Yo, dude! Wanna go smoke some crack behind the gym?

No thanks, bro! I’ve got, er, homework. Or basketball practice.

Huh? I thought you were cool!

You know what’s cool? Not doing drugs!

And so on.

Such was the curriculum offered by the program D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education Program). Essentially, D.A.R.E. was an enhanced, pricey version of the Just Say No approach. Kids were taught of the horrors of substance abuse, given role playing exercises intended to teach assertiveness and “resistance techniques,” and attempted to make saying “no” socially acceptable. Bolstering self-esteem to protect against the lure of drugs and peer pressure (as in the example above) was also a part of the program. The full D.A.R.E. approach would begin as early as kindergarten and could continue all the way through high school. At its peak, D.A.R.E. was taught in 75-80% of America’s school districts.

Fear Sells So Who’s Buying?

Did it work? Mantras like just say no and this is your brain on drugs and fear-based programs like D.A.R.E. and even Scared Straight were, according to many studies, not only ineffective but often counterproductive and could increase later drug use.1 Contrary to their purpose, they didn’t positively affect teenage drug use and may’ve actually lowered self-esteem in its participants. Teens were also more likely to drink alcohol and use tobacco. Another study concluded that it increased the use of hallucinogenic drugs.2

To illustrate this point, consider that nearly 80% of teens between the ages of 13 and 18 have used alcohol or drugs and almost 50% of them used alcohol regularly.3 Compared to adults, teens as a population at higher risk for drugs and alcohol. They are also more emotionally sensitive – they feel more than adults – because their brains are still under development. This also puts them at increased risk for injury, crime, and suicide.4

So, what went wrong?

Fear-mongering and scare tactics, it seems, don’t work.

  • Controlling parents, it has been shown, are more likely to have children that act out and are more prone to delinquency.5 This acting out against authority can also be extended to teachers and police – D.A.R.E. curriculum is presented by uniformed police.
  • Many of their heroes and role models – sports figures, pop stars, actors – are former or current drug users. They may know people who have used drugs and they appear fine (only a minority become addicts). When they see the numbers of famous users out in the world, they may believe that drug use is too difficult to resist.
  • Teens have been told that to smoke marijuana will fry their brains or get them addicted, and then when they or their peers do and nothing happens, the message loses credibility. Kids feel that the harms have been exaggerated. If it what they said about marijuana wasn’t true, why should we believe them about heroin?
  • Ironically, drug users tend to be better informed about the risks of drug taking than those who choose not to use them.6
  • Anti-drug programs often use graphic images as a deterrent. Showing trauma can bring up past traumas. Also, creating immediate, temporary reactions doesn’t necessarily translate into affecting choices made later on.
  • Youth tend to be less motivated by scare tactics than adults. As an example, adults find the warning labels on cigarettes more effective than do teens. With teens, a more effective anti-smoking campaign would be one that is focused on rebellion against the negatives of corporations trying to sell them a dangerous product – a tactic that utilizes activism and rebellion, not fear – or a focus on short-term negatives like bad breath rather than long term effects like lung cancer.
  • The most effective programs for deterring drug use are the ones that involve substantial amounts of interaction between instructors and students. They teach social skills and techniques for refusing drugs, they offer interaction with peers, and they are long term, ideally taking place over a course of years. And, they are expensive.
  • According to The National Institute on Drug Abuse, “students learn better with a low fear appeal message and with a credible communicator.” The Center for Substance Abuse Prevention said “scare tactics should be avoided – [they] are not as effective as appeals to more positive emotions.”

Addicted to Prevention Programs

While research overwhelmingly concludes that traditional methods of fear-based drug prevention don’t work, changing the culture has proven to be difficult. D.A.R.E., a program that has been in existence since 1983, continues to this day. The website promises that today’s version is new and improved – it’s been revised 10 times over the years – but critics remain skeptical. And it’s not just drugs, but crime too – scared straight type programs in general have been found to be “a waste of money.”78

Other programs like NOPE (Narcotics Overdose Prevention and Education) and Shatterproof offer new hope and approaches. Both programs promise evidence-based methodologies; both state as their mission to work to stamp out the stigma of addiction. Whether these or D.A.R.E.’s new “keepin’ it REAL” program – which also claims to be evidence-based – will make a difference in youth drug-taking remains to be seen. There’s big money in providing programming and, as seen with the programs above, it is also highly competitive. And, it’s expensive: As far back as 1995, D.A.R.E. estimated its operating costs budget were $200 million.

What lies ahead for the drug resistance education industry is uncertain but this much we know: Old methods didn’t work. We need another approach to a problem that clearly isn’t going to go away any time soon.

If you or a loved one have an addiction to alcohol, contact BLVD Treatment Centers. At BLVD Treatment Centers we custom tailor our recovery programs within the safe and nurturing confines of our rehab treatment centers. Located throughout California, in Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego and in Portland, OR, our mission is to assess the severity of your addiction to help you achieve true recovery within 30 days. Call us now at 1-866.582.9844.


  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10450631
  2. https://www.livescience.com/33795-effective.html
  3. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/article-abstract/1151056
  4. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/the-teen-brain-still-under-construction/teen-brain_141903.pdf
  5. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/02/120210105901.htm
  6. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs00038-013-0487-9#page-1
  7. https://jjie.org/scared-straight-story-2/8693/
  8. https://www.campbellcollaboration.org/lib/download/13/

Does Scaring People Away from Drugs Work?