California voters might soon alter the state law prohibiting marijuana, but the nation’s largest anti-drug education program does not intend to change what it teaches children about the drug.
As it has for more than two decades, the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program – better known as “DARE” – urges youths to abstain from illegal and illicit substances. That includes marijuana, along with harder drugs, steroids and unprescribed pharmaceuticals.
Marijuana will remain on that list even if Proposition 19 wins approval on Nov. 2, said Frank Pegueros, executive director of DARE America.
“The instruction doesn’t change,” Pegueros said. “The environmental conditions change.”
The ballot measure would eliminate most of California’s prohibitions against marijuana possession and use. Prop. 19 supporters argue legalizing marijuana would generate tax revenue. For anti-drug programs, legal pot threatens to complicate their message.
“If it’s legalized there’s obviously going to be increased perception that there’s no harm, that it is an acceptable behavior to engage in. Otherwise it wouldn’t be legal,” Pegueros said.
DARE teams law enforcement with schools, putting police officers in classrooms to explain the ill effects of drug use. The program gained fame (and later, ridicule) in the 1980s with the slogan, “Just Say No.”
Andres PerezMore than 100 fifth-graders graduated from the DARE program at Melville S. Jacobson Elementary in Tracy, Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2010.
Pegueros said DARE has grown to be more than just a drug-abstinence effort and is now focused on providing students accurate information about drugs and alcohol.
Steve Abercrombie, a retired Hayward police officer, provides a marijuana fact sheet to the 22 classes of fifth-graders that he leads through the DARE program in Tracy.
“That fact sheet states that it’s illegal in the United States, which will still be true even if Prop. 19 passes,” he said.
Even if California moves toward legalization of marijuana – beyond what is already allowed for medical use under Proposition 215 – the federal Controlled Substances Act will continue to prohibit marijuana’s sale and use.
Last week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder ended speculation over how the federal government would respond if voters approve the ballot measure. Federal law enforcement agencies plan to “vigorously enforce” the federal statute against marijuana in California, Holder wrote in a letter to former Drug Enforcement Administration directors.
Concern over Proposition 19’s potential impact might be moot, however. Support for the proposition among likely voters has dropped 8 percentage points since September, according to poll results released this week by the Public Policy Institute of California. The poll found 49 percent of these voters now oppose the measure legalizing marijuana.
DARE also argues against state-voter initiatives that legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes. On its website, the program has a section to provide DARE educators with a rebuttal to questions about medical marijuana, which casts prescription pot as a sham. It includes this exchange:
Question: What do you think about doctors who prescribe or recommend marijuana to their patients?
Response: There are good doctors and bad doctors just like there are good and bad lawyers, policemen, accountants, and other professionals. I think that a doctor who recommends marijuana to a patient is either a bad doctor or a doctor who is not familiar with the scientific medical literature on marijuana.
Those kind of absolute positions have earned DARE scorn from some corners.
“You’ll never hear a drug officer (talk) about how veterans returning home are benefiting from MDMA therapy through treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Aaron Houston, executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy.
And DARE’s own efficacy has been seriously challenged in the past.
In 1999, a team of researchers at the University of Kentucky published a study examining whether students who completed the program reported less drug, alcohol and cigarette use.
DARE’s instruction showed no deterrent effect after 10 years, the report said. “Further, results from shorter term studies are no more encouraging; these studies suggest that the short-term effects of DARE on drug use are, at best, small.”
The criticism hasn’t undermined much of the community support that spurred DARE’s massive expansion across the county.
No one questioned the anti-drug program’s value at a DARE graduation ceremony at Melville S. Jacobson Elementary in Tracy on Wednesday night. Roughly 200 people celebrated as 110 fifth-graders were honored for finishing the curriculum.
Brian Lawler, whose daughter, Quinn, graduated during the ceremony, said that if Prop. 19 passes, there should be more concern over how parents respond than how DARE does.
“That falls on the parents,” Lawler said. “The first teacher is home.”