Does the DARE Program Work?

D.A.R.E. is an acronym that stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education. Developed by both law enforcement and school officials in 1983, the program was provided to youths as a formal way of introducing drug use information to young people in attempts to lower the rate of substance abuse down the road. Whether or not the program has been successful remains a controversial topic.

Proponents of the program claim youths retain the information learned and carry it onward into their developmental years. Others tout the efficacy of the D.A.R.E. program, citing poor statistics that don’t back up the claims the organization promotes. One such figure stems from a survey conducted by the California Department of Education in which 40 percent of student respondents claimed they weren’t influenced by the program at all, and almost 70 percent cited having neutral to negative feelings about the program leaders.[1]

The Beginning

When the program was initiated in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, it expanded across the nation quite rapidly with the passing of the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act in 1986 by the United States Congress.[2] By the 1990s, it was in thousands of schools in the United States — educational institutions being the easiest way to reach mass numbers of children. The goal was clear — to introduce young people to the presence of peer pressure to use drugs and likewise, effective ways of handling such — but was the program thought out thoroughly enough?

The D.A.R.E. Program 101

The catchy “Just Say No” slogan has served to keep D.A.R.E. recognizable among children and adults alike for more than three decades. However, the promise of those words may not hold up under a microscope. For that reason, many school districts have begun to pull the program from their students’ school-year experience in recent years. As a result, the organization endeavored to draw attention to a new campaign that would pull focus away from drugs and onto character development. The decline of school participation led to a great income deficit, too, which declined from $10 million in revenue in 2002 to just $3.7 million in 2010.[3]

The typical D.A.R.E. program lasts for 17 weeks[4] and includes the following structured lessons:[5]

  • Personal rights and general safety practices
  • The damaging effects of drug use, misuse or abuse
  • Consequences of drug and alcohol use behaviors
  • Dealing with different forms of pressure to use drugs or alcohol
  • Peer pressure and how to resist it
  • Self-esteem-building exercises
  • How to be assertive in situations that warrant it
  • Stress management techniques that don’t include substance use
  • Influence of substance abuse by radio, television, film, music and other forms of media
  • Making the right decisions and the side effects of engaging in risk-taking behaviors
  • Alternatives to engaging in substance use or abuse
  • Positive role models that don’t use drugs
  • Support systems and friendship barriers
  • Gang activity, membership and the consequences of both
  • Review period of the program
  • Discussion period on defending yourself against pressure to use drugs
  • Program participation award assembly where students are urged to veer away from drug use

Traditionally, personal safety is the core focus of lessons taught up through 4th grade, but subsequent ones will reinforce those lessons and tackle harder issues, like anger management and coping techniques that don’t involve self-medication and substance abuse. These new developments to the program have yet to show an increase in efficacy.


There are numerous studies that have churned out results that don’t support the program as a drug abuse deterrent. The results of more than 30 such studies note that D.A.R.E. didn’t serve to deter students from using drugs in the short-term, nor when they reached their high school or college years.[6] Citing minimal effects on drug use, one study noted a decreased likelihood of utilizing learned curricula from the program over time.[7] In 1994, the first study of its kind pointed out only scant benefits when it came to short-term decreases in D.A.R.E. students’ use of tobacco, but marijuana and alcohol use did not decrease.[8]

When it comes to marijuana specifically, 5.8 percent of 8th graders, 13.8 percent of 10th graders, and 19.4 percent of seniors were using it in 2008.[9] Just five years later, those figures increased to 7 percent, 18 percent, and 22.7 percent.[10]

Another study produced alarming results with D.A.R.E students showing a 29 percent increase in drug use and 34 percent increase in tobacco use.[11] Perhaps one of the most disheartening studies completed on the D.A.R.E. program was one that spanned more than a decade. Participants filled out a survey on their substance use when they were 10 years old and again when they were 20 years old. Those who completed D.A.R.E. were no less likely to smoke cannabis or tobacco, drink alcohol, use illicit drugs, or succumb to peer pressure than their non-D.A.R.E. peers.[12] Even more worrisome, those who did participate in the program correlated with a high incidence of low self-esteem later in life.[13]

Some antagonists of the program have questioned whether the officers teaching the lessons are the best for the job and if their training is extensive enough. There has been talk of a joint effort in the future by both law enforcement and addiction professionals, such as counselors, but for the time being, the former continues to educate the masses on their own. By 2013, some 70,000 officers had been D.A.R.E. educators.[14]

To be certified as a D.A.R.E. educator, officers must undergo at least 80 hours of training in the following departments:

