Jeff Sessions Wants to Bring Back D.A.R.E

By Zachary Siegel 07/17/17

Critics immediately rebuked the Attorney General. D.A.R.E., caught in the crossfire, isn’t happy. 

Attorney General Jeff Sessions
Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaking at D.A.R.E.’s training conference. Photo via YouTube

Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently advocated for reinstating the much-contested D.A.R.E. program—a police led, school-based substance abuse prevention curriculum.  

“D.A.R.E. is, I think, the best remembered anti-drug program today,” Sessions said during a speech at D.A.R.E.’s training conference in Texas. “In recent years people have not paid much attention to that message but they are ready to hear it again.”

"We need you," Sessions continued. "We need D.A.R.E. to prevent them from finding new victims. We need your strong leadership to deny them new customers." "Them" being drug dealers. "We know it worked before and we can make it work again," he said.  

Critics immediately took to social media to criticize Sessions for touting D.A.R.E. of the ’80s. 

Keith Humphreys, a leading addiction scholar and professor of psychiatry at Stanford, tweeted: “Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) has been heavily studied and it just doesn't work, period.”

VICE columnist Maia Szalavitz, who authored the recent New York Times bestseller Unbroken Brain, asked, “Do we really need to replay the greatest failures of the 80s?”

Echoing Szalavitz, Vox’s German Lopez, who writes extensively about drug policy, wrote an article with the headline: “Jeff Sessions’s praise of DARE shows he just can’t quit the 1980s.”

D.A.R.E. didn’t take kindly to the criticism. “Their attack is on Sessions and the weapon they’re relying upon to do that is in reference to a program that is effective today,” Richard Mahan, D.A.R.E.’s director of communications, told The Fix. “They’re making wrong claims based upon 20-year-old information. No one ever called us for a comment.”  

To be sure, Sessions was indeed speaking to D.A.R.E’s original program, which was found to be ineffective. “Whenever I ask adults around age 30 about prevention,” Sessions told the audience, “they always mention the D.A.R.E. program. Your efforts work. Lives and futures are saved.” 

Rather than preventing drug use, in some cases, the old program was found to have the opposite effect: sparking students' curiosity to try drugs. That finding landed the original D.A.R.E. program on the list of “Psychological Treatments that Cause Harm,” compiled by Emory psychologist Scott O. Lilienfeld.

D.A.R.E has modified its program over the years to get with the times. A 2014 article in Scientific American explains how D.A.R.E. teamed up with behavioral scientists to craft an evidenced-based curriculum, which became known as "keepin' it REAL." The Surgeon General’s Report on addiction that came out last year commended the efficacy of the new program. 

However a recent study found that keepin’ it REAL still needs a robust evaluation before being widely implemented.

Following Sessions’s lead, I asked my Facebook friends, the majority of whom are in their 20s and 30s, what they remember about D.A.R.E. from yesteryear. A common observation was that there was no distinction between different classes of drugs—and when kids found out that this was a lie, they automatically distrusted everything else the program had taught them.

As one commenter noted: D.A.R.E. "lumped all the drugs and their consequences together. Meth is just as bad as weed is just as bad as heroin...Once I tried smoking and realized it didn't immediately send my life crumbling, I thought maybe they had lied about other substances too."

Take a gander at some of the other trenchant comments.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.