busted: america's war on marijuana
TRUTH & D.A.R.E THE NATION'S MOST PRESTIGIOUS DRUG-PREVENTION PROGRAM FOR KIDS IS A FAILURE. WHY DON'T YOU KNOW THIS by Stephen Glass Rolling Stone March 5, 1998 Reprinted with permission of Rolling Stone Magazine
Since 1983, 26 million American Children have participated in the school-based anti-drug program called D.A.R.E. Officially known as Drug Abuse Resistance Education, D.A.R.E. costs taxpayers some $600 million a year and makes educators, cops and politicians feel like they are doing their part in the War on Drugs. The problem with D.A.R.E. is that it doesn't work; at least a dozen independent studies have shown that kids who go through the seventeen-week program are just as likely to use drugs as those who don't. But what's even more disturbing is that the organization, its supporters and the crusading ex-cop who leads it have tried to silence critics, suppress scientific research and punish non believers.

Remarkably, none of this controversy has slowed the expansion of D.A.R.E., which recently added new programs for parents and older teenagers. And although a few small cities bailed out after the research was published, Washington, D.C., and New York signed up last year. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has promised to hire an additional 400 officers dedicated to D.A.R.E. And in January, Glenn Levant, the founding director and president of D.A.R.E., began pushing his controversial curriculum into homes. His new book, Keeping Kids Drug Free, adapts much of D.A.R.E.'s classroom-based program for use by parents. Drug educators are already billing it as the hot new manual that will give mom and dad the tools to talk to their kids about drugs - there's even a 2,000-word glossary of slang terms. But this guide, like D.A.R.E. itself, is, at best, out of touch and much more likely to foment hysteria than actually help families deal with or understand drugs.

Levant begins with a questionnaire designed to see whether a child is experiencing undue stress, the kind that is generally believed to cause a kid to turn to drugs. A typical question asks whether the child "tried hard to win a game" in the past month. Another asks whether he had "something exciting happen" in the past four weeks. A "yes" to eleven or more of the questions puts parents on notice that their child is headed for drugs. When I gave this test to thirty randomly selected seventh-graders in Washington, D.C., twenty-nine of them scored in the danger zone.

Scare tactics like these are nothing new for Levant and the nation's most popular anti-drug program. Terrifying parents and educators into thinking every kid is a drug abuser is seen by D.A.R.E. as necessary. The program, originally targeted at seventy-five percent of the nation's fifth and sixth graders, is a grab bag of good intentions, from improving self-image to fostering a better image of the police. Some time is spent on resistance techniques ("just say no") and the perils of drug abuse. Armed, uniformed police officers take over a classroom. There is a student workbook and homework, and a graduation ceremony; throughout the length of the course, the "D.A.R.E. box" sits in the classroom, a shoe box into which kids can drop anonymous notes informing the police about drug users they might know.

In the latest assault on D.A.R.E.'s credibility, University of Colorado researcher Delbert Elliott studied the effectiveness of 400 anti-drug and anti-violence programs. Last December, he told reporters he could not demonstrate that D.A.R.E. works, adding that it is "poorly timed," focusing on children who are too young. So convincing were similar analyses that criminology and sociology professor Richard Moran, of Massachusetts' Mount Holyoke College, labeled D.A.R.E. "the biggest fraud in America." Or, as one researcher put it: "D.A.R.E. is the world's biggest pet rock. If it makes us feel good to spend the money on nothing, that's OK, but everyone should know D.A.R.E. does nothing."

Despite all its claims of success, D.A.R.E. refuses to release its curriculum to journalists and to many researchers. Levant's new book helps fill this void and illustrates why D.A.R.E. is ineffective. Keeping Kids Drug Free lays the responsibility for children's drug use on parents' ability--or inability--to serve as squeaky-clean role models. In large part that's good advice, but when you look more closely, it quickly unravels. Levant states, for instance, that parents who don't want their kids to abuse drugs should themselves refrain from drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes. It seems that complete abstinence is the only way. Recent studies, however, show little correlation between parental abstinence and children's experimentation. But Levant goes so far as to say that his studies show that kids whose parents ask them "to get a beer from the refrigerator, to light [their] cigarette or to mix [their] drink" are "more likely" to use drugs. That study, like most of Levant's claims, is never cited or supported. Four drug-abuse experts I interviewed said they were not familiar with any such research in the academic literature.

