Celebrity panelists (Erik Estrada, Nadia Comaneci, Bart Connor, Steven Seagal) on stage during a rally for the proclamation of National D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) Day April 11, 2002 in North Hollywood, California. (Robert Mora, Getty Images)

A brief history of D.A.R.E., the ’80s anti-drug program Jeff Sessions wants to revive

Speaking at a D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) conference this week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions praised the past work of the famous anti-drug program, saying it saved lives:

“I believe that D.A.R.E. was instrumental to our success by educating children on the dangers of drug use. I firmly believe that you have saved lives. And I want to say thank you for that. Whenever I ask adults around age 30 about prevention, they always mention the D.A.R.E. program. Your efforts work. Lives and futures are saved.”

Sessions may believe that the program saved lives but decades of evidence-based research, including some conducted by the Justice Department he now heads, has shown the program to be ineffective — and it might even make the drug problem worse. A little history:

D.A.R.E. was founded in 1983 as a partnership between the Los Angeles Police Department and L.A.’s public schools. The idea was simple: Officers would go into schools to talk to kids, “boosting the self-esteem of students so that they can resist the temptation to use drugs,” as the L.A. Times put it in a 10-year retrospective on the program written in 1993.

The program drew bipartisan praise and spread like wildfire. Politicians realized that by supporting D.A.R.E., they could paint themselves as pro-cops and pro-kids: a win-win. Ronald Reagan proclaimed the first “National D.A.R.E. Day” in 1988, a tradition that continued well into the Obama administration.

Eventually, the program was put in place in up to 75 percent of the nation’s school districts, by D.A.R.E.’s own count. At its height, the group boasted an 8-figure budget, with much of that money coming from government sources. Individual state affiliates raised millions more.

But with success came scrutiny. Public health researchers started looking for evidence that the program was meeting its goals of reducing teen drug use. The first wave of studies, published in the early 1990s, didn’t find any.

“The effectiveness of D.A.R.E. in altering students’ drug use behavior has yet to be established,” concluded a University of Illinois at Chicago study in 1991.

Other research arrived at similar results. In 1994 the Research Triangle Institute, funded in part by the Department of Justice, conducted a meta-analysis of all the existing research on D.A.R.E. Its conclusion was withering: D.A.R.E. had little to no impact on rates of teen drug use.

“D.A.R.E.’s limited influence on adolescent drug use behavior contrasts with the program’s popularity and prevalence,” the authors wrote. “An important implication is that D.A.R.E. could be taking the place of other, more beneficial drug use curricula that adolescents could be receiving.”

The DOJ was so incensed by this unexpected finding that it refused to publish the study, according to contemporaneous news reports. “I don’t get it,” D.A.R.E.’s executive director at the time said of the RTI study’s findings. “It’s like kicking Santa Claus to me. We’re as pure as the driven snow.”

But the kicking had only just begun. More studies showing similar findings trickled out in the 1990s. One study even suggested that D.A.R.E. students were more likely than their peers to experiment with drugs and alcohol. The authors of that study chalked that up to a possible boomerang effect: “an attempt to persuade resulting in the adoption of an opposing position instead.” Telling a certain type of kid that he shouldn’t do drugs may simply result in him trying drugs out of spite.

By 2003 the Government Accountability Office launched its own D.A.R.E. study to see if the Department of Justice was getting a decent return on its D.A.R.E investment. The conclusion? “No significant differences in illicit drug use between students who received D.A.R.E.” and those who didn’t.

The GAO report was the beginning of the end of D.A.R.E. as most of us knew it. Funding started to dry up: in 2002, before the GAO report, D.A.R.E. had an annual budget of over $10 million dollars. By 2012, that figure had shrunk to $3.5 million.

By the late 2000s, D.A.R.E. was faced with a choice: change or die. They opted for the former. The group decided to cautiously embrace evidence-based research after decades of antagonism toward it. The most significant change was the adoption of a new curriculum, entitled “keepin’ it REAL.”

Cringeworthy title aside, some of the research on this program to date suggests it actually works. It was commended in the recent Surgeon General’s Report on drug addiction for demonstrating efficacy at preventing substance use. The secret? “It’s not an anti-drug program,” a co-developer of the new curriculum told Scientific American in 2014. “It’s about things like being honest and safe and responsible.”

If it almost seems like D.A.R.E. isn’t really an anti-drug group anymore, that’s because it isn’t. The group explicitly spells this new reality out in its tax filings. Prior to 2009, D.A.R.E. stated on its 990 IRS filings that its mission was “to implement and support drug abuse resistance education and crime prevention programs in the USA.”

Post-2009, its mission is to simply “teach students good decision making skills to help them lead safe and healthy lives.”

Not everyone in the public health community is convinced the new D.A.R.E. is any better than the old D.A.R.E. A peer-reviewed study published last year found that the specific versions of the keepin’ it REAL curriculum used by D.A.R.E. haven’t been tested for efficacy.

“The systematic review revealed major shortfalls in the evidence basis for the KiR D.A.R.E. programme,” that study’s authors conclude. “Without empirical evidence, we cannot conclusively confirm or deny the effectiveness of the programme. However, we can conclude that the evidence basis for the D.A.R.E. version of KiR is weak, and that there is substantial reason to believe that KiR D.A.R.E. may not be suited for nationwide implementation.”

There’s no doubt, however, that D.A.R.E. is currently making an effort to adopt more of an evidence-based approach than in prior years, when the program’s practices were largely driven by the belief that they were “pure as the driven snow.” This brings us back to the central irony of Jeff Sessions’ remarks yesterday, when he yearned for a return to the D.A.R.E. of “the 1980s and the 1990s.”

Decades of research are unequivocal: the D.A.R.E. of yesteryear didn’t work, and it may have actually made the drug problem worse. Instead of embracing D.A.R.E.’s new evidence-based practices, Sessions offered up a return to the bad old days of drug policy, when decisions were driven by gut feeling and political expediency.

We already know how that story ended: billions of dollars spent, millions of people imprisoned, and stronger, cheaper drugs. D.A.R.E. is already trying to turn the page on the harsh and ineffective drug policies of the past. At the moment, it appears the Justice Department is trying to revive them.