  • Strategies for teaching
  • Communication skills
  • Adolescent development
  • Drug information
  • Classroom management
  • Extensive direction on the program’s 17 lessons[15]

Overall Efficacy

Addiction comprises a physical and psychological dependency on a substance that can be impossible to escape without professional help. This is perhaps even more so the case for the young addict. Since its conception, the D.A.R.E. program has seemingly wavered between success and failure in achieving its goal of decreasing drug abuse. A 1998 study noted a 50 percent decreased likelihood of high-risk drug use among students who participated in the D.A.R.E. program.[16] Meanwhile, research is plentiful that points in the other direction. Between 1992 and 1995, there was a 59 percent increase of illegal drug use among high school seniors, and a 92 percent increase among 8th graders who reported lifetime use of marijuana between 1991 and 1995.[17]

So what exactly was D.A.R.E. contributing while these numbers were steadily rising? Some sobering realities about the American youth include:

  • 36 percent of American teenagers have used alcohol by the time they enter 8th grade[18]
  • 71 percent of teens have used alcohol by their senior year of high school[19]
  • By 8th grade, 21 percent of teens have used an illegal drug[20]
  • By 12th grade, that number spikes to more than 48 percent[21]

Moving into the Future

By 1994, the D.A.R.E. program was present in schools in every state in America.[22] As of 2013, only 48 states were still using the program,[23] with two states having already dropped out. Additionally, more than 200 million students had participated in the D.A.R.E. program by that point, with an impressive 114 million of them being Americans.[24] To date, the program exists in 53 countries worldwide.[25]

Changes to the program model took flight in 2009 for 7th graders, as did the new name — Keepin’ it REAL.[26] It targets youths aged 12 to 14, and instead of officers leading the way, it is delivered via trained classroom instruction over a 10-week period that is accompanied by continued education over the next school year in the form of booster sessions.[27]

The program made its way to 5th and 6th graders by 2013 and brought with it curriculum that was developed by actual prevention experts who ran studies that produced positive results in terms of decreased substance abuse and retained anti-drug attitudes among participants.[28] One study of 1,300 drug-using students who participated in the Keepin’ it REAL program touted successful results with a decreased rate of substance use “that was 72 percent higher than the control group.”[29]

The new program focuses on reaching children and adolescents of a wider age range and educating them on real-life experiences and the prevalence of drug abuse, rather than using scare tactics and reactive “just say no” approaches. In addition, it removes the proclamation D.A.R.E. once perpetuated that drugs are everywhere and “everyone is doing it.” Contrary to popular belief, everyone is not. Results of the Monitoring the Future survey of American high school seniors notes that 53.3 percent have never tried any kind of illicit drug.[30]

Room for Change

There is an opportunity for the D.A.R.E. program to continue growing under its new format. That being said, the changes that are made should be tailored toward educating children on real issues they’ll actually face in their young lives. Some have questioned whether mental health information should be passed on to students during their D.A.R.E. experience. While around half of all individuals with severe mental illness also have substance abuse issues, the likelihood of children of young ages being prepared for or able to comprehend such isn’t high.[31]

Thus, such information is better reserved for older students, which brings forth the development of reaching out to students in higher grades in the Keepin’ in REAL version. Nonetheless, this information isn’t covered in the new program format either. Despite the new name, it seems reality may be exactly what has been and continues to be lacking from drug education.

Of every 10 children, one is suffering from some sort of emotional disturbance.[32] Among 15-24 year olds, the third leading cause of death is suicide.[33] In addition, a 2007 survey noted that 6.9 percent of high school students surveyed tried to commit suicide in the prior year, and 14.5 percent seriously thought about doing it.[34]

Overall, the Keepin’ it REAL program is now likely effective enough to warrant its continuation based on the potential for an increase of drug abuse among youths without it. While certain organizations and individuals will always be quick to point out the $1 billion to over $2 billion[35] expense that the program presents, and recent reviews tout the new program’s efficacy just as much,[36] it’s hard to argue that drug abuse prevention tactics aren’t one of the best ways the government could spend federal and state funds. Furthermore, a variety of factors contribute to whether or not an individual engages in substance abuse or becomes an addict. It would be impossible to pinpoint such an event in a person’s life solely upon whether or not they ever participated in a D.A.R.E. program.

Alternatives to D.A.R.E.

Today, there are other options. Life Skills Training Program and Project ALERT both focus on resistance strategies and reasons to abstain from drug and alcohol use. The former targets students aged 10 to 14, while the latter focuses solely on the middle school years. The Strengthening Families Program is strictly geared toward preventing substance abuse in six to 12 year old children who live in substance-abusing households.