After a protracted discussion about self-esteem, Levant offers parents the "signs and symptoms" that your child is a gang member and therefore on his way to a drug problem. A chart focuses on nine "appearance clues," almost all of which are more likely to point out a kid's interest in style, not crime. Some of the tip-offs include "boxer shorts worn high with baggy lowrider pants and long shirts not tucked in," changing hairstyles and wearing a small backpack.

If the book is similar to D.A.R.E.'s curriculum, this would help explain why sociologists regularly dismiss the program as ineffective in academic journals. What's strange is that this kind of research should have been devastating to Levant's program, which relies on an estimated $600 million to $750 million a year in taxpayer funds (including state and local money, and federal dollars distributed through block grants). But few of us have ever heard the bad news. Why? Academics and parents' groups say Levant's D.A.R.E. uses strong-arm tactics to suppress damaging research. They accuse D.A.R.E. supporters of wielding political pressure, slashing scientists' tires, making threatening phone calls in the middle of the night, harassing critics' children and even of jamming the television transmission of a news report to hush criticism. D.A.R.E. and its advocates have become so well known for playing hardball with critics that drug researchers and journalists have developed a vocabulary for the events. Anyone who has been silenced, they say, has been "D.A.R.E.'d". Levant denies that D.A.R.E. has ever silenced critics and maintains that the program is effective.

The degree to which D.A.R.E. will work to silence its critics can also be seen in the treatment of the federal government's definitive test of the program. By 1991, a handful of important researchers had said their data demonstrated that D.A.R.E. didn't work. While no mainstream media outlet picked up the story, some school officials heard of the research and began to question the widespread program. This obviously worried D.A.R.E. America - Levant's Los Angeles-based nonprofit company that develops and sells the D.A.R.E. curriculum. So when the Justice Department approached the company to conduct an enormous study, D.A.R.E. jumped at the opportunity. D.A.R.E. America even sent a letter to all of its state groups, urging them to cooperate and saying the study would give them "ammunition to respond to critics who charge that D.A.R.E. has not proven its effectiveness." With D.A.R.E. on board, the National Institutes of Justice - the Justice Department's research wing - hired the Research Triangle Institute to perform the "meta-analysis." Located in North Carolina, RTI is probably the most prestigious research institute of its kind, having conducted countless similar examinations for government agencies. RTI's assignment was not to collect original data. Instead, it examined the best local tests of D.A.R.E. and used complex statistical analysis to see whether the results could be applied nationally.

"Everything was going along just fine," explains a researcher who worked on the RTI analysis and who asked that his name not be used so he wouldn't get any more "nasty, screeching phone calls" in the middle of the night. "That is, until we started finding that D.A.R.E. just simply didn't work. Then all hell broke loose."

In 1993 at a San Diego drug-education conference, RTI presented its preliminary findings, as is common practice in high-profile sociological research. Witnesses say the previously genial audience immediately turned nasty. "They no longer seemed to care whether or not D.A.R.E. worked," said one drug-education expert who was there. "They cared about what this meant to the drug-education industry." Earl Wysong, an Indiana State University sociology professor, has studied D.A.R.E. extensively. In his article for the academic journal Sociological Focus, he quoted a D.A.R.E. supporter at the conference: "If [D.A.R.E.] fails, it will be making a statement about all prevention programs."

"That's when everything got really bad," says the researcher who worked on the RTI study. "D.A.R. E. went ballistic." Levant disagrees, insisting that he and his organization never tried to squelch the study. But an internal memo from the July 5th and July 6th, 1993, meeting of D.A.R.E.'s advisory board offers evidence that controverts Levant's statement. In the memo are minutes of a speech by Levant in which he criticizes an advance copy of the RTI study. According to the minutes, "D.A.R.E. America has instituted legal action" aimed at silencing the RTI study. "The action has had some positive results," the minutes continue. "It has resulted in prevention of a second presentation by RTI. Legal action is intended to prevent further public comment until completion of academic review."

