Study Finds Drug Education Programs Ineffective, Plagued By Politics, Author Suggests Involving Educators 5/25/01

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In "Youth, Drugs, and Resilience Education," a study published in the Spring 2001 issue of the Journal of Drug Education, Berkeley researcher Dr. Joel Brown concludes that the nation's school drug education programs are ineffective, but that programs such as Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) and Life Skills Training (LST) continue to garner funding because powerful special interest groups shape and distort the drug education agenda. Brown, director of the Center for Educational Research (http://www.cerd.org) in Berkeley, conducted the pioneering three-year study, the first to examine the social and institutional infrastructure of drug education in the United States.

"We now have very substantial evidence suggesting that the effectiveness of programs and the well-being of children are directly impacted by the interest group politics involved in drug education," Brown told DRCNet.

"What became clear relatively quickly is that there exist a wide variety of interest groups, including but not limited to the tobacco industry, the US government acting as an interest group, and researchers who sit on panels which evaluate their own programs, which influence drug education," he said. "When we saw the clear linkage between this interest group politics and the real world programs and policies, we became really concerned about the well-being of the kids."

The federal government is a major player in drug education, spending $2 billion annually for research and program support, with total annual spending nationwide nearing $5 billion, Brown found. And it is a player with an ax to grind: Under the 1994 Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, which turned "zero tolerance" into officially mandated abstinence-based or "no-use" drug education policy, alternative approaches were shut out and flaws in favorite programs such as DARE downplayed. (The act also mandated "that by the year 2000, all schools in America will be free of drugs and violence," but that's another story.)

Not only does the federal government have an ax to grind, it brings it to bear against science when the facts refuse to fit its ideologically driven version of reality. A brazen example uncovered by Brown came from the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, which in 1998 published a "talking points" article in its Prevention Pipeline magazine, "Winning the numbers game: How to say prevention works when the numbers say something else." In this instance, the federal government becomes an advocate for drug education programs it knows do not work.

The federal government isn't the only actor with vested interests, Brown found. The field of drug education is filled with exaggerated claims of effectiveness based on flawed research, as scientists who make those claims vie to develop potentially profitable programs. And, in the incestuous world of drug education research, the same small clique of researchers often sit on panels evaluating their own and their colleagues' work.

Brown pointed to the LST program, now touted as a more effective alternative to DARE and being used in some 3,000 schools and taught so far to 800,000 students. (D.A.R.E., the big daddy of drug education despite its proven ineffectiveness -- see http://www.drcnet.org/wol/034.html#illinois and http://www.drcnet.org/wol/008.html#drug-ed and http://www.drcnet.org/DARE/ for a partial list of references -- has been inflicted on 36 million students and is still being taught in 80% of the nation's school districts, the group's web site reports.) LST's developer and leading proponent, Dr. Gilbert Botvin, published research claiming that LST could reduce tobacco, marijuana and alcohol use among young people by as much as 75%. If only it were so.

Brown examined Botvin's data and methodology and found that, contrary to Botvin's claims of high efficacy, students who did not complete the entire curriculum had higher drug use rates than those who never encountered the program. Brown is not alone in challenging Botvin. In a Rolling Stone article on problems in drug education, Tulane University associate professor of public health Stephanie Tortu, former project manager for one of Botvin's first major studies of LST, told the authors that Botvin left out crucial data showing that LST students had higher rates of alcohol use than non-participants. Botvin shortly thereafter informed Tortu that there was no more money to keep her employed on the project, she said.

"Some people have a vested interest in saying that our current drug prevention strategies work," Richard Clayton, director of the Center for Prevention Research at the University of Kentucky told Rolling Stone. "They're looking for a poster child for prevention to take attention away from DARE, and they've chosen LST. But that doesn't mean it works."

"This has incredibly serious implications when you consider the billions spent on these programs," Brown told DRCNet, "and there are alternatives which have a much stronger scientific basis, but they are not applied because of the politics, policies, researchers and programs."

One key to creating successful drug education programs, Brown suggested, was actually involving educators. "We need to find an educational theory or practice, because there isn't any related to drug education. There is virtually no educational participation in program development and no credible educational theory behind these programs," said Brown. "For the past century, drug education has been dominated by the medical, public health and criminological communities. Educators are not involved in the process and there is thus little likelihood that drug education will be effective or that teachers will use it."

Brown also calls for "resilience education," the title of his recently published book. Resiliency, says Brown, focuses on young people's ability to adapt to and thrive in the educational environment. Resilience education emphasizes a positive approach to health and safety issues rather than concentrating on kids' incapacity to make wise decisions. "Resilience blends in with what we know about effective education; it's learning to work more effectively when we educate our kids about drugs," said Brown.

"The public wants this kind of change, there is a strong scientific basis for it, all the signals say it is a potentially successful option," Brown said. "We're at a critical crossroads in drug education. Will we begin to honestly and openly discuss these issues, or will we continue to operate as if these flawed programs were unequivocally effective? If we spent this kind of money on any other program and got these results, you'd say it was a serious problem."

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