Six months ago the Colorado state legislature passed a bill allowing people to make voluntary contributions to the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) anti-drug program on their income-tax returns. It may be one more victory for one of the country's most visible weapons in the nebulous war on drugs, but the bill has done more than reopen a long-festering controversy about whether the program really works; it has also exposed D.A.R.E.'s political underbelly.
Many critics contend that D.A.R.E.--a program in which uniformed officers try to educate elementary-school students and keep them from using illegal drugs--is a police department's dream because it is little more than an image-booster for cops and politicians, who love nothing more than to rally around an issue they consider safe.
But Democratic state senator Ed Perlmutter, one of the bill's sponsors, insists, "There was no political expediency in supporting this. I knew there was some controversy on the extreme sides attached to it and controversy about adding to the income tax. I didn't know if it would pass or not, but I believe people feel comfortable that it's a good program."
Perlmutter, who says he was aware of growing criticism of the program, adds, "I wasn't convinced by the criticism. The information we had was real supportive, and my daughter's experience was good."
Colorado now becomes only the second state (California was the first) to offer a tax-return checkoff for D.A.R.E. But the state is also home to one of D.A.R.E.'s most vocal opponents, Fort Collins resident Gary Peterson, who since 1991 has run an organization called Parents Against D.A.R.E. "The power of this program is the law enforcement lobby," Peterson says. "This program has created 20,000 jobs. You don't have to be a brain surgeon to see all the politicians grandstanding on the drug-abuse issue."
State senator Charles Duke concurs. He's one of only five state senators who voted against the program. "No one could possibly vote against it," says Duke, who's known for bucking the majority on many issues. "You want to go back to your district and say you support the D.A.R.E. program to fight drugs, and it's all fluff. The program doesn't work in its current incarnation. You have to get past the knee-jerk fluff to find out whether something will really work or not."
And the knee-jerk reaction in many cities seems to be to keep the program at all costs. Last year Columbus, Ohio, police chief James Jackson wanted to do away with his city's $650,000 D.A.R.E. program, ostensibly because of budget and resource-allocation problems, but really, says safety director Thomas W. Rice, because "he didn't like it in the first place."
In Columbus, as elsewhere, questions about D.A.R.E.'s worth were surfacing. "If it worked, then why were we seeing an increase in drug activity and gang activity?" asks Rice. "Kids were wearing D.A.R.E. T-shirts to drug-rehabilitation courses."
But when Jackson floated the idea of putting an end to the program, the state's association of police chiefs and many city residents balked. "I think it's more a feeling that D.A.R.E. is successful," Rice says. "I'm not so sure it is. We went through all the studies and we putzed around. It's like if you have a horse patrol: People don't care if it's effective...they like it."
Columbus wound up keeping the program, but other battles over D.A.R.E.'s future are brewing, as police departments in major cities do away with the program amid civic opposition and more and more studies challenge whether the program works at all.
D.A.R.E. has not been intensely scrutinized in Colorado (in one local study, D.A.R.E. officers themselves were asked whether they liked the program), but that's not true elsewhere.
Most critics point to a 1994 study by the Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina, which concluded that "D.A.R.E.'s core curriculum effect on drug use relative to whatever drug education (if any) was offered in the control schools is slight and, except for tobacco use, is not statistically significant...D.A.R.E.'s limited influence on adolescent drug use behavior contrasts with the program's popularity and prevalence."
A municipal audit in Austin, Texas, concluded that D.A.R.E. kids actually had a significantly higher rate of juvenile drug-related offenses than non-D.A.R.E. kids.
"I don't believe D.A.R.E. is effective in stopping students from doing drugs," says Austin city auditor David Wilkinson. "I do believe D.A.R.E. is effective in providing students with information. The belief is if you give people information, they will act differently, but that's not always the case. People are being naive if they think that this is a meaningful intervention."
The audit "caused waves" in Austin, he adds, but the result, ironically, was increased funding for D.A.R.E. because of support drummed up by its defenders.
Not surprisingly, D.A.R.E.'s defenders have their own catalogue of studies, which reach quite different conclusions. Richard Dukes, a sociologist at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, concluded after a 1990 study of fifth-grade pupils in the Springs that D.A.R.E. was successful in "showing positive gains, in terms of self-esteem, bonding with family, school and police, and a more negative attitude toward drugs."
A follow-up survey of the same kids as high-school seniors conducted last January found a significant correlation, Dukes says, "between earlier D.A.R.E. participation and less use of illegal, more deviant drugs such as inhalants, cocaine, LSD."
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D.A.R.E. was developed in Los Angeles in 1983 and was initially directed toward students in the upper elementary grades. The program has been in Colorado for about nine years, where it has grown to encompass 106 law enforcement agencies and 95 school districts as of last year, says Lori Sutorius, president of D.A.R.E. Colorado, a nonprofit group that distributes D.A.R.E. T-shirts, buttons, hats and teaching aids and trains the police officers who go into classrooms.
From 1990 to 1994, the local program received $100,000 in federal funding and was administered through the Colorado Department of Education. When the federal well ran dry, a group of volunteers took over the tasks of coordinating D.A.R.E. programs, training officers and distributing the copious fliers and merchandise associated with the program.
Other than a $60,000 state grant in 1994, the state program is now funded by private donations. The programs in individual communities are paid for by a variety of sources, including police departments, school districts and cities. Sutorius says she doesn't think the programs statewide receive any federal money.
In the last few years several D.A.R.E. programs have been cut, notably those in major cities such as Seattle and Oakland. But many don't expect the project to end anytime soon, because of the "political power behind it," says opponent Peterson. "They've all gotten a lot of mileage on this, and it's kind of hard for them to back down. Nobody wants to lose face. They all want to appear to be doing something.