being
implemented over a 10-lesson period in 88 school districts throughout
Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, New Orleans, St. Louis, and Newark, NJ.
for the curriculum itself, Sloboda rattles off a six-pronged formula for
success that includes understanding the risks of drugs, developing
assertiveness and refusal skills, and avoiding potentially violent
situations. Last on the list: "Make positive quality-of-life decisions."
students don't learn is how the drugs work, what effects they have on
the brain, and why they are harmful. "You've seen the pictures of the
lungs and all that stuff," Sloboda says. "It goes right over their
isn't the kind of credit Isabel thinks she and her peers deserve. "I
think they're almost scared to tell us the truth," she says. Isabel
learned nothing about the club drug Ecstasy, for example - which has
doubled in use among eighth graders in the past 10 years - when she went
through D.A.R.E. two years ago
does know, however, that cocaine and heroin are harmful "because you can
overdose on them." Nicotine "is just bad." And alcohol? "If you have a
glass of wine at dinner or a beer or something, if you're an adult," she
says, "it doesn't matter."
Sloboda is uncomfortable with teachers focusing in the classroom on the
specific characteristics of each drug. It is much more effective to
teach kids the skills to say "no." "The kids," she says, "need
resistance skills to be able to say 'no' when they want to."
The wrong messengers?
what happens when they don't want to say no? What happens when the
reason isn't peer pressure or what they have or haven't learned, but
May, less than 10 percent of high school students surveyed about drugs
and drinking named peer pressure a "major problem," according to "The
State of Our Nation's Youth," while 27 percent reported that it is a
"minor problem," and 65 percent "not a problem."
when many children are beginning to wonder what drugs feel like, they
are learning little more than how to avoid them. And that kids hear this
message from teachers or police officers in programs such as D.A.R.E.
has sometimes been the source of public ridicule. While there is no hard
evidence that using police officers to teach kids about drugs doesn't
work (no studies have yet been done to determine this), most experts
suggest that law enforcement may not be the most effective mouthpiece.
"We're looking at that now," Sloboda says. "Things have changed. Since
Sept. 11, there's a renewed respect for firemen and police officers and
Others argue that students learn best from people who can impart some
sort of wisdom based on experience. And yet it is a rare program that
allows students to hear from current, or former, drug users.
Clark, the 2001 Disney Teacher of the Year and author of the
best-seller, "The Essential 55," says the message itself is muffled if
kids cannot relate to the messenger. "A lot of people in these programs
just aren't the right individuals," he says. "They don't bring a real
passion to the subject, and the kids get bored to tears. Whoever is
doing the awareness program has to be someone the kids like and trust."
then there is the issue of time. How is D.A.R.E., over the period of 10
or 17 brief lessons, supposed to influence kids who receive informal
education about drugs - from friends, family, and a drug-saturated
culture - their whole lives? Is it any different from teaching about
sex? Or guns? Or algebra? These are hard lessons, and they require more
than a quick-fix formula or punchy sound bites.
best programs that are science- or evidence-based can't just be in
schools," says Roberta Leis, program director at Join Together, a
drug-awareness resource center in
Boston. "But a lot of the parents just grabbed onto D.A.R.E. and those
pins and buttons and thought that was all they needed to do."
who are curious about drugs will figure out a way to learn about them,
insists Ms. Maran, whose own children reacted very differently to drugs
when they were teens. "Kids are so smart," she says. "They're much more
Internet-savvy and can go to sources that give them real information.
One psychiatrist I interviewed was saying that half of her job was just
scrambling to keep up."
Jordan, whose aunt has struggled with an addiction to crack cocaine for
as long as he can remember, vows to stay away from drugs. But, when
asked how likely that is, he grows quiet, leaning over a chessboard in
his former middle school library and fingering a bishop, his Far Side
T-shirt hanging loosely on a sinewy frame. "I don't know," he murmurs.
Jordan is spending many of the last days of summer hanging out at his
old middle school in East Harlem, excited but nervous about the coming
years at a prestigious, wealthy, mostly white school in upstate New
think about what it would be like to take drugs," he admits slowly,
throwing a furtive glance over his shoulder. "But I can't just think
about myself. I have a brother and a sister who think the world of me,
and I'm trying to be a role model for them."
Jordan cannot help but feel conflicted when he's taught to fear or
loathe drug addicts. "I know it's a bad thing, doing drugs," he says,
his gaze lingering on the bishop.
I also think it's bad to [label] someone as a crack head or a drug
addict. They're hurting themselves."
Jordan may not have textbook knowledge about what drugs do to the brain,
but he knows far more about drug use and what it does to the people you
love than any of his teachers do.
