Truth or Scare

Drug-using DARE graduates come clean about the program's faults.

Vanessa remembers a friend she had in middle school whom she drank with every night. She credits this same friend with making her want to turn her life around. After moving to Colorado, Vanessa says she needed only one month of drug rehabilitation because she was so willing to leave her old lifestyle behind. She says she no longer does drugs and sees herself as a role model to her younger brother and sister.

"My brother is totally comfortable coming to me. He wants to find out what I think, and he knows how I feel about how he acts around girls, drugs and alcohol. I ask him how he's going to feel when I find out he got some girl drunk and pregnant, saying it's rape. You have to teach the consequences, but not just the legal ones, because they don't have the impact. When I was thirteen and running around at two in the morning doing cocaine, doing heroin, doing mescaline, I wasn't thinking, 'Oh, gee, this'll go on my permanent record.' You're not afraid of cops. You know they can't do anything to you when you're a minor."

Vanessa says the DARE program should include speakers like herself. "My DARE officer was nice, but I don't think she ever put herself at our level so we could relate. They should have kids like me going into third-grade classes and being like, 'I'm your older sister's age, so you should listen to me.' I would tell kids, 'I was in your place four years ago, and I know where you are in your lives. I know what you're doing, but listen to what happened to me.'

"Since I've done all these drugs, I can't get things straight in my head sometimes, or I get confused with my words. I know I'm not stupid, but I'll totally notice that when I'm reading a book, it takes me longer to comprehend things. I used to be the girl that read faster than any other in my elementary school. I should be able to read. I should be able to comprehend a simple American history book, but since I did all these drugs when my brain was still developing...when you're putting LSD or crystal meth in your head, coming from someone who's done drugs, it's no joke. There's definitely a difference in your quickness, in how you respond."

These are the things kids should know about drugs, Vanessa says, "not obnoxious things in DARE when they tell you that some girl was so high that when they arrested her, she pulled her hand right out of the handcuffs and the skin ripped right off. It's important just to be open and honest with kids."

DARE Colorado no longer receives federal funding; it's run largely on private donations from big businesses and benefits like this year's April 10 Starfish Ball, as well as annual silent auctions that bring in between $15,000 and $25,000. Some of DARE's most generous contributors include the Robert and Sharon Magness Foundation, Channel 9, the Colorado Rockies, the Denver Broncos and Norwest Bank of Colorado. Later this year, however, DARE is slated to receive a little lift in the form of an $18,000 federal grant from HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Traffic Area). HIDTA is awarding this grant to Denver as part of a larger project that includes other DARE cities located near drug-trafficking networks; in Denver's case, it's I-70 and I-25, where millions of dollars' worth of drugs are shipped back and forth every day. DARE Colorado's Russ Ahrens says the organization's annual budget is $260,000, which is split between spending for officer training, administration and operational costs.

In Colorado, about $100,000 of DARE money goes toward DARE officer training, an eighty-hour intensive certification course. After completing the course, officers must prove their skills by instructing a class of other officers in their DARE training and later receiving evaluations in a classroom setting. It is only after their instructors watch them teach an actual class that officers are considered "DARE certified."

But some DARE graduates say cops are the last ones who should be teaching the program.

Pulling the sleeves of his green Abercrombie shirt over his fingertips, John sighs and says, "I'm the pothead who experiments with drugs with his friends. I'm eighteen years old, done with high school, going to college early, going to CSU in the fall...My GPA is a 3.2 or a 3.3. I mean, I'm not your stereotypical pothead. I've been involved in my church youth group since I was in seventh grade. I was in the church choir for three years. I mean, come on."

John's most vivid memory of his DARE experience is the day he realized that he didn't have to believe everything he was being told. "I don't remember the officer's name, but I remember him telling me that I could get addicted from one cigarette. I came home and asked my mother--and you have to understand, my mother would have backed up anything DARE had said, you know? But I came home and told her, 'I learned in DARE that you can get addicted off one cigarette,' and my mother just laughed and said, 'No, of course not.' That blew DARE for me right there."

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