Asked about the internal report, Levant said he didn't know anything about the minutes and maintained that D.A.R.E. never tried to suppress the government study. But the story gets worse. By September 1994, despite not having a second presentation, RTI completed the project. It concluded that while D.A.R.E. was loved by teachers, participants and parents, it did not reduce drug use. Then RTI went beyond what any other major study had yet said. "What got [RTI] in the most hot water is that they said other programs work better," says Mount Holyoke's Moran. RTI found that not only did D.A.R.E. have no effect on drug use, it was crowding out money from programs that did. Dr. Herbert Kleber, a Columbia University professor of psychiatry who heads D.A.R.E.'s scientific-advisory board, said that the study was based on an outdated D.A.R.E. curriculum and called alternatives "boutique programs," which were performed only in highly controlled environments.

Some academics and a Justice Department official allege that Levant then notched up his war on the RTI study. Congressmen and mayors called the Justice Department, insisting that publishing the study was not in the public's interest since it would set back the drug war. One Justice Department official said the "phone rang off the hook." And a month later, for the first time in memory, the Justice Department refused to publish a study it had funded, helped design and successfully peer-reviewed. Levant maintains that he did not pressure anyone.

Ann Voit, an NIJ spokeswoman, announced that the agency wasn't trying to "hide" the study, and wasn't publishing it only because the NIJ didn't agree with the findings, a puzzling statement since NIJ hired RTI in the first place because it trusted the research firm to evaluate D.A.R.E. impartially. And there's further evidence that nothing was wrong with the study. Laurie Bright, NIJ's program manager, sent a memo to RTI saying that the "methodology" appears to be sound, and D.A.R.E. representatives did not offer any specific flaws...[it] presented findings in a very fair and impartial light."

D.A.R.E., though, soon found another front on which it had to battle to keep the RTI study under wraps. Coincidentally, on the same day that NIJ refused the study, The American Journal of Public Health, probably the most respected academic journal of its kind, accepted it for publication. The study passed the journal's own peer review without incident. According to Justice Department officials, this infuriated Levant and he tried to pressure the journal not to publish the study. Editor Sabine Beisler told USA Today at the time, "D.A.R.E. has tried to interfere with the publication of this. They tried to intimidate us." Two other editors at the journal confirmed that Beisler's comment was accurate. One person close to the research added: "For the first time I can remember, we were scared to publish a study. D.A.R.E. tried to scare out science."

What amounted to a government cover-up of the RTI study is remarkable on its own, but what's more remarkable is that its part of a pattern. Levant has tried to pressure Dateline NBC , for instance, to not produce a show about D.A.R.E.'s ineffectiveness. After NBC had filmed parent meetings at an Indianapolis-area school district, Levant wrote a letter to senior executives at General Electric, NBC's parent company, accusing Dateline producers of "ethical violations and journalistic fraud" and complaining that the event had been "staged." "That's absolutely not true, those allegations are ludicrous--nothing was staged, " says Betsy Paul, then the parent-teacher organization president, who was at the meetings. "I don't know how to say this strongly enough. I will tell you on any witness stand with God as my judge...the township had scheduled the meeting for at least a week before Dateline said they were coming here." Ever since the newsmagazine was accused of rigging trucks to explode, allegations of staging events can sink a Dateline producer's career. "Levant's accusations caused us to kill the piece for a long time," said an NBC official. "Even when they turned out to be without any shred of truth, they put a cloud over the heads of the people who worked on it. It's the worst thing I have ever seen in my career at newsmagazines."

Worst of all, there are many scientists who say that Levant and his organization's boosters have made it nearly impossible to conduct honest research. At an Illinois college, a professor who criticized the program was accused by D.A.R.E. supporters of trying to sell drugs to campus students. Although a department investigation cleared him of all wrongdoing, the professor says he will never look into the program again. Likewise, a California professor says his department chairman won't let him study D.A.R.E. anymore, because local D.A.R.E. officials have written letters to grants organizations saying the professor's department supports drug use. And a New York graduate student said she changed her sociology dissertation - after two and a half years of work - when D.A.R.E. supporters threw a rock through the window of her office and left a note saying, "That's not all we'll break - drug pusher!" Her research indicated that D.A.R.E. makes kids less scared of drugs, since it teaches them about drug culture.

Critics of the program are scared even to discuss D.A.R.E. in professional publications. Earl Wysong and David W. Wright wrote in Sociological Focus that the D.A.R.E. researchers they had interviewed "asked to remain anonymous out of fear of political reprisals and to protect their careers." That's an almost unheard-of request in an academic journal.

"While anonymity may sound silly," says one researcher who has studied D.A.R.E., "Levant doesn't want anyone to say the emperor has no clothes."

 

 
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