Blog | Drug Addiction

Would the DARE Program Work or Fail If Brought Back by the Attorney General?

Well intentioned as she was, Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” slogan in the 1980s became a mockery in schools nationwide from the first time she ever said them.

Even students at low risk for drug abuse knew that “the war on drugs” wasn’t going to be won that easily. If addiction were as simple as “Just Saying No,” the nation would not be in the mess it’s in today.

So, now that Attorney General Jeff Sessions begun quoting Mrs. Reagan in relation to his drug policy goals, a collective eye roll is sweeping America among people battling addiction past and present, as well as mental health clinicians and other influencers in addiction treatment.

But wait. Getting lost in the discussion is the fact that DARE has changed its curriculum considerably from the days of Nancy Reagan. It’s also important to note that while DARE may have coincided with “Just Say No,” the curriculum even then understood that addiction is not as black and white as the hopeful First Lady made it seem.

In fact, it’s probably too early to tell whether Sessions’ implied approach of a crackdown on drug dealers and a program like DARE in all our nation’s schools would be an effective strategy or not.

Not Your Dad’s DARE Program

While it’s not a story that received much fanfare when it was written in 2014, the highly-respected magazine Scientific American published a piece headlined, “The New D.A.R.E. Program – This One Works.”1

From the beginning, the original DARE program may have been destined to fail. It was developed by the Los Angeles Police Department – not mental health professionals or substance use disorder clinicians. But that has changed, according to John Lindsay, a regional director for DARE America.

“We want to be on the cutting edge of research and science,” he told Scientific American. “If you believe in that, you can’t just talk the talk, you have to walk the walk – and I think that’s what we’ve done over the last few years.”

The curriculum is based on the research-backed prevention principles developed by the National institute on Drug Abuse. The page that lists those principles says it was last updated in 2003, 14 years ago.2

DARE 2.0 officially is called “keepin’ it REAL.” Perhaps a fitting name after the criticism lobbed at the original DARE program.

New DARE Program Premised in Science

According to DARE, keepin’ it REAL is substance abuse education and more, based on proven research, including:

  • Early intervention, citing Ialongo, et al, in 2001 and Hawkins, et al, in 2008
  • Population-specific, citing numerous research, the most recent published in 2008
  • Parental monitoring, calling it “critical for drug abuse prevention,” and citing research from 2001.

But how do we make sure parents are watching their children? For reasons such as this and others, some say the new DARE still is more “touchy feely” than based in science.

On the website Quora, former patrol officer Justin Freeman writes, “My earliest memory of the program was in elementary school, when a uniformed officer came in and gave a speech to our class. I don’t remember the specifics, but it was the standard ‘Drugs are awful, drugs are bad, drugs are never to be had’ banter followed by a question and answer sessions focused almost solely on his gun.”3

As a kid and a cop, he adds, “I always thought it was a waste.” Keepin’ it REAL is not like that any longer. Officers speak for about eight minutes and then students role-play in various risk scenarios.

Cops Connecting with Kids: What Really Matters

Says retired Reno Police Department officer Tim Dees on Quora, “Personally, I think law enforcement agencies would use the resources allocated to DARE more effectively by assigning them elsewhere, even if it was just to regular patrol or school resource officer duties.”

Indeed, many departments around the U.S., such as the city of Rock Island, Ill., have created hybrid programs that do just that. In Rock Island, a resource officer visits all the schools and interacts with the students in a variety of ways.

But beyond that, officers on the beat in Rock Island have adopted a very child-friendly approach, opening fire hydrants in high-crime areas of the city on hot summer days. They pass out Bomb Pops to the children while they frolic in the hydrant spray.

Last year, when a rash of burglaries hit a virtually crime-free area of the city, the police rode bicycles with the children in the neighborhood, who sometimes know more about what’s going on than the adults do.

Such approaches are critical to building trust with police. “Regular contact and exposure to cops desensitizes students to their presence and improves communication in both directions. I can only think that is a good thing.”

1. Nordrum, A. (2014, Sept. 10). The New D.A.R.E. Program – This One Works. Scientific American. Retrieved May 13, 2017, from
2. Preventing drug use among children and adolescents (in brief). National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2003, Oct.).
3. Freeman, J. Dees, T. (2014, Jan.) What do police officers think about the DARE program? Quora. Retrieved May 13, 2017, from

Written by David Heitz