Justice  /  Debunk

D.A.R.E. Is More Than Just Antidrug Education—It Is Police Propaganda

DARE lost its once hegemonic influence over drug education, but it had long-lasting effects on American policing, politics, and culture.

DARE America, the nonprofit organization that coordinates the program, suggests that DARE has evolved into a “comprehensive, yet flexible, program of prevention education curricula.” But the program remains largely faithful to its original carceral approach and goal of legitimizing police authority through drug education and prevention. The revised curriculum still ultimately skews toward an abstinence-only, zero-tolerance approach that criminalizes drugs and drug users. It fails to embrace harm reduction approaches, such as sharing information on how students can minimize the health risks if they do choose to use drugs, even as research increasingly demonstrates the effectiveness of such methods and as knowledge about the harmful effects of hyperpunitive, abstinence-only drug education becomes more mainstream.

DARE’s reluctance to change—especially change that diminishes the police’s authority to administer drug education—should not come as a surprise. My new book, DARE to Say No: Policing and the War on Drugs in Schools, offers the first in-depth historical exploration of the once-ubiquitous and most popular drug education program in the US, charting its origins, growth and development, cultural and political significance, and the controversy that led to its fall from grace.

Although DARE lost its once hegemonic influence over drug education, it had long-lasting effects on American policing, politics, and culture. As I suggest in DARE to Say No, after the establishment of DARE and the deployment of the DARE officer as the solution to youth drug use, there was almost no approach to preventing drug use that did not involve police. In doing so, DARE ensures that drug use and prevention, what many experts consider a public health issue, continues to fall under the purview of law enforcement. It is another example of the way the police have claimed authority over all aspects of social life in the United States even as evidence of the deadly consequences of this expansion of police power have come to public attention in recent years with police killings in response to mental health and other service calls. Viewed in this light, DARE administrators continue to see the program as a reliable salve for the police amid ongoing police brutality, violence, and abuse. Revisiting this history of the preventive side of America’s long-running drug war offers vital lessons for drug education today, cautioning us to be wary of drug prevention initiatives that ultimately reinforce police power and proliferate state violence in our schools and communities.