Formal, school-based messages about the dangers of illegal drugs have
long rung hollow to him. He certainly knows that drugs are dangerous,
but he also sees a difference between casual experimentation - such as
his relatives drinking wine - and addictive behavior, and he knows the
lessons about drugs aren't necessarily as black and white as the
rhetoric used in class.
Jordan no longer takes such messages too seriously. These are decisions
he's had to learn to make for himself. For the moment, at least, he
hopes he's strong enough to continue making them.
the time I neared the end of my dozens of interviews for this series, I
had it down to a science: two minutes. No more, and rarely less. I had
two minutes to convince each person that this was a story they could be
a part of without giving up too many secrets.
Maybe it's because, with so many
people having either tried an illicit drug or knowing someone who has,
the subject feels too personal. Or maybe it's a more general concern
about having one's name attached to something so dark, so forbidden.
one pattern quickly emerged: No one wants to talk about drugs - and
that's especially true for adults.
don't mean to imply that his voice didn't drop an octave when Jordan
Temple spoke of his aunt, who has used crack cocaine for as long as he
can remember. Or that he didn't choke up when he spoke of his siblings
and the need, if only as a role model, to stay clean.
I don't mean to imply that she didn't blush when I got around to asking
Isabel Maremont some of the tougher questions: Has she ever tried drugs?
Does she think she ever will? A tiny voice in the back of my mind
wondered: Is it any of your business? Her eyes, so honest, so disarming,
almost said, "Yes, it is."
struck me more than the shyness of the students was the language of the
experts. Sure, they'd like to discuss drug education. Sure, they had
plenty to say about what they have and haven't learned.
the moment I asked why kids might be attracted to drugs, the language
transformed into policy speak, into a prose so formal it was unclear
whether I was getting even the tiniest glimpse of their beliefs.
"We're putting in place additional quality control measures to ensure
proper diffusion," one expert told me. Another surmised: "You can't go
into a very brief intervention with kids and say their developmental
course has been changed forever."
was as if I'd set off an alarm. I couldn't help but wonder if these kids
- who constantly spoke of the importance of "keepin' it real" - trust
adults a little bit less when the language strays from sincerity to
discomfort and obfuscation.
Programs that hold promise
Developed by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at
University, CASASTART (Striving Together to Achieve Rewarding Tomorrows)
is a community-based, school-centered program designed to build
resistance to drugs and crime in "high-risk preadolescents" between the
ages of 8 and 13. The program brings together some of the key
stakeholders (schools, law enforcement, social services, and health
agencies) under one umbrella and works daily with children.
Designed to build protective factors for students ages 4 to 12, and to
empower parents to be directly involved in their own children's
understanding of the dangers of drugs, Families and Schools Together
(FAST) was developed in Madison, Wis., in 1988. Its key distinction:
Team members do not lecture at FAST, but plan participatory activities
that involve turn taking, experiential learning, and parental support.
FAST is now implemented regularly in 45 states and five countries -
Canada, Germany, Australia, Austria, and Russia.
Good For Drugs
Good For Drugs is a school-based prevention program designed to reduce
the risks and enhance the protective factors related to alcohol,
tobacco, and other drug use among students grades K-8. Each grade level
follows a separate curriculum, and each curriculum is designed with the
specific goal of lifelong retention in mind. Too Good For Drugs also
focuses on five broader skills: goal setting, decision making, bonding
with peers, identifying and managing emotions, and communicating
Peers Making Peace
Developed with children grades six through 12 in mind, Peers Making
Peace offers unique "peer-mediation training" in groups of 15 to 24
students. Using students as active mediators, each participating school
develops a program that deals with conflicts among students to reduce
suspensions and expulsions, as well as to improve school attendance and
academic performance. The idea behind Peers Making Peace is rooted
firmly in the importance of helping children take responsibility for
Although still little more than a pilot program, Fighting Back has
demonstrated remarkable success in reducing substance abuse among youth
aged 12-17 in the
Calif., county school system. The community-wide effort to build a
safer, healthier, and drug-free community focuses on reducing the demand
for alcohol and other drugs. It addresses issues contributing to
substance abuse, rather than simply teaching denial skills. The
community-wide strategies evolved into a long-term local intervention
designed to reduce the problems associated with substance abuse through
heightened public awareness, increased community outreach, and better
institutional infrastructures (school, hospitals, etc.). Its long-term
strategy aims at changing the way individuals and organizations think
about substance abuse and at providing better responses to the various
problems that it can cause.
For a more comprehensive list of model drug programs, visit