Drug addiction and alcoholism continue to sweep the nation every year. In 2009, some 23.5 million people needed professional help with a substance abuse problem, despite only 2.6 million of them getting it.[37] Without a new approach, it is difficult to say whether increased exposure to D.A.R.E. later in life or any other intervention will help. Over time, the statistics will speak for themselves.


[1] “Is the D.A.R.E. Program Good for America’s Kids (K-12)?.” (n.d.). ProCon. Accessed November 29, 2014.

[2] “Drug Abuse Resistance Education.” (n.d.). Crime Solutions. Accessed November 29, 2014.

[3] Reason Foundation. (2012 Dec 3). “D.A.R.E. to Turn Focus Away From Drugs.” Opposing Views. Accessed November 29, 2014.

[4] “What is D.A.R.E.?” (n.d.). Mount Pleasant Police Department. Accessed November 29, 2014.

[5] “Drug Abuse Resistance Education.” (n.d.). Crime Solutions. Accessed November 29, 2014.

[6] “Is the D.A.R.E. Program Good for America’s Kids (K-12)?: Pros and Cons.” (n.d.). ProCon. Accessed November 29, 2014.

[7] Clayton, R., Catarello, A., & Johnstone, B. “The Effectiveness of Drug Abuse Resistance Education (Project D.A.R.E.): 5-Year Follow-Up Results.”. Preventive Medicine. Via Challenging Dogma. Accessed November 29, 2014.

[8] Nordrum, A. “The New D.A.R.E. Program—This One Works.” (2014 Sept 10). Scientific American. Accessed November 29, 2014.

[9] “DrugFacts: High School and Youth Trends.” (Jan 2014). National Institute on Drug Abuse. Accessed November 29, 2014.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Hanson, D.J., Ph.D. “Drug Abuse Resistance Education: The Effectiveness of DARE.” (n.d.). Alcohol Facts. Accessed November 30, 2014.

[12] Reaves, J. “Just Say No To DARE.” (2001 Feb 15). TIME Magazine. Accessed November 29, 2014.

[13] Ibid.

[14] “Is the D.A.R.E. Program Good for America’s Kids (K-12)?.” (n.d.). ProCon. Accessed November 29, 2014.

[15] “Drug Abuse Resistance Education.” (n.d.). Crime Solutions. Accessed November 29, 2014.

[16] “Community DARE.” (1999 Jun 21). Bangor Daily News. Accessed November 29, 2014.

[17] Rosenbaum, D.P. & Hanson, G.S. “Assessing the Effects of School-Based Drug Education: A Six-Year Multilevel Analysis of Project D.A.R.E.” (1998 April 6). Schaffer Library of Drug Policy. Accessed November 29, 2014.

[18] Matheson, J.L. & McGrath, Jr., R.T. “Adolescent Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse.” (Aug 2012). Colorado State University. Accessed November 29, 2014.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] “Drug Abuse Resistance Education.” (n.d.). Crime Solutions. Accessed November 29, 2014.

[23] “Is the D.A.R.E. Program Good for America’s Kids (K-12)?.” (n.d.). ProCon. Accessed November 29, 2014.

[24] Ibid.

[25] “DARE.” (n.d.). University of Michigan. Accessed November 30, 2014.

[26] Nordrum, A. “The New D.A.R.E. Program—This One Works.” (2014 Sept 10). Scientific American. Accessed November 29, 2014.

[27] “Keepin’ it REAL.” (n.d.). SAMHSA’s National Registry of Evidence-Based Programs and Practices. Accessed November 30, 2014.

[28] Nordrum, A. “The New D.A.R.E. Program—This One Works.” (2014 Sept 10). Scientific American. Accessed November 29, 2014.

[29] Ibid.

[30] “For Youths: FAQ’s/Facts.” (n.d.). National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. Accessed November 29, 2014.

[31] “Substance Abuse and Co-Occurring Disorders.” (n.d.). National Alliance on Mental Illness. Accessed November 28, 2014.

[32] “Child and Adolescent Mental Illness and Drug Abuse Statistics.” (n.d.). American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Accessed November 30, 2014.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Riskind, J. “[D.A.R.E.’s] Programs cost soars past $1 billion with little accounting.” (2002 Jun 30). The Center for Educational Research and Development. Accessed November 30, 2014.

[36] “Is the D.A.R.E. Program Good for America’s Kids (K-12)?.” (n.d.). ProCon. Accessed November 29, 2014.

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